Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Dr. Bob Prescribes – Mozart, Complete Piano Sonatas

This is an admittedly odd post. I’m not recommending Gould’s complete Mozart Piano Sonatas as a “principal set”; it’s just too quirky. For principal sets, I would heartily recommend Ronald Brautigam’s, performed on a fortepiano (on BIS); or Mitsuko Uchida’s recorded on a modern Steinway (on Decca).

Typical of pretty much any Glenn Gould performance, his recording of Mozart’s Piano Sonatas might best be labelled as “Glenn Gould plays Mozart,” rather than as “Mozart, as played by Glenn Gould.”

Nevertheless, Gould’s Mozart – like pretty much everything he played – can be compelling. Which makes Glenn Gould’s graceless carping about Mozart being a bad composer all the more curious. Gould’s infamous statement bears repeating:

“Mozart died too late rather than too soon.”

A quick story, then on to Gould’s video.

Beethoven and Mozart’s Piano Concerto in C minor, K. 491

The first movement of Beethoven’s own Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor, Op. 37 of 1803 was inspired by Mozart’s Concerto in C Minor, K. 491 of 1786. Mozart’s concerto was a work that Beethoven often performed and adored.

Johann Baptist Cramer (1771-1858)
Johann Baptist Cramer (1771-1858)

Beethoven once attended a rehearsal of Mozart’s C minor Piano Concerto with his friend, the pianist-composer Johann Baptist Cramer (1771-1858). With both admiration and no small bit of dejection, Beethoven – sounding distinctly like someone from Seinfeld – exclaimed:

“Cramer, Cramer! We shall never be able to do anything like that!”

For our information, this is the same Mozart piano concerto that the pianist and provocateur Glenn Gould chose to trash in his purportedly “instructional” video, “How Mozart Became a Bad Composer,” recorded in 1968. The premise of Gould’s video is that by the final ten years of Mozart’s life – during which he composed his greatest operas, piano concerti, string quartets, piano quartets, string quintets, and virtually hundreds of other masterworks – Mozart had, in fact, became a third-rate/cut-rate/un-rated composer.

(We can only wonder how Beethoven, cantankerous as a honey badger on his good days, would have reacted to Gould’s appraisal of Mozart and Mozart’s C minor Piano Concerto!)

One final word before we dive into Gould’s video. There is hardly a sentence – hardly a single word– that I don’t take issue with. I even find Gould’s facial expressions and his clipped, Rod Serling-like diction to be objectionable, in fact, borderline snotty. Should I allow my crankiness take over, this post could go on for many thousands of words. Understand, then, that I am showing tremendous and uncharacteristic discipline and brevity in my analysis of Gould’s critical comments.

For the record: none of my following commentary should be taken as impinging on my enduring respect for Glenn Gould the pianist.


Here’s how we’re going to do this.

Starting at the beginning, I have posted much of Gould’s video in a series of segments. (A link to Gould’s entire video can be found near the conclusion of this post.) Following each linked segment, I comment on what I consider to be the most unacceptable statements in each segment, with the understanding that Gould might very well have made five, ten, or even twenty such statements during the course of the segment. Be assured that unlike Glenn Gould, I will nottake things out of context, or employ unnecessarily incendiary adjectives, or ignore the facts, or bend half-truths to fit an “argument.”…

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