Rachmaninoff loved speedboats and cherry-malted milkshakes. Sarasate collected canes.
Sometimes the affinities and pastimes of great musicians make for nothing more than an entertaining anecdote. But some hobbies turn out to be not hobbies at all but something deeper, an alternate life unlived. Take for instance the curious, sometimes poignant, and ultimately revealing case of two towering 20th-century piano luminaries who both dreamed of becoming composers. I’m speaking, naturally, of Artur Schnabel and Glenn Gould.
Yes, that Schnabel, and that Gould. Both men harbored fantasies of becoming not just pianist-composers in the older 19th-century mold, peddling their confections from the keyboard, but first-order creators of symphonies, operas, and more. The works they did create are as obscure today as their pianism is celebrated. And yet, an intriguing concert on Saturday, as part of Longy’s SeptemberFest, will present compositions by both pianists (along with music by two other musicians better known in other guises: Wilhelm Furtwängler and Esa-Pekka Salonen). It’s a rare opportunity to catch a glimpse of these pianists’ creative lives beyond the piano, and to wonder how these impulses might have shaded their work as interpretive artists.
Of the two, Schnabel may be for some the less familiar name. The reigning keyboard luminary of interwar Berlin, Schnabel (1882-1951) was an aristocratic pianist whose music-making combined a granitic intellectual integrity with a sense of spiritualized grandeur. He was at once a modern player and a bridge to an older grand tradition. As a boy in Vienna, he had picnicked with Brahms. His Berlin recitals were said to have resembled rituals of communal purification.
As an interpreter, Schnabel will always be most closely linked with Beethoven, whose complete piano sonatas he was the first to record, doing so with a sense of freedom and style that make his readings an enduring revelation. As a composer, Schnabel was largely self-taught, but was nonetheless fiercely ambitious in his pursuit of new and experimental sounds, finding common cause with a younger generation of radicals in Weimar-era Berlin. The pianist’s adoring fans were often shocked when they heard his own ultra-modern music, which seemed to embody qualities light-years away from the patrician elegance of his recitals. For his modernistic sins, as Ernst Krenek once wrote, Schnabel’s public “forgave him and punished him at the same time, by casting the cloak of absolute silence about his music, as if it had been an obscene vice, which, in such a great man, one had to take into the bargain with a merciful shrug of shoulders.”
That cloak of silence has never really been removed. So little of Schnabel’s music has been published, let alone recorded or occasionally performed, that it’s nearly impossible to assess his output, which includes three symphonies, five string quartets, lieder, and solo piano works. (Among them is a mistily post-Brahmsian piece titled “Nachtbild,” to be performed on the Longy program. Written in 1906 in a tonal language he would later abandon, it gives little evidence of the originality of his later music.) Schnabel’s Solo Violin Sonata, for instance, is an outlandishly complex and strikingly imaginative piece of some 50 minutes in length, without any bar-lines. With no need to earn a living through composition, and enough public recognition derived from his performance career, Schnabel was apparently free to follow his muse wherever it led. More of his works deserve the chance to be assessed, free from the backlash of his times.
It’s fitting that Saturday’s program should also include two works by Gould, who revered Schnabel not only for his pianism but for his independence of mind, and his disdain for the exhibitionism so often expected of concert virtuosos. As a teenager, Gould, who was also self-taught as a composer, churned out his own musical experiments, dabbling with atonality in the early 1950s through a series of works that included a rather modestly profiled Bassoon Sonata to be presented on Saturday’s program. His most ambitious piece came a few years later, a respectable 35-minute String Quartet whose turgid flow and unleavened textures have won it few fans over the years. Gould (1932-82) nonetheless called it “my proudest achievement,” dubbed it his Opus 1, and spoke expectantly of what his Opus 2 might bring. Sadly, despite many aborted efforts, that Opus 2 never came. As one biographer put it simply, “his reach vastly exceeded his grasp.”
Nonetheless, for Gould, a conventional concert career would prove far too restricting, and he famously withdrew from the stage in 1964. Afterward, beyond his recordings, he channeled much of his unassigned creative energy into a host of delectably eccentric activities in radio and television, including several ambitious programs for the CBC. For one show, a sweeping exploration of the fugue across centuries, Gould composed his own specimen of the genre for four voices, calling it “So You Want to Write a Fugue?” With a text by Gould himself, the piece offers both rigorous examples of contrapuntal craft and a pristine serving of echt-Gouldian deadpan hilarity. The piece will cap Saturday’s program.
We typically sift through neglected repertoire in search of hidden gems, but here the greater prospect may lie in opening new windows back onto these artists’ interpretive gifts, their uncanny abilities to inhabit the music of other composers. Schnabel’s colleague Carl Flesch spoke of the quality of “inner participation” required of all truly great interpreters. When we return to Schnabel’s towering readings of Beethoven’s late piano sonatas, after spending time immersed in his own compositions, we are more primed to hear this participation of his own questing musical mind.
So too with Gould, who once described all practitioners of the fugal art as belonging to “an unorganized but very genuine guild of the spirit.” Gould was not a great composer, but he was an intensely creative artist who was, at least, a member of the guild. If listening to his Bach feels at times like eavesdropping on a vibrant conversation convened across the centuries, here, in part, is why.