Canadian pianist Glenn Gould was nervous on May 7, 1957 in the Bolshoi Hall of the Moscow Conservatory. He was just kicking off his tour of Russia, the first time he’d ever been overseas to perform. In the midst of the hottest period in the Cold War, Gould was the first ever pianist to perform in Russia since 1945. The sparse numbers of the crowd there weren’t sure what to expect, nor quite did he. None of them knew that in the course of the next two weeks, Gould would introduce the Moscow and Leningrad natives to an entirely new form of music. One that would challenge the long-standing Russian music tradition and show them the thriving cultural world outside of the socialist regime.

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Gould shaking hands with the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra conductor (image courtesy of

Traditional Russian music is very Romantic and emotional, and had been the main style for the last 100 years. Of course, the music produced by Russia was heavily controlled by the communist government, and defying orders lead to mysterious disappearances and meetings with Soviet leader Joseph Stalin himself. In 1948, a decree known as the Zhdanov Doctrine disgraced works from composers such as Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg, Anton Webern and Ernst Krenek and their camp (known as the Second Viennese School) which featured atonal music (music without a central key) as “formalist”. Their works were completely banned and never saw the light of day in Russia. Most musicians and almost the complete majority of the public, especially at the Moscow Conservatory, had not heard something as anti-Russian as the Second Viennese School.

Gould agreed to give a fourth concert on May 12th in the Maly Hall at the Moscow Conservatory. It was free to attend, and more of a lecture than a performance. But it was given on one condition by Gould: he could talk about anything he wanted to. The hall was jammed with students and professors to hear a lecture with the title of “Music in the West”. But as Gould explains, the truth was quite different from the title. “I dealt almost entirely with the [Second] Viennese School,” he remembered fondly, having loved the composers’ music from the school.

Several Soviet officials and young Communist Party informants also were at the lecture. When Gould announced that he would play music by the Second Viennese School, “There was a rather alarming and temporarily uncontrollable murmuring from the audience” as he recalled. Two older professors even led a demonstration against this music by immediately walking out of the hall. Students were undecided as whether to stay and support Western culture or leave and follow their teachers. Most of the hundreds who were there stayed and watched in awe as Gould played Berg’s Sonata, Webern’s Variations and two movements from Krenek’s Third Sonata. The feeling of the lecture, perhaps, can be explained best by Roman Vityuk, a theatre director:

“This place was full of people. Everyone here was expecting a miracle. I think this is how it looked. There was an impression [it was] in a concentration camp, the most terrible one. The most cruel. There was a little gathering place where they brought in the young prisoners. Generals, colonels, officers were watching from the front rows. There were prison guards, that’s for sure. These were the young Communist league informants, who were watching the behavior of others. The behavior of those who were welcoming this ‘first infiltrator’ from the bourgeois world with excitement. With open soul. Right away, this was a shock. Because you should not be surprised in a concentration camp. And when he started to announce, Schoenberg, Webern and Berg again, and when he got to Krenek, in the hall the young communists start to ask each other: ‘What did he say? What did he say?’ And in the audience the people started to say: ‘Krenek…Krenek…’ This was a new password for an entirely new comprehension of life.”

Afterwards, perhaps to comfort the slightly shocked and dazed Russian students, Gould played a delicious selection of pieces from The Art of Fugue and Goldberg Variations. Just like every stop on his tour, the applause was deafening, especially from the students. “This, I think, was the most exciting and the most memorable part of the Russian trip,” Gould later said.

Students watching Gould intently (image courtesy of Glenn Gould: The Russian Journey documentary)

The music that began to enter the hearts of the Russian listeners stayed with them even after Gould left the day after his Leningrad talk. He went against and told Russians to stop thinking about their dominant music culture, and instead look to more diverse music from various different cultures, and in the process discovering the Second Viennese School for Russia. Roman Vityuk says that “The Berlin Wall existed music, too, and perhaps Gould was one of those who were trying to break down the wall.” If Gould was indeed breaking down the wall, he was doing it with a very large hammer.

A crucial factor to value Gould’s importance and impact is how his image fares now in Russia. Back in Canada, a growing minority paints Gould as nothing more than an oddball who annoyingly played everything a different way. But pianists like Victor Ashkenazy still retain their huge admiration for Gould. “He’ll always be for me, certainly an idol. There’s no question about it. I think it’s wonderful that such an extraordinary man, extraordinary talent existed and he gave us a fascinating way of playing Bach, especially.” It is also definitely not the case at the Moscow Conservatory. Students there treat Gould celestially, one saying that Gould is “the great painter of sound and the poet of music…he’s Gould!”

“Now, 44 years later,” says Leonid Gakkel, “I absolutely earnestly believe that he was an alien. Glenn Gould was a visitor on this Earth. People cannot play the piano like that, I can assure you.” Was Gould the alien? Or, like he said, was going to Russia “like being the first musician to land on Mars or Venus”? But perhaps it does not matter which way it goes. Maybe the perfect combination of an eccentric revolutionary and a creativity-starved culture was necessary for the tour to be as successful as it was. Glenn Gould officially departed from Russia just over two weeks after he arrived. But in a way, he never really left.

The Legend (image courtesy of Library and Archives Canada)

Author: Lucas