How Mozart Became a Bad Composer, by Glenn Gould

I’m not sure how many readers will agree with Glenn Gould’s analysis of Mozart’s piano compositions, especially his later ones, but I think it’s well worth watching and listening to, not least because the presenter is obviously relishing the opportunity to say what he really thinks in the full knowledge that in the process he is winding up a great many of his audience! It’s also interesting how he delivers his pieces to camera: it doesn’t look like he’s using an autocue but he’s a very precise and coherent speaker.

21 Responses to “How Mozart Became a Bad Composer, by Glenn Gould”

  1. Anton Garrett Says:

    I was amused by the comments about the “marijuana problem” at the start, in regard to an unrelated TV programme. Happily, at the beginning of 2014 the State of Colorado legalised marijuana, starting a trend – although it remains illegal under US Federal Law (which is unlikely to be enforced). Drug offences are far the leading reason for custodial sentences in the USA. Cannabis was legal there until 1937, when the small print of the Marihuana Tax Act made it effectively impossible to obtain legally – an action aimed obviously at Mexican immigrants of the era. When this Act was found to be unconstitutional in 1969, it was quickly replaced with the Controlled Substances Act. Cannabis was placed provisionally in the most prohibited category (Schedule 1) until a committee had investigated it. The resulting Shafer Commission declared that cannabis should not be in Schedule 1 and even questioned whether it should be an illicit substance at all, but President Nixon ignored this report and cannabis remained in Schedule 1.

    Shorn of sarcasm – which Gould apparently didn’t know is most effective when not used as a bludgeon – his comments remind me of critics of Eric Clapton’s guitar solos with Cream. If the critics were technically correct, they forgot the effect of the raw excitement or emotion. In any case, when Gould spoke of the ease of predicting the next note from the previous in later Mozart, this is true for 49 notes out of 50 – but then Mozart moves to a new theme which only a genius could have written. Then Gould is right for another minute or two. Then another unguessable theme of genius; and so on. Gould’s criticism is missing the most important Fourier components of Mozart’s work. Perhaps that is why Beethoven said to his friend, the pianist Cramer, that they would never be able to match this 24th piano concerto of Mozart.

    • telescoper Says:

      What’s interesting is that despite having nothing good to say about K491 he made a very good recording of it. Most of Gould’s recordings of Mozart sound like he’s taking in the piss.

      (It’s my own problem that Gould’s own problem was not with marijuana but with prescription drugs…)

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        The last minute or so of the slow movement is among the greatest music that Mozart or anybody ever wrote.

  2. Phillip Helbig Says:

    What happened to Mozart after he died? He decomposed.

  3. Phillip Helbig Says:

    “his comments remind me of critics of Eric Clapton’s guitar solos with Cream”

    Clapton’s own words, in a Rolling Stone interview, were “extended solos and maestro bullshit”, explaining why hearing Music From Big Pink by The Band had caused him to pick up a Stratocaster (and vice versa) and play “just good, funky songs”. Robbie Robertson was saddened by that remark, as he was a big fan of Cream.

    Personally, I think that Clapton’s best work was with John Mayall and with Cream and his guest spot with the Beatles.

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      It certainly wasn’t 461 Ocean Boulevard.

      • Dave Carter Says:

        He got a Grammy for Tears in Heaven, and I know it was written in response to a devastating personal tragedy, but nevertheless it wasn’t at the level much of his earlier work. He is probably best known for Layla, and if thats not overblown maestro bullshit I don’t know what is. There is a good case that both Eric Clapton and Peter Green did their best work with John Mayall.

      • Phillip Helbig Says:

        Mayall is the Dennis Sciama of the rock world. One could make a case for several people having done their best work with Mayall.

        Mayall was born in 1933 and is still performing. Well. Interestingly, he was already seen as an old man by Clapton and so on back in the 60s, which he was, relatively.

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        I saw Mayall about three years ago at Buxton Opera House and an excellent evening it was.

        Dave – I regard the haunting “Green Manalishi” as Peter Green’s finest moment. I saw him at the Junction in Cambridge in (I think) 1997. Still a genius.

  4. Phillip Helbig Says:

    Perhaps it would have been more appropriate to discuss another piece by Mozart. 🙂

  5. Phillip Helbig Says:

    Or Gould could have discussed this one, though it is no longer believed to have been written by Mozart (sorry for the link fail).

  6. Thank you! I loved this — very funny! And the K. 333 at the end — which Gould said was Mozart’s best — was great!

    • telescoper Says:

      Gould’s recording of K331 is wild!

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        Gould’s intention was to play it “so maddeningly slowly that I had to get everybody’s hackles aroused. I had to get a reaction”. He gradually let each variation move forward, finally “doing one really perverse thing, and that is taking a variation that is Mozart has – forgive me! – actually marked adagio, and turning it into an allegretto. Gradually the whole movement took off.” When challenged by the interviewer, Gould insisted that this actually works for him

        https://practisingthepiano.com/vandalising-mozarts-k-331/

        gives the source of the quotes. It might work for him but it doesn’t work for me, perhaps because it isn’t what Mozart wrote when it is played allegretto. As one reviewer (quoted on the Gould website) wrote, “It all conjures up an image of a tremendously precocious but very nasty little boy trying to put one over on his piano teacher.”

        https://glenngould.com/music/mozart-piano-sonatas-vol-4/

        The question I would like to have asked him is: Why did you “ha[ve] to get a reaction”?

  7. Anton Garrett Says:

    Yet anybody could confuse much of K475 for a Beethoven piano sonata.

  8. Anton Garrett Says:

    To show that excellent physicists can talk nonsense about Mozart as well as excellent pianists, here is the late Ed Jaynes (who owned and played a Bösendorfer piano):

    Click to access m7h.pdf

    • Phillip Helbig Says:

      Pais compared the 1905 Einstein to Mozart, his development of GR to Beethoven.

      If asked “Beethoven or Mozart”, my answer is “Bach”. 🙂

      If forced to choose, I would definitely go with Beethoven, as I am one who sees Mozart as somewhat superficial. Yes, Beethoven can be heavy, but his stuff is also very good. For good stuff without the heaviness, one has to go back to the Baroque era. Having said that, Beethoven is something like a (good) English breakfast: I enjoy it immensely, but a a few times per year is enough. Bach (and most Baroque stuff) is something I can consume daily.

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