This Week in Music History: May 5 to 11

May 06, 2014

By Adam Bunch


May 1957. The height of the Cold War. Just a year earlier, the Soviet Union had faced off against the West over the Suez Crisis and the Hungarian Revolution. The Communist superpower was still a shockingly oppressive place to live, where free thought and artistic expression were actively suppressed. But now, the dictator Stalin was dead, and a new, more moderate leadership meant that Russia was at a crossroads. For a few brief years, the Communist regime began to give its people more freedom.

A Canadian musician seized the opportunity.

By the late 1950s, Canadian Music Hall of Fame inductee Glenn Gould was already famous in Canada as the greatest classical pianist our country had ever seen. Thanks to his landmark recordings of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, he was rocketing to stardom in the United States as well. This, he thought, was the perfect moment to use his talent and fame to do some good in the world. So he asked for permission to tour the Soviet Union. He would become the very first North American musician to play in the USSR since the end of the Second World War.

His first show was held in Moscow on May 7. As he took the stage in the great hall of the Moscow Conservatory, the room was half empty. The great Canadian pianist was unknown in Russia; most people in the audience had come simply because they were curious to see anyone perform Bach, an artist reviled by the Communist authorities for being too religious. The spectators had no idea what they were in for.

“A pale young man walked out onto the stage,” one of the audience members later remembered. “His face immediately overwhelmed us. He sat on a low chair, so low that we were astonished….”

And then Gould began to play. It was unlike anything they’d ever heard before. “The impression was that he was from Mars,” the woman recalled. “An alien. His articulation and inhuman evenness… a perfection which seemed unreal.” Others remembered “a strange sensation of exhilaration and something new… a phenomenon from another planet… everybody was in shock.” One person called it “a miracle.”

At intermission, the spectators rushed to the phones. They called their friends and told them that something extraordinary was happening. Drop everything, they said, come quick.

“I got dressed and I ran,” one man remembered. “And I saw that from every direction, people were hurrying to the grand hall for the second half of the concert.”

By the end of the performance, the Conservatory was packed. The crowd – including some of the most famous conductors and composers in Russia – roared to their feet, shouts of “Bravo!” echoed out across the hall and Gould was given one curtain call after another.

That was just the beginning of his two-week tour. Everywhere he went, Gould was hailed as a genius. Most important of all, he was playing composers that almost no one else in the Soviet Union dared to play – he even lectured about them, an unheard of liberty at the time.

“The Berlin Wall existed in music as well,” one Russian musician explained. Another remembered the catharsis of those performances: “We were allowed to applaud something that was not Soviet. And it was a great feeling of liberation.”

Sadly, that freedom was a fleeting one. As Gould returned to Canada to help educate our country about what he called “the idiotic repressions of Soviet musical life,” those he left behind were soon faced with a new era of government crackdowns. It would be another 30 years before the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. The Russian people had a long struggle ahead, but the otherworldly pianist from Toronto had helped to sow the seeds that would eventually blossom into a new age for the country.

A Russian musician who attended one of Gould’s performances later assessed the importance of the tour: “It [provided] fertile soil for everything new – new in poetry, new in literature, new in music and movies and theatre.” Gould’s trip to the Soviet Union may have only been one small step forward, but it was a step forward.

So, by reaching out in friendship to people on the other side of the planet, Glenn Gould proved to be one of those rarest and most precious of artists: a musician who truly helped to change the world.