GOULD, GLENN. 1932-1982. Glenn Gould's extensively annotated copy of Bach's Goldberg Variations ("Klavierübung IV.Teil Aria Mit verschiedenen Veränderungen 'Goldberg-Variationen',"

Glenn Gould's first interpretation of Bach's Goldberg Variations sold millions – but he hated his performance. Years later, the pianist went back to the score, now offered at Bonhams. Tim Page examines this musical Holy Grail

Glenn Gould emerged from Canada in 1955, a fresh young genius from the North, brimming over with energy, ideas and intelligence. By the time of his fatal stroke in 1982, only a few days after his 50th birthday, this daring outsider had challenged many of the most cherished conventions of classical music. Even today, he remains a vital presence in our musical and intellectual life.

The pianist's recordings continue to sell steadily, with many millions of copies purchased throughout the world; his life, performances and philosophies have been examined in more than a dozen books; he has been the subject of a quirky novel (Thomas Bernhard's The Loser), several documentary films and one full-length feature (Thirty-Two Short Films about Glenn Gould). And the internet is full of sites devoted to him, ranging from official repositories to idiosyncratic – and often deeply touching – private homages.

I was honored to call Glenn my friend, although our friendship was purely telephonic – until August 1982. We had originally agreed to a brief interview on the phone in October 1980; instead, it lasted four hours. The following day, my subject (who, to my amazement, had insisted that I call him 'Glenn') rang me again, and we picked up where we left off. And so it went: for the next 22 months, we spoke several times a week, always at Gould's instigation, and often for several hours at a time. In August 1982, I went G to Toronto to work intensively for three days with Gould on a radio interview about his two commercial recordings of Bach's Goldberg Variations; after his death, I edited the first collection of his published articles, The Glenn Gould Reader, which appeared in 1984.

My expectations were not high when I heard, in February 2018, that Gould's performing score of the Goldberg Variations had turned up. For Gould-ians, it might be likened to the Holy Grail – the last thoughts of a musical genius on the work with which he was most closely associated. So its recovery 35 years after his death surprised me, as the vast majority of Gould's papers and other effects are carefully housed in the National Arts Center in Ottawa, where they have been for many years. But I agreed to examine the document and – from Glenn's inimitable scrawls and calculated timings down to the little splashes of tea and food stains on the paper itself – came away with no doubt whatsoever of its authenticity.

It was a modern edition, published by the C.F. Peters Corporation, that Gould chose in 1981 to make this final recording of his signature work – an event that was simultaneously filmed by Bruno Monsaingeon. Elaborately (and sometimes all but indecipherably) marked by Gould, mostly with one of his beloved black Flair pens, the score contains Gould's own evaluations of the various takes of the performance. Four additional pages of notes on white lined paper are also included, with the pianist's thoughts on the final 13 of Bach's 30 variations, which he could not fit onto the score itself.

The score – offered by Bonhams in the Fine Books and Manuscript sale in New York – might be considered the 'map' to Glenn Gould's great final recording of the Goldbergs, brought to life after 25 years of meditation on Bach's music. It is necessarily one of a kind and therefore priceless, both as a physical document and a contribution to musical history.

Gould made his name with his first recording of the Variations – a brilliant and exhilarating dash that he recorded in 1955 at the age of 22. It has never gone out of print and is one of the most beloved and influential piano disks of all time. It brought the clean, stately clarity of the harpsichord together with the tonal color and dynamic range available from the modern piano. Never before had the composer's music been played with such dazzling and incisive virtuosity: Gould made Bach seem brand-new.

However, looking back on this recording a quartercentury after he had made it, Gould found one central problem: he hated the performance. So he decided to revisit the score. The result – taped in April 1981 and issued almost simultaneously with the pianist's death in October 1982 – was much more sober and introspective than the earlier performance, with generally slower tempos. Moreover, Gould chose to repeat some of the variations (or portions of variations) that he particularly favored. Longer by 15 minutes than the 1955 performance, the result was one of Gould's most personal and contemplative statements – a summing up of an extraordinary life.

By the time Gould took up the Goldberg Variations again in 1981, he had not played a note in public for 17 years. Instead, in 1964, after nine years of international acclaim, he had given up live performances to concentrate only on recordings, radio and television. No famous musician had done anything like it before: Gould had reached the pinnacle of a concert career – rave reviews, high fees and sold-out engagements worldwide – and he was simply walking away from it all.

Had anybody bothered to listen, Gould had plausible explanations for his decision to quit the stage. He hated to travel. He pointed out that most creative artists were able to tinker and perfect, but that a live performer had to recreate work from scratch in every concert. The result, in Gould's view, was a "tremendous conservatism" that made it difficult for an artist to learn and grow. Instead, Gould put his faith in what he called 'The Prospects of Recording' (to borrow the title of the essay that is his most thorough explanation of the subject). "Technology has the capability to create a climate of anonymity and to allow the artist the time and freedom to prepare his conception of a work to the best of his ability," he wrote.

In essence, Gould thought that playing concerts got in the way of making music. The whole idea seemed opposed to his creative credo: "The purpose of art is not the release of a momentary ejection of adrenaline but is, rather, the gradual, lifelong construction of a state of wonder and serenity."

Wild legends circulated in the years after his retreat to his native Toronto. It was suggested that Gould had gone mad, that he could no longer play the piano, and that his later recordings were filled with hundreds of splices and completely unreliable as any accurate representation of his pianism. In fact, Gould retained his astonishing digital mastery to the end and, in the dozens of recordings he made after he left the stage, there was always something deeply personal about his playing that transcended mere virtuosity. No matter how one chose to define that extra, ur-Gouldian dimension – as spiritual seeking, brainy intensity, expressive urgency, nervous drive or some combination of all these and more – it was ever-present in his best performances, which could have been by no other artist.

Tim Page is a Pulitzer prize-winning music critic. He was editor of The Glenn Gould Reader and wrote the introduction to Glenn Gould: A Life in Pictures.

Sale: Fine Books and Manuscripts
New York
Wednesday 5 December at 10am
Enquiries: Ian Ehling +1 212 644 9094

Related auctions