Glenn Gould's Solitary String Quartet: Is It a Masterpiece or an Unruly Child?
55 years after its premiere, the jury is still out . . .
Although its origins and first performances have drifted into the mists of time, Glenn Gould’s String Quartet, Op. 1, provides a glimpse into the great composer and musician’s psyche and skill set for those string quartets and audiences adventurous enough to take it out for a drive. Gould finished the 35-minute quartet in 1955, a few months before recording the set of Bach’s Goldberg Variations that would turn him into an overnight piano sensation. Preceded by obscure childhood compositions, an atonal bassoon sonata, and an unfinished piano sonata, the ambitious quartet—redolent of late Romantic Strauss and Schoenberg, with quotations from Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge and Quartet in A minor, Op. 132— is music of consequence, fugal riches, and often darkly sumptuous beauty.
Even so, the quartet would certainly have been long forgotten if its composer were not a legend for his artistry at the keyboard. Fortunately, the fledgling Alcan Quartet, based in Chicoutimi, Quebec, where it is supported by the Canadian aluminum giant after which it is named, has come to the rescue with a splendid new recording on the ATMA label.
The Alcans—violinists Laura Andriani and Nathalie Camus, violist Luc Beauchemin, and cellist David Ellis—are uniquely qualified to help reintroduce the work of this fellow Canadian to a contemporary audience worldwide: the first violinist, Laura Andriani, studied at conservatory with violinist Paolo Borciani of the Quartetto Italiano. Borciani was very interested in Glenn Gould. “I was very touched and intoxicated by the quartet writing,” Andriani says. “Learning the score, however, was a very intense experience.”
Still, she had little trouble convincing the other three-fourths of her quartet to take up the work. “First, everyone loves Glenn Gould as a musician and as a pianist and for all that he did for Canadian music,” she says. “I told the other guys the [Gould] quartet was very deep and very special. And while it might not be very mature or totally idiomatic string-quartet writing, it’s a very interesting adventure.
“When we first read it, it was difficult; we didn’t even know which voice or voices to bring out. Fortunately,” she adds, “the players were very open minded.”
When I mention the Gould piece to Emerson Quartet violinist Phil Setzer (whose father, Elmer, was one of the violinists in the Symphonia Quartet that in 1960 had made the first recording of the Gould quartet), he tells me that he’s “always been fascinated by it,” and says that George Szell, the longtime Cleveland Orchestra conductor, had also considered the quartet remarkable.
Setzer still has the score that Kurt Loebel—the other violinist in the Symphonia Quartet—gave to him. “They pretty much made the recording in one main take and two shorter ones,” he says. “No one thought the music was that important, and my dad was sick with a 103-degree temperature.”
Although the Emersons haven’t played the quartet yet, Setzer definitely would like to give it a go. “Some sections are not as strong as others, but the fugues are all fantastic. The writing is good—demanding and difficult in the way that Schoenberg is: very chromatic, with severe intonation challenges and lots of octave passages.”
Kurt Loebel’s son, David, has vivid memories of the days during which the recording was made. “He loved late Strauss. He talked about Strauss as being a composer of his own time by being of none. And that,” Loebel says, “also describes Gould. The way he played the piano, nobody had played before. You hear it in the quartet, for all its excess and wildness. It was probably not idiomatic for string players. But it was young and wild and incredibly wise.”
After the recording session, on a snowy Sunday in Cleveland, Gould came to the Loebels’ house for dinner. “He had real wonderful human warmth,” Loebel says, “and a fantastic sense of humor. When I gave him a copy of Mad magazine, he opened it and started reading one of the cartoons in funny voices.”
Still fresh with the memories of her own 2008 recording sessions of the quartet, the Alcans’ Andriani is quick to point out the music’s greatest technical challenges: “Its proportions, of course. The quartet starts with the kind of minimal monotone landscape you get in Canada in winter, followed by a series of long phrases, like a huge musical construction without movements, accompanied by metronome markings that underline the size of the time scale. Like metamorphoses, the moods change to something else.
She feels that the quartet is a good example of someone trying hard to communicate. “That’s why it’s so full of dynamic details and metronome marks,” she says, noting that the Alcans used the Schott edition. “Sometimes even a dash with a little dot. We weren’t sure what he had in mind.”
Balance was another highly challenging aspect for the Alcans. “Like the great polyphony in Bach, you can’t play all voices at the same intensity. You have to make choices,” Andriani says. “The violins have to blend so much, and Gould often writes for viola in its high register. His modulations are also tremendously interesting—we spent a lot of time at the recording session trying to figure out the colors he had in mind.”
Andriani mentions a number of specific tips for young quartets who want to tackle the Gould string quartet. From the beginning of m. 28, the metronome mark of 54 crescendos to 56 at m. 37, but this small change should not be taken too literally. Rather, it should serve as a guide to get more excited. “We practiced respecting as much as possible the metronome indications,” she says, “ but I think the most important aspect is ‘feeling’ those changings, to live the passages emotionally and not merely technically.”
Again, she points out how, starting at m. 166, the metronome is at 58 for two bars, then 54 for three bars. By the time 50 is indicated at m. 171, the ritardando lasts for six measures to get to a met mark of 58 again. “Don’t play like a machine, have the metronome by your side, isolate the bars, and then make the connection to the previous bars,” she suggests. “Try to understand how Gould was feeling.
“Music is never about machinery and the players are not robots.”
Like her colleagues, Andriani is tremendously impressed by Gould’s command of fugal writing. “In fact,” she says, “at places like bar 196, where the writing gets so intense—with triplets and 16th notes simultaneously together, 3 against 4—you will have to figure out what should be coming out. Sometimes it’s a matter of changing one note, but since Gould is a composer who is a pianist, there are no slurs in the parts, no bowings, no indications of which string he prefers.
“We tried to respect the pianist in him while still producing music.”
Despite her obvious affection and the superb recording, Andriani concurs with Setzer that the Gould quartet is problematic. “It’s a very interesting quartet, but it would be extremely hard to program because of the length,” she says. “In today’s absurd society of YouTube and iTunes, everybody’s in a hurry. Gould’s String Quartet takes time to sit down and enjoy. Even late Beethoven has the same problem.”
When Gould programmed the quartet during the 1956 Stratford Festival, it was bookended by Berg’s Piano Sonata and Schoenberg’s “Ode to Napoleon Bonaparte.”
A tough sell, even today.
The music definitely inspires musicians. “It’s like James Joyce’s novels,” Andriani says. “You get into a wave of fits and starts and become totally absorbed. In some ways the fugal writing is like the D minor Chaconne of Bach, a summing up of what has come before. It’s like Gould was working in a musical laboratory, trying to isolate substances, combine them, observe the transformation—a process, not a final result. He just needed this experience.
“And don’t forget how young he was.”
Where Glenn Gould’s String Quartet, Op. 1, goes from here, however, is anyone’s guess. Perhaps back into the wilds for another few decades.
At the relatively tender age of 55, it’s still “young and wild and incredibly wise.”