Glenn Gould plays Beethoven in a 1967 radio broadcast

Glenn Gould plays Beethoven in a 1967 radio broadcast


Glenn Gould: …listen to the relatively soothing profile of the dollar sign or escalate into converging staircase progressions which
ascend asymptotically to infinity. Either way, I tend in such a mood to fill up the
entire page with staircases and dollar signs, and by the time I’ve got all that
belligerence out of my system, to have practically no undecorated space left on
the sheet. On the other hand, in an expansive mood, I’m just as likely to
relish the idea of wide open spaces of blank paper, with only a few cryptic
symbols, pointillistic dots and dashes, perhaps, disturbing the peace, and often
as not in such cases, symbols which will be selected more for the enigmatic tenor
of their apparent unrelated-ness than for any single-minded pursuit of a motivic
stereotype. Well, it seems to me that the two major works on tonight’s program, the Sonata Op.31 No.3, and the Eroica Variations Op.35 relate, or
perhaps I should say do not relate, in pretty much that way. The Eroica
variations is certainly the figure five and letter ‘s’ piece, and hence represents
the restless determined, not to be deterred side of Beethoven, while the
Sonata Op.31 No.3 is the doodler’s delight – as relaxed, spontaneous, and fluently inventive a work as he ever concocted. In fact there are not
many of his compositions which open up as unassertively as this one does. Its
downbeat chord sets the cheerfully equivocal mood which prevails throughout the piece by forgoing those tonic- dominant swearing-in ceremonies with
which Beethoven customarily spends the first eight bars taking a loyalty oath
to the basic triads of the home key. In this sonata, he starts off upon an
inverted super tonic chord, and with the sort of episodic material that under
normal circumstances he wouldn’t have dared to touch until at least 30 seconds
into the piece. The other movements of the Sonata are not, perhaps, as enigmatic,
but they each possess the same luxuriant fluency and just as conspicuously lack
dogmatic fervour. The second movement is possibly the suavest, certainly least
bumptious, scherzo. The third, a minuet and trio which anticipates Mendelssohn
in the Calvinistic calm of its harmony, and the finale: an expansive
amalgam of Sonata Allegro and Rondo form. Here’s the sonata in E-flat major, Op.31 No.3 That was the sonata in E-flat major, Op.31 No.3 by Beethoven. It’s difficult to think of Beethoven, who so
often set for himself, and usually solved, elaborate riddles in symphonic form as a
man who was sometimes content to trifle with music. But ‘trifle’ is the most
convenient rendering of the title Bagatelle, and trifling is just what
Beethoven occasionally did. In addition to the three sets of piano solos which
bear that title, and from the last of which I’m going to play three excerpts
in a few minutes, Beethoven composed other types of
trifling music, such as the five military marches, the 12 orchestral contradances,
the 26 arrangements of Welsh folk songs, the 37 arrangements of Scottish folk
songs, the 57 arrangements of Irish folk songs, and not to mention works like the Battle of Waterloo Symphony and the King
Stephen Overture, which, despite their length, are simply trifles on the make
for status.The bagatelles that I’m going to play now are from Op.126,
composed in 1823 and are consequently contemporary with the last of his string
quartets. As in many of those late quartets, Beethoven achieves an almost
conversational harmonic style here, which manages to keep its coffeehouse cool in
a very Schubert-like way, but in contrast to the quartets, he doesn’t exploit this
simplicity in order to advance complex ideas in other operational areas: modally
cross-related part writing, for instance, or eccentrically offbeat rhythmic
devices.These pieces are pretty much what they seem to be: casual, amiable,
rather un-self-critical, afterthoughts. The three Bagatelles from Op.126 by
Beethoven. Take an attractive, meaningful,
attention-getting theme, use it as the source for a set of variations, and
you’ll have a disaster on your hands. The law of inverse proportion is at work
when it comes to the form of theme and variations, a law which many celebrated
composers from Mendelssohn to Max Reger elected at their peril to ignore. They were tempted by involved and sophisticated themes with elaborate
melodic roulades and expressive chromatic decor, and allowed these
seductive tunes to make promises that in the course of the subsequent variations
simply could not be kept. In his Eroica Variations, Beethoven, at first glance,
seems ready to join the ranks of the tempted. His basic motto is laconic
enough: it consists of sixteen bars of octaves in the lower register of the
keyboard, and of itself provides the sort of skeletal frame within which a
significant structure could indeed grow. But after three preface-like variations,
and while the piece is not yet two minutes old, Beethoven attaches to it a
soprano theme which, though it doesn’t appear again unmodified until the coda,
pretty well determines the melodic profile of each subsequent partition.
Now, there are any number of devious chromatic ways in which the harmonic
implications of either a bass or a soprano theme can be distended and
restated, but use both types of theme in tandem, make both significant, readily
identifiable, harmonically suggestive, and the problems are compounded. Beethoven took on a double handicap. But in this case, as so often in his major works, he
fell back upon themes of inordinate tenacity and almost primal urgency, used
only the most rudimentary diatonic vocabulary for his chief motives, and for
that reason the menace of the rather too agreeable soprano theme that he uses
here is countered. It wraps itself around the basic chords of E-flat major,
actually helping to buttress the spartan diatonic pronouncements of the bass
theme, and with this polarity established Beethoven then concocts fifteen
transcendentally virtuosic variations which simply use the Prometheus theme
and it’s bass accompaniment as a sort of launching pad from the secure tonal
gantry of which the composer fires off a canon, a fugue, a nocturne, a slow march, a fast much and ten other assorted flights of fancy.
Here are Beethoven’s 15 Variations and Fugue Op.35, the ‘Eroica’ Variations. Bill Hawes: The Eroica Variations by Beethoven. From the Parliament Street studio of CBC Toronto, Glenn Gould has been heard in
comment and recital in an all Beethoven program. Production, James Kent, with the technical assistance of Murray Eggleston. [captions edited by Bruce Cross]

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