What happens when two musical heavyweights clash.
Who’s the boss?
For a conductor to address an audience prior to a concert is nothing out of the ordinary. But for that conductor to essentially disavow the performance, before a single note is played? That would be almost unthinkable. And yet, this is precisely what happened at Carnegie Hall on April 6, 1962, at a matinee concert of the New York Philharmonic. Glenn Gould and Leonard Bernstein were scheduled to perform the Piano Concerto No. 1 by Brahms, but after intermission, only Bernstein emerged onstage. Gould, who played infrequently in public, was notorious for canceling concerts at the last moment, and at first, Bernstein had to reassure the audience that the afternoon’s soloist was indeed in the house. Then, the conductor went on to deliver a highly controversial speech that has since become part of musical lore.
The article from The American Scholar goes on to transcribe part of that speech, and here’s an audio recording of it and the subsequent performance.
Here’s Bernstein’s own take on it, and the press attention that followed:
The truth about a legend
So I said to Glenn backstage, “You know, I have to talk to the people. How would it be if I warned them that it was going to be very slow, and prepare them for it? Because if they don’t know, they really might leave. I’ll just tell them that there is a disagreement about the tempi between us, but that because of the sportsmanship element in music I would like to go along with your tempo and try it.” It wasn’t to be a disclaimer; I was very much interested in the results—particularly the audience reaction to it. I wrote down a couple of notes on the back of an envelope and showed them to Glenn: “Is this okay?” And he said, “Oh, it’s wonderful, what a great idea.”
So I went out, read these few notes, and said, “This is gonna be different, folks. And it’s going to be very special. This is the Glenn Gould Brahms concerto.” Out he came, and indeed he played it exactly the way he had rehearsed it, and wonderfully too. The great miracle was that nobody left, because of course it had become such a thing to listen to. The house came down, although, if I remember correctly, it took well over an hour to play. It was very exciting. I never loved him more.
The result in the papers, especially the New York Times, was that I had betrayed my colleague. Little did they know—though I believe I did say so to the audience—that I had done this with Glenn’s encouragement. They just assumed that I had sold him down the river by coming out first to disclaim his interpretation. It was, on the contrary, a way of educating the audience as part of Thursday night’s procedure. All this was not only misunderstood, but repeated and repeated and multiplied exponentially by every other newspaper that wrote about it.
And, for good measure, here’s another clip of Bernstein and Gould together, more harmoniously this time, perhaps.