Mozart: The Complete Piano Sonatas

Performed by Glenn Gould

Central Question: Is sarcasm possible in classical music?
Glenn Gould’s favorite composers: Bach, Schoenberg, Gibbons; How Gould practiced a difficult score: by placing a radio or television near his piano and turning it up to full volume; How Gould sometimes appeared onstage for public recitals: wearing gloves and dressed in a wrinkled tuxedo; What Gould called Mozart: a “hedonist”; The reason Gould, at twelve, refused to see his musical icon, Artur Schnabel, perform in Toronto: Mozart was part of the repertoire; How Gould explained away the criticism his Mozart recording received: “All the critics are really responding to is a denial of a certain set of expectations that have been built into their hearing processes.”

The Canadian pianist Glenn Gould designed several alter egos, extreme archetypes of the classical-music world: British critic Sir Nigel Twitt-Thornewaite, American gadfly Theodore Slutz, and German musicologist Karlheinz Klopweisser, to name a few. Inhabiting one or another, he’d write bizarre liner notes for, and later negative reviews of, his own albums. For his studio recording of Mozart’s complete piano sonatas, Gould seems to have costumed himself in yet another personality, this one the least imaginary: the precocious, obsessive-compulsive musician who loathes Mozart.

The set was Gould’s attempt to poke fun at misconceived performances of the composer’s solo work, but it was simultaneously a way to conjure Mozart as he heard him—derivative, gauche, almost moronic. His Mozart is derision without gestures or words, unless you count the frequent background humming (a habit of the pianist’s that functions like a signature on the corner of the music). It is the equivalent of defacing eighteen Rembrandts.

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—Michael Peck

Michael Peck’s writing has appeared in Juked, Los Angeles Review of Books, Identity Theory, and elsewhere. He is an occasional book critic for the Missoula Independent, and lives in Portland, Oregon.

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