Thank you, Glenn Gould, for introducing me to Schönberg!

Glenn Gould at piano

Today would have been the 80th birthday of the eccentric Canadian pianist Glenn Gould, who actually died at age 50 in 1982, before I ever knew about him.

It was nice to see an article about Gould playing music other than the Bach he is mostly known for. Not surprisingly, my own first exposure to Glenn Gould was through his recordings of the music of Bach. I was an undergraduate and one of my friends was a big fan of Gould’s and shared some recordings with me, including both the 1955 and 1982 recordings of the Goldberg Variations, and I was hooked by his uniquely quirky, rhythmic style. But my friend, being such a Gould fan, also had recordings of Gould playing anything else.

To be honest, I had mixed feelings about almost all of his recordings, because he so imposed his personal notions of how he wanted composers’ music to sound; sometimes I could not tell whether he was being serious or being deliberately annoying, because there was so much I loved and so much I hated. He was never just plain solid and boring: there was no middle of the road for him. He brought his full love or boredom to everything he did. Much of his Mozart and Beethoven were terrible, to my ears (while some of it pretty good). His Brahms was uneven. Actually, much of what he did was simply perverse, for lack of a better word. But in any case, I love that Gould did what he felt compelled to do.

Arnold Schönberg

Arnold Schönberg

Fascinatingly, it was through Glenn Gould that I came to enjoy (some of) the music of Arnold Schönberg. I have to confess that I don’t (yet?) understand or like Schönberg’s twelve-tone music, but I rather enjoy his very brief free atonal piano music, which Gould played with such love that it reflected the late German romantic roots and sensibilities that were Schönberg’s heritage. The three Klavierstücke Op. 11, that I discovered purely from browsing through Gould’s recordings as lent to me in college, are beautiful and expressive works, deeply emotional.

My favorite of the three are the first and second, because the third is too violent and chaotic for me to really enjoy. As an undergrad, the second was my favorite, but now the first is.

You can click on the link to the article to listen to the track of Gould playing No. 1.

I think it is not an accident that Gould took to this music, because I perceive him also to be a paradoxical Romantic at heart who superficially seemed to reject Romanticism, for Romantic reasons.

Other recordings

Maurizio Pollini

Actually, since my first discovery of this music, I prefer other performances to those of Gould. I like Maurizio Pollini: below are performances of all three by him.


I celebrated Glenn Gould’s birthday not by playing any of his Bach recordings I have, but by enjoying him playing Schönberg and other composers, and listening to others also play Schönberg. I am grateful to Gould for all he did to share with the world his personal approach to music.

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