Piano vs. Orchestra: A Defense of Glenn Gould’s Historic Performance of the Brahms

by Matt Harikian

As Leonard Bernstein stepped onto the stage on April 6, 1962 to conduct Brahms’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in D Minor, Op. 15, the audience erupted into applause, expecting another brilliant collaboration between him and Glenn Gould. The mood undoubtedly changed, however, as Bernstein gave a speech prior to the performance, expressing his disagreement in interpretation with Gould. His opposition lay in what he referred to as Gould’s “remarkably broad tempi and [his] frequent departure from Brahms’s dynamic indications.”1 Between his unprofessional speech and Gould’s rather unconventional interpretation, the performance has lived on in infamy. Many well-respected critics bashed the performance; Harold Schonberg, in the style of Schumann, even went so far as to sharply remark in an imaginary letter to the made-up character Ossip Gabrilowitsch, “And between you, me, and the corner lamppost, Ossip, maybe the reason he plays it so slow is maybe his technique is not so good.”2 Yet despite what many critics have said, Glenn Gould’s interpretation was an attempt to create a more historically accurate performance of the piece. A close analysis of the piece reveals that Glenn Gould’s decisions were an attempt to preserve Brahms’s original intention behind the concerto: a true collaboration of piano and orchestra (rather than piano as soloist) to create a powerful yet beautiful musical statement.

The D Minor Concerto is one of the most popular, but most problematic works in the pianist’s repertoire. The fact that it is even a piano concerto is in many ways an accident. Brahms originally composed the thematic material to be used in a symphony, and after deciding that didn’t work, a sonata for two pianos. Over the lengthy period of 1864-69, Brahms made numerous edits to the piece, many of which are documented in his letters to his dear friend, Joseph Joachim.3 He finally decided to turn it into a concerto so that he could rely on his skills as a pianist, but still include symphonic aspects. As a result, the piece is symphonic in many ways. Like many composers of his time, Brahms dealt with the problem of writing any large-scale symphonic work after Beethoven. Many reacted to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony by concluding that he had done all that was possible for symphonic music. They turned away from absolute music, claiming that the future of music was found in the combination of different mediums. Wagner, for example, believed that operas were the perfect art form because of their combination of music, text, and art. Brahms, however, chose to follow in Beethoven’s footsteps by continuing the tradition of absolute music, and Beethoven is an obvious inspiration for the concerto.  In fact, this very inspiration plays a large role in the collaborative aspect of the piece.

One way that Beethoven’s influence created a collaboration between the piano and orchestra was through form. Mozart’s and Beethoven’s concerti conventionally opened with an orchestral ritornello in the exposition, presenting the primary and secondary themes in tonic before the soloist enters. This format is known to music theoreticians as “Type 5 Sonata Form.”4 As the Romantic Era progressed, composers such as Mendelssohn and Schumann omitted the ritornello and opened with the soloist, thus creating a normal “Type 3 Sonata Form.” Brahms chose to give the orchestra an equal part with the pianist by not only keeping the ritornello, but also modulating from the home key to the distant key of Bb Minor with the secondary theme of the ritornello. This modulation is important because it differs from conventional concerti, and instead creates a typical symphonic form until the soloist comes in. The themes are not just being presented for the soloist to embellish upon, but are presented as a significant, musical statement. Even before the soloist comes in, the audience gets the sense that the orchestra plays a different role in the concerto.

The opening theme begins with a dramatic, descending arpeggio that a resembles a leap into despair. Brahms wrote the piece shortly after Robert Schumann’s attempted suicide, one of the most devastating events in Brahms’s life, and the opening theme is often thought to parallel Schumann’s suicidal leap into the Rhine.5 The orchestra begins the piece with a bold, fortissimo entrance and ends their opening ritornello similarly, yet the pianist enters quietly and expressively. This contrast contributes to the pianist’s role as a collaborator, rather than a leader. The solo exposition does not begin conventionally with the primary theme, but with an introspective preface (mm. 91-109) before boldly presenting the second half of the primary theme in m. 110. The fact that Brahms himself would have been performing as the soloist gives this entrance more impact; one expects an entrance like m. 110, but Brahms opts for a subtler, anti-virtuosic entry for the soloist. The pianist’s opening material is given the label “Solo,” and the same label reappears elsewhere throughout the exposition. In previous concerti, the label would have been redundant, because it would be understood that the pianist is the soloist; here, Brahms is explicitly stating where the piano is to stand out as the solo and, contrastingly, where the piano is to be solely a collaborator. The rest of the solo exposition plays out typically until m. 157, when a new theme is presented. This third theme is presented in F Major in a chorale style, and its opening ascension directly contrasts the first theme’s descending motive. The piano and orchestra share equal roles in the development of the theme, with the piano presenting the material in m. 157 and the orchestra following up in m. 184. The exposition ends in mm. 226-230 with the soloist’s first explicit display of virtuosity: fortissimo, descending octaves that rise into a orchestral hit on m. 231, signaling in the development.

The piano and orchestra continue their collaboration into the development and recapitulation. Particularly, mm. 231-251 present the piano and orchestra passing off melodic material to each other. Each group’s solo gets increasingly shorter until the two are playing on top of each other in mm. 252-254. Though the piano is given a large solo section in mm. 278-286, the orchestra takes the lead for an even lengthier section in mm. 287-305, while the piano is purely accompanimental. The orchestra and piano finally bring in the arrival of the recapitulation together by passing identical material back and forth in mm. 306-309. Formally, the recapitulation is identical to the solo exposition. The modulations also follow conventional concerti format, with the final theme presented this time in the parallel major. Following the recapitulation, however, is the most blatant example of Brahms’s avoidance of a soloist aspect for the pianist. A soloists’ cadenza is often thought of as the highlight of the first movement of a concerto, since the soloist is finally given the opportunity to show off his or her virtuosity. Yet Brahms chooses to avoid using a cadenza at all. As James Hepokoski argues, “The traditional cadenza is suppressed: another indication of Brahms’s ‘symphonic,’ not virtuosic, intention.”6 Finally, the piece ends in a dramatic coda that once again relies on the orchestra to carry the melodic material.

By closely examining the relationship between piano and orchestra in the piece, one realizes that Brahms did not agree with the typical virtuosic format of the concerto. Like Robert and Clara Schumann and Mendelssohn, Brahms was a conservative Romantic composer in the way he viewed the role of music. He believed that music should be written simply to be enjoyed as music, rather than as a means to show off or to complement another medium. He became increasingly frustrated with Liszt, Wagner, and the school that they represented, writing to Joachim in 1859, “My fingers often itch to start a fight, to write some anti-Liszts.”7 Indeed, the D Minor concerto may very well be a reaction to the virtuosic music of Liszt that so irritated Brahms. Glenn Gould clearly understood the role that Brahms wished for him to take as the pianist.

Gould had already performed the concerto three times when it was time for him to collaborate with Bernstein, and he came to Bernstein with a very unique interpretation of the work. Gould, like Brahms, was frustrated with the typical virtuosic nature of the conventional concerto:

… the monumental figures like Beethoven and Brahms almost always come off second best as concerto writers, perhaps because their native sensibilities balk at pampering the absurd conventions of the concerto structure: the orchestral pre-exposition setup, to titillate the listener’s expectation of a grand dramatic entrance for the soloist; the tiresomely repetitive thematic structure, arranged to let the soloist prove that he really can turn that phrase to a more rakish tilt than the fellow on first clarinet who just announced it, and above all the outdated aristocracy of cadenza writing… All these have helped to build a concerto tradition which has provided some of the most embarrassing examples of the primeval human need for showing off. All of these have helped to substantiate the outrageous ego of the soloist.10

Given his critical view of the concerto, his musical decisions make more sense. Bernstein’s first remark in regard to Gould’s playing referred to his “remarkably broad tempi.” The first movement is set in the unusual time signature of 6/4, and most conductors choose to conduct it in two. Bernstein himself had a tempo marking written in his score for 56 beats per minute to the half-measure.9 However, during their first rehearsal, Gould insisted that Bernstein conduct the movement in six, thereby drastically slowing the tempo. The difference is obvious when comparing his performance to more standard recordings, such as Leon Fleischer’s with Georg Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra. The effect was even more dramatic, but it downplayed Glenn’s virtuosity, and many critics were unable to look past the unconventional tempo and appreciate the aspects that Gould was able to bring out in the slower tempo. One such example is found in the recurrence of the second theme in the recapitulation:

Here, Gould brings out the upper melody, which is the authentic theme that the orchestra presents in its opening ritornello. At a faster tempo, this melody is lost in the thick texture.

Bernstein’s second issue with Gould’s interpretation was his “frequent departure from Brahms’s dynamic indications.” In his performance, he purposefully underplays many of Brahms’s forte or fortissimo markings in order to help with phrasing or to balance with the orchestra. The most obvious example is at the end of the exposition, during his octave solo at m. 226:

The score is marked “Tempo I” with fortissimo, but Gould rebelliously starts off slowly at a soft dynamic, gradually building in tempo and dynamic to the orchestral entrance at m. 231. Rather than letting the orchestra set up his entrance, as is typical for concerti, he chooses this moment to set up the orchestra. In this particular example, Gould defied even Brahms’s original intent; Brahms’s “Solo” and fortissimo markings in the score show that he clearly intended for the piano to break through at this section, but Gould chose to use this section to further project his intention for collaboration. As he said in an interview after the concert, “I have chosen to minimize [the concerto’s] contrasts… In the process, certain traditional accents have been avoided; certain dynamic proclamations have been understated; certain opportunities for the soloist to take the reins firmly in hand have been bypassed.”10 Based on Brahms’s disdain of the virtuosic, he would have undoubtedly appreciated Gould’s attempt to deemphasize the pianist’s role as soloist.

Gould as a performer is known for his extremes in dynamics, articulations, tempi, and overall contrasts, but this particular performance was upsetting to many because of his blatant defiance regarding Brahms’s markings. After a closer inspection of the concerto however, one can realize the genius behind what Gould was choosing to bring out in his performance; he simply wanted the audience to approach the piece similarly to Brahms. Even fifty years later, we still have much to learn from Glenn Gould.

Peter F Ostwald, Glenn Gould: The Ecstasy and Tragedy of Genius (New York: Norton, 1997),

211.

2 Ostwald, Glenn Gould: The Ecstasy and Tragedy of Genius, 210-211.

3 Styra Avins, Johannes Brahms: Life and Letters (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1997), 147-152. This letter

to Joachim includes many of the aspects included in this paragraph.

4 James Hepokoski, “Monumentality and Formal Processes in the First Movement of Brahms’s

Piano ConcertoNo.1 in D Minor, op. 15,” In Expressive Intersections in Brahms: Essays in

Analysis and Meaning, ed. Heather Platt and Peter H. Smith, 217-251. (Bloomington, IN: Indiana

University Press, 2012), 221.

5 Hepokoski, “Monumentality and Formal Processes in the First Movement of Brahms’s Piano

Concerto in D Minor, op. 15,” 226.

6 Hepokoski, “Monumentality and Formal Processes in the First Movement of Brahms’s

Piano Concerto in D Minor, op. 15,” 226.

7 Avins, Johannes Brahms: Life and Letters, 196.

Glenn Gould, The Glenn Gould Reader, ed. Tim Page (New York: Knopf, 1984), 70-71.

9 Ostwald, Glenn Gould: The Ecstasy and Tragedy of Genius, 210-211.

10 Glenn Gould, The Glenn Gould Reader, 72.

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Bibliography

Brahms, Johannes, and Styra Avins. Johannes Brahms: Life and Letters. Oxford: Oxford UP,

1997.

Glenn Gould. The Glenn Gould Reader, ed. Tim Page. New York: Knopf, 1984.

Hepokoski, James. “Monumentality and Formal Processes in the First Movement of Brahms’s

Piano Concerto No. 1 in D Minor, op. 15.” In Expressive Intersections in Brahms: Essays

in Analysis and Meaning, ed. Heather Platt and Peter H. Smith, 217-251. Bloomington, IN:

Indiana University Press, 2012.

Ostwald, Peter F. Glenn Gould: The Ecstasy and Tragedy of Genius. New York: Norton, 1997.