7 Explicit Seconds

Sometimes small things are the most transformative: a pinch of salt in a glass of chocolate milk; the toothpick in the corner of a cowboy’s mouth; the small umbrella in a Piña Colada; apostrophes; the love-heart or leaf-like pattern in the froth of a cappuccino. Gwyneth Paltrow missing the tube in Sliding Doors.

In music there are many. It’s the church-bell allusions near the close of Debussy’s Clair de Lune, the portamento in Bizet’s Habanera, Beethoven’s subito-fortes, the minor dominant in McFly’s Obviously, Jackie Wilson’s rolled ‘r’s in Reet Petite, the added 6ths in Summertime, Vivaldi’s instruction to the violas ‘Il cane che grida’ (‘The dog barking’) in Spring,[1] Louis Armstrong’s voice, and Argerich’s playful offbeat groove in the Capriccio from Bach’s C Minor Partita. Sometimes these small additions, slants, or alterations are the ‘final cherry’. Sometimes they bring a work into clarity. Other times they can reframe a composition.

For me, an example of a small, reframing transformation comes at the close of Glenn Gould’s recording of Brahms’s Intermezzo No. 3, Op. 117. My attention was drawn to it by Kevin Bazzana, one of the go-to authorities on Gould’s life and recordings, in his book Glenn Gould: The Performer in the Work.

To give this recording some context, the opening and final sections of the Intermezzo are made of two themes, presented adjacently:

Brahms, Intermezzo in C Sharp Minor (Theme A)Theme A (bars 1-5)

Brahms, Intermezzo in C Sharp Minor (Theme B)Theme B (bars 10-15)

Gould plays this opening – and, indeed, the rest of the piece – very expressively[2] and as written. (For anybody who hasn’t heard this Intermezzo before, in Gould’s recording theme A is first heard from 0’00” to 0’23” and theme B from 0’24” to 0’48”. Both are then repeated again.)

So far, so adherent. However, leaping ahead to the final page and Gould does something slightly different. This is how the final statement of theme A appears in Brahms’ score, approaching the final peak of the work:

Brahms, Intermezzo in C Sharp Minor (Theme A Recap)(Bars 88-91)

Gould plays this, but emphasises twelve notes between 4’05” and 4’12” in such a way that is not notated (the accented notes are in red):

Brahms, Intermezzo in C Sharp Minor (Theme A, Gould's Recap)

As Bazzana notes, Gould’s ‘new’ tenor line resembles the shape and –at first – imitates the pitches of secondary theme[3] (see bars 10-15, above). Indeed, somewhat on paper, but more to the ear, the accented notes create an echo, an imprint, of theme B, realised by Gould as a countermelody to theme A. And by imposing this thematic collision at the final climax of the work, Gould has simultaneously exposed and resolved a level of tension between the two themes (occurring as a result of their adjacency during the rest of the Intermezzo) at a key moment in the composition.

(Of course, if you’re not convinced by this, then at the very least the additional layer of counterpoint certainly heightens the final climax. In any case, it is at its most direct when one hears it.)

It is a simple, fleeting moment that almost surely arose as a result of Gould’s preoccupation with contrapuntal music and structural integrity (not to mention his seeing no problem with tinkering with the music he played as he saw fit). He seems to have sought to add significance to Brahms’ notes and, importantly, chosen to draw them out at a high point in the Intermezzo’s structure. To his credit, Gould has somewhat ruined the piece for me: I find that I can no longer listen to a performance of the piece without feeling a theme B-shaped hole when its ghost isn’t present on the last page. Nevertheless, to borrow an observation made by Bazzana on Gould’s recording of Handel’s Suite for Harpsichord, HWV 426, he ‘[makes] thematic what is merely ornamental filler, developing the given material, and so increasing the overall unity and cohesiveness of the composition.’[4] He has created the illusion of an implicit theme buried within the left hand and made it explicit to the listener.


[1] A better blogger would slip in a viola joke here, right here, in place of this comment.

[2] Gould said of it ‘It’s the sexiest interpretation of Brahms Intermezzi you’ve ever heard’ (see Bazzana, K., Wondrous Strange: The Life and Art of Glenn Gould, p. 220).

[3] See Bazzana, K., Glenn Gould: The Performer in the Work, p. 91.

[4] See Bazzana, K., Glenn Gould: The Performer in the Work, p. 32.

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