- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 26, 2004

Was any book ever more aptly titled than Kevin Bazzana’s gripping new biography of the renowned Canadian pianist, Wondrous Strange: The Life and Art of Glenn Gould (Oxford University Press, $35, 527 pages, illus.)? Gould’s musical genius was unquestionably wondrous, and although no single word can adequately describe his personality, “strange” comes as close as any.

Mr. Bazzana holds a doctorate in music history and literature from the University of California, Berkeley, and has spent a decade researching Gould’s life, but, more important, he knows how to write for the general reader as well as for his fellow scholars. This book is a model of what a thoughtful assessment of a major artist and his work can be: coherent, complete, fair, and above all readable.

The author examines every aspect of Gould’s life from his ancestry (the name was originally Gold, and he was distantly related to Edvard Grieg) to his youth, family, friends (including girlfriends), pianos (he forsook Steinway for Yamaha), associates, physical and mental health, recordings, and other pursuits before his death following a stroke at age 50.

As for his afterlife, Mr. Bazzana says, “I have never seen a parade of schoolchildren in Arthur Rubinstein’s honour … but I have seen one in Gould’s honour, and have stopped being surprised at the forms of adulation he provokes.”

Gould’s devoted mother was his first teacher, but between the ages of 10 and 19 he studied with Alberto Guerrero, from Chile, who taught him to learn scores away from the piano (Gould had been devastated by a memory lapse in an early performance). As Gould later told an interviewer, “I was forced to do a complete analysis and to memorize any work I was going to play before actually going to the piano and playing it.” No wonder Gould claimed, “One does not play the piano with one’s fingers, one plays the piano with one’s mind.”

Guerrero apparently was responsible for Gould’s practice of soaking his arms in warm water before performing and for his peculiarly simian hunch at the piano, but the teacher disapproved of Gould’s disturbing mannerisms (particularly his singing along at the keyboard).

Gould, in turn, rejected his teacher’s “insistence on respecting the directions in a composer’s score.” In fact, the author says, Gould sometimes “confessed to having no idea how a piece was usually performed, and he obviously did not care: his goal was to play everything as though no traditions existed.”

Gould is most closely associated with Bach, but he had a range of musical enthusiasms. Absorbed by Schoenberg in his teens, he later loved Wagner, Strauss, and Mahler.

Gould’s recording of the Goldberg variations in 1955 made him an international celebrity — “no one had ever heard such a marriage of dazzle and erudition in Bach before.” In 1957 he became the first North American artist to tour post-Stalinist Russia, where he packed the concert halls. But the stresses of touring were not for him, and by the age of 31 he had retired from public performances altogether.

Although Gould fancied himself a Renaissance man, his forays into radio and TV broadcasting, composing, conducting, and lecturing were not a great success. As his isolation increased he lived a Spartan life, eating once a day and dressing shabbily: “Shirts and socks might be full of holes, pants split up the seat, shoes held intact by a rubber band … Always cold, he dressed in many layers.”

He had real musculo-skeletal pains, insomnia, and hypertension, but he feared every disease known to man, and dosed himself for most of them.

Despite his multiple problems Gould refused to discuss his will with his lawyer, saying he’d make a “perfect will” when he was 80. Some two years before his death, pressed by his lawyer to name some beneficiaries for an interim will, he said, “Okay, there are unfortunate people and unfortunate animals.”

As a result virtually his entire estate — and all those future royalties — ended up enriching the Salvation Army and the Toronto Humane Society.

• • •

Few names in American history are so inseparably linked as those of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, whose exploration of the American West between 1804 and 1806 was one of the epic journeys of the 19th century. Yet the two men came from quite different backgrounds.

Lewis, although he had served in the militia during the Whiskey Rebellion, was essentially an intellectual who came to know President Thomas Jefferson and served as his private secretary. Clark was a soldier and government administrator who never held elective office.

Missouri historian William E. Foley has retold the story of the Lewis and Clark expedition in the broader context of Clark’s life in Wilderness Journey: The Life of William Clark (University of Missouri Press, $29.95, 368 pages, illus.). In Mr. Foley’s well-researched work, both men emerge with credit. Although Lewis was the designated leader of the Western expedition, he both liked and respected Clark, and insisted that they share command.

This was a wise as well as a generous move, for Clark’s leadership, frontier experience, and mapping skills contributed greatly to their success.

The story of the Lewis and Clark expedition has been told many times. After mustering in Illinois, it started up the Missouri River in May 1804. Clark proved especially valuable in dealings with the various Indian tribes, and as a skilled hunter he kept the expedition well stocked with buffalo and deer.

Clark’s health was stronger than that of the melancholy Lewis, and much of the day-to-day direction of the expedition appears to have fallen to him. The author is noncommittal regarding rumors that Clark may have fathered at least one child by Indian girls encountered along the way.

After wintering near the coast, Lewis and Clark returned to St. Louis on Sept. 23, 1806, where they received a hero’s welcome. The expedition cemented the friendship between its two leaders, and Clark would name his first son for Lewis.

But their later careers diverged. Lewis, psychologically fragile, died in 1809, an apparent suicide. It fell to Clark to publish the journals of the expedition, which he did in 1814 after many tribulations.

Appointed commander of the militia of the Louisiana territory, and later superintendent of Indian affairs at St. Louis, Clark made that city his home for the rest of his life. Twice married and the father of seven children, he had trouble making ends meet on his government salary.

After the War of 1812, Clark was repeatedly engaged in negotiations with various Indian tribes, and was as fair-minded as he could be while representing the interests of an expanding nation. In 1826 he wrote, “While [the Indian tribes were] strong and hostile it was our policy and duty to weaken them; now that they are weak and harmless … justice and humanity require us to cherish and befriend them.”

Clark was a Kentuckian, and owned several slaves for most of his adult life. The author cannot forgive him for this, deploring Clark’s insistence on viewing his black servants as possessions. Ultimately, Mr. Foley writes, Clark reflected “the virtues and the vices of the rising young republic.”

John M. and Priscilla S. Taylor are writers in McLean, Va.

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