The Ecstasy and Tragedy of Glenn Gould, A Review
“As in judiciary practice, polemics allows for no possibility of an equal discussion: it examines a case; it isn’t dealing with an interlocutor, it is processing a suspect; it collects the proofs of his guilt, designates the infraction he has committed, and pronounces the verdict and sentences him. In any case, what we have here is not on the order of a shared investigation; the polemicist tells the truth in the form of his judgment and by virtue of the authority he has conferred on himself.”-Michel Foucault
Why does Glenn Gould matter, still? This is the question I asked myself as I approached a re-reading of Peter F. Ostwald’s 1996 biography The Ecstasy and Tragedy of Glenn Gould. When I first came across this book, back in 1998, I was initially impressed with the detail that Ostwald employed to flesh out Gould’s life and the circumstances for his famously eccentric behavior; I enjoyed it as a sort of companion piece to the film 32 Short Films about Glenn Gould.
Released in 1995, 32 Short Films encapsulated Gould’s life into a series of snapshots, featuring interviews with friends, working acquaintances, colleagues and Gould’s surviving cousin, Jessie. Interestingly, Ostwald was not among those interviewed for the film, nor was he ever featured in the involving 1985 CBC documentary, Glenn Gould: A Portrait. In fact, Ostwald’s biography is the only reference I could find to his relationship with Gould (though there maybe others) and while it may mean little or nothing (one can hardly expect every Gould relationship to turn up in every documentary or biography written on the man), I do find it perhaps a little telling, especially in light of these opening lines in the introduction to Ostwald’s biography (provided by Ostwald’s wife, Lise):
“Forty years have passed since the first meeting between Peter and Glenn took place. Why was this an unforgettable event, permanently engraved in both their minds? Was it the intuitive knowledge that this was the beginning of a twenty-five year friendship – and occasional collaboration – leading to the tragic tale of Glenn Gould’s premature death at age fifty; which would be written by Peter Ostwald, a sixty-eight year old professor of medicine, a violinist, and a distinguished author, who fought an unrelenting battle with cancer for twelve years?”
There is an arrogance to this admission that is, to this reader shocking. Is Lise (through her husband) insinuating that his ‘friendship’ with Gould was such a distinctive and serious relationship and that Ostwald’s biography of Gould is somehow definitive? After all, there have been dozens of books written about Gould – before and after his death – why should this one stand out so completely?
The answer we are given here is that Ostwald’s friendship with Gould makes the piece that much more important and deserving of our special attention; yet, throughout the book, Ostwald gives us more reasons to question whether such a ‘friendship’ was as ‘unforgettable’ as Mrs. Ostwald would have us think and whether Ostwald’s insights into Gould are truly penetrating, but, perhaps more of a glimpse into the psyche of a doctor who built much of his own career writing about the mental illnesses of famous artists?
The Ecstasy and Tragedy of Glenn Gould opens with the first meeting of Gould at Ostwald, in 1957, thus setting up the potential for a memoir of sorts. Ostwald describes sneaking backstage, something he admits to being well versed in, to meet Gould after the concert. An amateur musician himself, did Ostwald carry any dreams of progressing, of some fame for himself? He mentions his friendships with other musicians at the time, including Martin Canin, a name he drops to get in Gould’s dressing room door. From there he describes a night that results in an impromptu chamber session at the apartment of a friend, and Gould’s first reaction to Ostwald the psychiatrist – a fact that, no doubt, would have been attractive to the pill-popping hypochondriac.
Does this mean their friendship began on something of a false note and progressed from there? We are not really allowed to know; Ostwald does not evolve his writing in memoir-fashion. Instead, he begins a gradual and highly detailed breakdown of Gould’s childhood and early adulthood, including the almost-Freudian take on his relationship with his mother, a woman who, after giving birth for the first (and only) time at 42, developed a controlling and protective attitude toward Glenn’s upbringing and musical training. It is to Florence Gould, an amateur pianist herself that the possibility of many of her son’s more florid manias, including his hypochondria and controlling, isolated tendencies evolved from. Yet Gould’s unquestionable musicality, exhibited before he was even three years of age, and, later, the obsessive-repetitive and increasingly narcissistic attitudes he developed may have led to a diagnosis of Asperger Syndrome, a question Ostwald does not shy away from, but never explores fully.
It is through Gould’s often unconventional ideas about performance, sometimes ignoring a composer’s dynamics or tempo markings, that caused confusion and consternation from critics and even from Ostwald, who, without qualification for his objection, states plainly on several occasions that he felt Gould was ‘wrong’ in his own judgments. To some degree he openly denigrates Gould’s choices:
“…he said he ‘hated’ late works by Mozart such as the Symphony in G Minor, K. 550. (Had Glenn ever listened to the late viola quintets? How could anyone ‘hate’ such sublime music?)” pg. 249.
It is at these moments (and there are several in the book) that Ostwald the Polemicist comes to the fore: in spite of Gould’s legendary intellect and immersion into music, his deep and well-developed sense of composition, form and structure (and the artistry involved), Ostwald, perhaps out of some unsatisfied argument with Gould himself, attempts to undermine and negate Gould’s well-considered opinions.
“As a concert pianist, he came to detest what he perceived (wrongly, I believe) as a struggle to the death between the performer and the audience. And as a media artist, he expected (wrongly again) that advances in technology would reduce human competitiveness.” Pg. 265
What are we without our opinions? Gould’s were an extension of his highly evolved inner life and his own experiences as a performer. Who are we (or Ostwald) to say that he is ‘wrong’ in his thinking? For Gould, stage performance was a nightmare both personally and morally and, for him, this was nothing more than truth. A personal truth, perhaps, but to question those truths about a person derides a closer insight. Though Ostwald makes every case for the reasons why Gould gave up the concert stage, he still doesn’t seem to appreciate the real optimism that was behind it. Like so many critics before him, the emphasis on Gould retiring from the concert stage as some sort of personal failing is grossly misrepresented and exaggerated. Gould most likely did not give as much thought to leaving the stage as those who have questioned his decision to do so have. For Gould, ending his concert career was a flight of freedom. How do you question that?
Glenn Gould was an artist full of contradictions, but do those contradictions invalidate his ideas?
“What Glenn never seemed able consciously to perceive or acknowledge was his own extreme competitiveness in having to play faster and more brilliantly than any other pianist…in his highly successful gambling on the stock market, and in his sheer joy at coming out the winner in conversation and games of wit. In fact, one might consider his having won, posthumously, the biggest competition of them all, that of survival in public memory.” Pg. 266
What is Ostwald saying here? There is almost a tenor of resentment – as if being a success, for Gould, was something that shouldn’t have happened, that such an arrogant, narcissistic figure who (to Ostwald’s description) played a ‘part’ to the public – that all his moral posturing was really Gould hiding behind his own insecurities and that, perhaps Gould wasn’t the artist he wanted everyone to think he was?
Ostwald describes himself as Gould’s ‘friend,’ a perhaps overly generous title; other than their first and last meetings, he describes almost no real interplay between them, yet, obviously, conversations occurred that, one senses, Ostwald did not always care for or ‘win’ himself. He must have had very few actual meetings with Glenn for, by the time of their last visit, in 1977, he had not seen Glenn in ten years. This final event is marked by a not-so-subtle bitterness:
“I must have said something uncomplimentary about the recording [Glenn’s latest on Bach], for Joe Stephens remembers Glenn “bristling” at my remarks. Glenn in turn said something that annoyed me very much.”
Ostwald never tells us what Glenn said that ‘annoyed’ him. At the end of their meeting Glenn challenges Ostwald to write a book about a ‘really important musician’ (instead of the Schumann biography he was working on).
“Was he thinking of himself?”
Did the germ of this biography begin that night, at their last meeting? Did Ostwald decide to embark on this biography toward the end of his own life in order to ‘have the last word’ as it were? In his writing Ostwald gives much detail: doctors Gould consulted, pills he took, concerts he gave, his own thoughts and opinions on composers and performers and, most movingly, the very last days of Gould’s life. Yet Ostwald’s commentary on Gould grows like a composition that starts out with a strong, clear theme only to result in clangs and clamor of dissonance and disillusion. He does not explain all the years that he and Gould did not communicate; he does not even explain how he comes to his own conclusions to deride Gould’s many complex musical and philosophical ideas, yet the sense that he himself bristled at Gould’s self-involvement, his ‘arrogance’ is a variation he never quite lets go of.
In the end, Ostwald’ biography is still a fascinating collection of ideas; its weaknesses I think stem from Ostwald (in a Gouldian fashion) relying more on his own opinions about Gould than real conversations with those who were closer to him and worked with him for many years. I also find it strange that Ostwald invokes a word that is often used to describe Gould: ecstasy. Perhaps due to the complexities of trying to sort through the many layers of Gould’s thought processes and his wide-ranging imagination, Ostwald never really touches on this aspect of Gould’s character: the great joy he experienced as a musician, as a man who devoted himself so completely to exploring every nuance of that which he loved, that which compelled him and held him in thrall his entire life. Ostwald the psychiatrist misses this point completely.
I hearken back to my first viewing of 32 Short Films about Glenn Gould and a section of the film entitled ‘Crossed Paths:’ brief vignettes with those who knew Glenn, perhaps only briefly, giving commentary about their experiences with him. The memories range from the humorous to the dour, with one woman expressing what seems like resentment that Gould did not understand the needs of others, that sometimes it wasn’t just all about him.
Though he gives us no reason to imagine his own relationship with Gould was anything more than a ‘crossed path,’ Ostwald, in a way, attempts to interject himself into Gould’s life as something more significant and telling than it was and I cannot help but think of this as a sort of personal letter to Gould himself: part of it inscribed with the honor and wonder of that initial meeting, that initial acquaintanceship, to voicing his own complaints, ones he never dared voice to Gould personally, and, finally closing on an old heartbreak. Did he ever wish he had intervened further, for Glenn’s health? There is surprisingly little judgment toward those other physicians who may have also done more to help prevent what was, in fact, inevitable.
Ostwald himself passed away from cancer before this biography was ever published; I wonder, following Gould’s death and all the subsequent biographies and documentaries about him that aired if Ostwald felt the challenge of telling another side of the story, if that was his purpose in pursuing this work. If so, he did little to steer us away from the ‘conventional’ understanding of Gould as an eccentric, self-involved genius, but, instead, chose to focus on the effect his behavior had on those he worked with and how, often, that behavior was simply too difficult to endure for long.
There is no question that Gould’s character required sacrifices (usually on the part of others) in order to maintain any sort of connection; in his reach for perfection, he may have struck a few sour notes with others, but one cannot fault him for trying, for doing the very best of what he could do as only he knew how to do it. He was a man who lived by his own rules, his own order and while many of his idiosyncrasies fall in line with an Asperger’s patient, he was always concerned with communication and devoted himself to explore the limits of communication, ironically, to the exclusion of those who were closest to him. For any reason, this alone explains why Gould matters, still. He set a standard that no one who has come after has ever reached.