November 4, 2020

Glenn Gould disses Mozart, PBL, 1968

What we have below is the pianist Glenn Gould, appearing on the April 28, 1968 PBL, discussing "How Mozart Became a Bad Composer." The segment lasts just under 40 minutes; PBL itself ran for two hours. In discusing Mozart, the notoriously eccentric Gould assumes the persona of one of his alter egos, the English conductor Sir Nigel Twitt-Thornwaite, to provide a counterpoint to Gould's own argument. You don't have to watch it all now; I'll be back afterwards to make a point or two. 

The broadcast stirred up quite a bit of controversy, which NET must have loved; as Gould biographer Kevin Bazzana notes, "The program outraged viewers in both the United States and Canada, including formerly sympathetic fans and critics." Gould was known for taking potshots at Mozart, whom he viewed as a hedonist; he once said that when the composer died in 1791 at the age of thirty-five, "he died too late rather than too soon".

You may or may not have strong feelings on Mozart; I think much of his work is sublime, the output of a true genius, but I've also knocked his weak ending to Don Giovanni, the chauvinistic storyline in Cosi fan tutte, and the Masonic boredom of The Magic Flute. (Then again, there's his Requiem, which forgives everything else.) The point is, can you imagine this happening today? That a national television network, even PBS, would think that viewers might actually find this interesting, even engaging? That they would sit down to watch a 40-minute segment on Mozart?

But they did, back then. And maybe the episode didn't attract a massive audience, but people watched. Controversy resulted. I had no intention of watching the whole thing when I first saw the clip, not right away; I just wanted to check out what looked like a remarkably clear video tape from a program that had aired 52 years ago. Forty minutes later. . .

Last week on Twitter, the critic Terry Teachout pointed out that he'd first seen Hamlet, Our Town, Death of a Salesman, and the pianist Vladimir Horowitz "on what used to be called the three major TV networks—IN PRIME TIME." And times have changed. But the point remains: while it's understandable that not all TV shows are like this. It's shameful that there aren't any TV shows like this. Not any more. But there were, once upon a time, when the arts were part of lowbrow American culture, and we were all perhaps a bit more civilized. And you didn't even have to like Mozart. TV  


  1. I can imagine my late friend Edgar, who was such a fan of Mozart that his license plate read MOZART, having a rather frank discussion w/Mr. Gould in the hereafter right now, if not chasing him around the clouds 😀

  2. It's sad to see PBL acknowledging marijuana as a problem back then, considering the US has fallen far enough where a US state (Oregon) just legalized even harder drugs.

    Mozart was popular enough in the 1980s to be the subject of a movie, AMADEUS.


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