Another sly dig at genius

Talent, wrote Schopenhauer, hits targets no one else can hit; genius hits targets no one else can see. He didn’t add that such marksmanship puts genius in direct conflict with philistines.

Morrison is right: Hewitt is no Gould

For one defining characteristic of philistines is smugness, unshakeable belief in their being the apex of creation. Anyone who isn’t like them is therefore automatically suspect – especially a genius hitting targets the philistine can’t even see.

This serves as an unwelcome reminder that the philistine isn’t really the apex of creation. There exist human genera that are superior to him in every respect.

That’s especially intolerable now, when the philistine’s congenital smugness is reinforced by ideological egalitarianism. Nowhere is this tendency more glaring than in the philistine’s response to music, both its composition and especially performance.

What the philistine really wants to hear is the kind of music he himself would compose and play if he knew how. Many are amateur musicians or simply concert goers who dismiss true genius because it’s outside their ken.

JS Bach suffered that fate throughout the 18th century and beyond. In fact, his sons, good composers who nonetheless weren’t fit to copy their father’s scores, were universally regarded as his superiors.

Following Mendelsohn’s 1829 revival of St Matthew’s Passion, Bach’s music got to be played more often, and he began to be treated with begrudging respect (mostly for the technical aspects of his work) if little appreciation for the ineffable genius he was.

In fact, I know many Englishmen today, even some who have had musical training, who rate Handel’s music higher than Bach’s. The rather pompous and banal Hallelujah Chorus from Handel’s Messiah is much preferred to the sublime finales of Bach’s two Passions.

That’s understandable. Handel, though a great composer in his own right, doesn’t assail the philistine’s self-perception the way Bach does. A Handel oratorio is an excellent prelude to a post-concert supper, whereas a Bach cantata is much too demanding to get the gastric juices flowing.

Glenn Gould, the greatest interpreter of Bach (and just about everything else he played), also yanked the philistine out of his comfort zone. He wasn’t the only instrumentalist who ever saw targets no one else did, he just saw more of them.

Gould is the only pianist, or instrumentalist in general, I’ve ever heard whose genius approaches that of the composers whose music he played. He could soar above a work until he got a bird’s eye view of it. That enabled him to see how all the elements fit together into cohesive architecture. And Gould’s unparalleled structural integrity allowed him to take any number of liberties with details – he was confident that nothing he did would make the structure totter.

While popularly known as an interpreter of Bach, Gould also regaled posterity with profound insights into the music of other composers, from Byrd and Gibbons to Mozart and Beethoven to Brahms and Strauss to Schoenberg and Hindemith.

Originally trained on the organ, he left recordings on that instrument too, but his piano technique shows no signs of a neophyte. Every note Gould played was poignantly expressive, something few other Bach players have ever been able to combine with architectural vision.

Obviously, a man who hit targets no one else, and especially no critics, could see wasn’t allowed to get away with it. A whole school of anti-Gould criticism appeared, and his performances were described as interesting but frivolous curiosities. The adjective ‘eccentric’ was permanently attached to his name – he would have been justified in changing his name to Glenn Eccentric Gould.

Eventually Gould, a deeply sensitive and indeed eccentric man (as opposed to an eccentric performer) was hounded off the concert platform. He retreated to the recording studio and kept producing one masterpiece after another, much to the delight of those who not only like but also understand music.

This is the context in which The Times critic Richard Morrison produced a review of Angela Hewitt’s Bach recital. Miss Hewitt, a Canadian like Gould, has made a career of playing mostly Bach, one of the few pianists who have ever done that.

That the review is laudatory goes without saying: Hewitt is one of the newly canonised performers who wouldn’t get a bad review even if they had an off day technically.

Yet to someone who has spent a lifetime listening to great playing, she is a well-meaning pianist capable of playing all the notes in the right sequence without causing too much offence. In other words, she plays Bach the way a typical philistine would if he had the fingers. If there is any true inspiration in her playing, I haven’t yet been able to discern it.

But fair enough, Morrison may look for other things in music, and, if he finds them in Hewitt, more power to him. Some people seem to prefer boring performances.

However, a philistine will out sooner or later; this isn’t a trait that can be concealed for long. Hewitt, writes Morrison, plays an instrument “that Bach wouldn’t have recognised, and utilises a range of expressive devices that simply weren’t available on the keyboards of his day”.

At the risk of sounding reactionary, I’d suggest that Bach knew more about musical instruments than either Hewitt or even Morrison. His genius was such that he could foresee where keyboard instruments were going – and write for the future.

In fact, when he taught his most talented son, Wilhelm Friedemann, to play the clavichord, Bach stressed the need for cantabile, the singing tone the harpsichord couldn’t produce and the clavichord could only to some extent.

In general, Bach saw beyond specific instruments. He would often transcribe the same pieces for keyboard today, violin tomorrow, flute the day after. And his crowning achievement, The Art of Fugue, the only work in which he encoded his own name B-A-C-H, mysteriously was written for no instrument in particular, being playable by a string quartet, orchestra, organ, harpsichord or piano.

Having praised Hewitt for finding expressive means Bach couldn’t even imagine, Morrison then compares her, by implication favourably, to Gould, “her eccentric compatriot… whom she resembles in no other respect”.

That magic ‘e’ word again – Gould has been dead for 38 years, but the philistines still have to kick him posthumously, if surreptitiously.

It’s aesthetic, and I dare say moral, sacrilege to mention Hewitt and Gould in the same sentence, especially when presenting them as comparable figures. That’s like comparing Shakespeare to Webster or, closer to this field, Wilhelm Furtwängler to Simon Rattle.

Still, if Hewitt differs from Gould in most respects, what would they be? One assumes that Morrison implies that none of the superlatives he attaches to Hewitt’s playing would apply to Gould’s.

I’ll just cite a few attributes singled out and praised by Morrison: “taste, technique and insight”, “energy and wit aplenty”, “her instinct is always to make sense of the music”, “awe-inspiring”, “she isn’t afraid to use the pianistic techniques of the romantic era to bring out the music’s shapes and patterns”.

Right. Hewitt has all those things and Gould didn’t. His instinct was just to be eccentric.

I remember talking about Bach to the dean of one of our major cathedrals. “Gould,” he delivered the mantra, “is eccentric”. “It’s not Gould who’s eccentric,” I replied. “It’s Bach.”

That exchange was par for the course. To a philistine, a target he doesn’t see just doesn’t exist. Hence a genius who hits it appears to have missed the centre, the bull’s eye. That indeed is eccentric.

6 thoughts on “Another sly dig at genius”

  1. I don’t pretend for a second to know anything technical about Bach’s music or the instruments he played on, nor would I be able to identify structural integrity in even the most elementary piece if you’d hit me on the head repeatedly with a stick. But I do know that when I listen to Bach, and Bach alone of all great composers, I feel that I’m in the presence of a great majestic beauty that reveals itself to even a musical ignoramus’s soul.

  2. Sly digs can come out of the blue. I imagine that one cage you rattled involved a dig that was quite unexpected by the solipsistic owner. People who use well-worn mantras instead of answering questions with due consideration include those that oppose Brexit or practically anything worth having involving freedom to choose. I treasure my Glenn Gould collection and I hope that your posts have stopped the mantra sayers have it all their own way.

    1. I don’t hold such lofty hopes for anything I write, and I certainly don’t expect to see the end of any mantras. That’s how people think these days – tired clichés, crepuscular adages, second-hand tastes.

      When I was a child, I lived across the street from the Moscow Conservatory. Gould played there, I believe in 1957, a couple of years after he caused a sensation with his first recording of the Goldberg. Records, however, were as unavailable in Russia as everything else, and no one had heard of him. Hence the Grand Hall was half-empty. However, at the interval people rushed to the pay phones to tell everyone they knew what they had just heard. That created an immediate stampede, and in the second half a listener could only stand on one foot, and even that didn’t belong to him. Each subsequent recital in Moscow and Leningrad involved mounted police trying to keep crowds at bay.

      My wife, who has played in Russia a number of times, still praises Russian audiences, although they aren’t a patch on those olden times. Still, by and large cultured Russians don’t treat music as mere entertainment, an attitude that’s alas prevalent in the West.

      Gould is my litmus test: anyone who fails to recognise his genius is a musical ignoramus who can’t tell his bass from his oboe. I wish I had a tenner for each time I’ve heard people say that Hewitt is the much better musician.

  3. Years ago, when I attended live performances regularly (at the RFH, it was on my home from work, so I used to pop in a lot …. cheap seats at the top where the acoustics were pretty good) I went to an Angela Hewitt recital. It must have been Bach, but it’s a very long time ago.
    What stays with me though is how very, very busy it was. Sold out. And just how dull I found it. I couldn’t wait to leave, but it was encore after encore and the audience just loved her. I realised then that she just had a following who adored everything she played.
    As a result I have never bought any of her recordings, but of Gould’s I have plenty.

    1. It’s not she who has an adoring following, but her name. And the name is a product of reviews. Have you noticed how the decibel level of applause is always the same, as long as the performer is someone famous? In the old days, dull playing got jeered.

  4. Glenn Gould is extraordinary . His playing of Alban Berg’s fiercely difficult sonata ( on YouTube ) is superb and he plays it from memory ! What a talent .

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