Glenn Gould is the second person I ever heard who plays Bach properly. The first one is my father, who is not a very good pianist.
My father has the ear of a great musician. He takes orchestral scores to bed as a little night reading. Haydn eludes me, but his music brings my father to tears. Once, when he was striving to explain sonata form, I coolly answered that I’d rather let the music just wash over me, instead of wrecking the mood by overthinking it. By the look he gave me, I think he heard me say something like, “I prefer to let small children be mutilated by elephants, rather than harsh my buzz.”
The radio always played classical music as I was growing up, and the awkward, melancholy voice of Peter Fox Smith was the sound of Saturday afternoon at our house. We didn’t learn table manners or social skills, but we knew how to behave at a concert, and sneered mercilessly at the dolts who clapped between movements.
We drove 45 minutes in a snowstorm to hear Sally Pinkas play (stopping only when we skidded and rear-ended another driver, who turned out to be the local choir director), and once hauled the old red minivan four hours to watch The Marriage of Figaro at the Met. We pulled over to the shoulder at the outskirts of the city, hung sheets on the car windows, and changed into our fanciest dresses (and were appalled to see other opera lovers show up in jeans).
But the best music lesson I had was at night, when the sounds of my father’s upright piano floated up through the floorboards of our bedroom. He often played Bach at night. He would play the same fugues and partitas over and over again, and he never got any better at them — his fingers just wouldn’t perform what his mind was hearing. So what I heard as I fell asleep was a halting, passionate, pleadingly tender rendition of these gorgeous melodies — all largo, grave, and always con espressivo — never in the prestissimo that Bach directed.
I remember first learning that some people are emotionally repelled by the music of Bach, and hear nothing but a dazzlingly intricate array of sound, mathematical, impersonal, elegant and impenetrible. I was dumbfounded. My father, with his meager technical skills, laid Bach out bare. Again and again, struggling to pefect an unusual chord, he would string it out, one note at a time, five or six or seven times in a row. Occasionally, to our glee, he would call out, “Yahhhhh . . . ” in the note he was trying to find – as if his lost fingers would hearken to him and realize which piano key they were aching for.
So to me, Bach sounds like struggle, longing, and tireless devotion. That is still how I hear Bach, even when some hotshot virtuoso zips over the keyboard in the time key that Bach called for. When I discovered that Glenn Gould is known for slowing Bach down, for drawing out the tempo and turning those breakneck intricacies into vulnerable or exultant songs of the human heart, then it sounded like the real Bach to me. In fact, Bach sounds like Music to me — like the heart, the tendons, the inner workings of music. My other cherished composers – Brahms, Schubert, Mahler – wouldn’t have anything to say if Bach hadn’t said it first, somehow cocooned in a code of speed and density.
I am grateful to Glenn Gould for revealing the heartbreaking beauty of Bach, and I’m grateful to my father for revealing his unburnished talent to his family. From him came music. A clever teacher can produce clever students; but, in music as in all other things, only love begets love.