Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 831
Returning from the funeral of his friend Wertheimer in Switzerland to his Vienna apartment, which he is trying to sell, the narrator decides on the spur of the moment to visit Wertheimer’s hunting lodge in Upper Austria. Although he also owns a house in the area, he plans to stay overnight at a desolate inn in the nearby village. As he enters the inn, he begins to reflect on the lives and careers of his two closest friends, Wertheimer and Glenn Gould, whose deaths threaten to overwhelm him. The three met twenty-eight years earlier, in 1953, at a master class given by Vladimir Horowitz at the Mozarteum in Salzburg. Accomplished pianists at the time, both Wertheimer and the narrator were so overcome by Gould’s virtuosity that they gave up their own careers as concert pianists, got rid of their valuable pianos, and turned to fruitless intellectual pursuits. Nevertheless, the three remained “life-friends” and visited one another in Salzburg in 1955 and in New York in 1969. It was Gould who named Wertheimer “Der Untergeher” (the founderer). The narrator finds the name appropriate, for unlike himself, who escaped the stifling cultural and political climate of Austria and had pretensions as a writer in Madrid, Wertheimer remained in Austria, a mere dabbler in philosophy.
Gould, whom the narrator calls “the most important piano virtuoso of the century,” is the subject of the book on which the narrator has been working for nine years. The two first met on the Monch mountain, also known as “suicide mountain,” in Salzburg, quickly became friends, and, together with Wertheimer, rented a house in the suburban town of Leopoldskron, in order to escape Salzburg’s obtuseness and animosity to art and the intellect. The house, which formerly belonged to a Nazi sculptor, was ideal for Gould’s eccentricities and clowning. Gould, “the most clairvoyant of all fools,” established the “total order” that he needed for his obsessive piano playing by, among other things, squirting the house’s monumentally ugly sculptures with champagne, cutting down an ash tree that was blocking his window, and practicing Johann Sebastian Bach’s Goldberg Variations, the work that was to become his trademark, without interruption until early in the morning.
According to the narrator, Wertheimer’s ambitions as a piano virtuoso ended even before he met Gould, when Wertheimer first heard Gould play the Goldberg Variations in a classroom in the Mozarteum. In the Leopoldskron house, it became even clearer that the narrator and Wertheimer were no match for Gould’s fanatical genius. He was the triumphant one, they the failures. Eventually Wertheimer auctioned off his Bosendorfer grand piano in Vienna, while the narrator gave his Steinway to a provincial teacher’s nine-year-old daughter, who destroyed it in short order. While all three men over the years barricaded themselves from the world in their respective apartments and retreats (Gould in New York, Wertheimer in Vienna and in his hunting lodge, and the narrator in Madrid), only Gould’s isolation led to any productive activity. After thirty-four concert appearances, Gould refused to play in public again and allowed himself to be heard only through his legendary recordings. In his forest studio, he perfected himself “to the extreme limit of his and in essence all piano-instrumental possibilities.” He died of a stroke, apparently while playing the Goldberg Variations.
Wertheimer never recovered from Gould’s death, which only intensified his insecurities, his sense of inferiority, and his suicidal tendencies. Soon after word reached him of his friend’s death, his sister, whom he had tyrannized for years in their exclusive Viennese apartment, suddenly left him to marry an extremely wealthy owner of a Swiss chemical company. He took revenge on her by hanging himself from a tree outside her house in a village near Chur, Switzerland. As the narrator, who in the course of his narrative walks from the inn to the hunting lodge, discovers from Franz, one of Wertheimer’s woodsmen, Wertheimer had carefully planned his final days. He invited his friends, including the narrator, and his former fellow music students, whom he despised and avoided for years, to stay at his lodge. Preoccupied with writing his book, On Glenn Gould, the narrator ignored Wertheimer’s repeated invitations. The day before the guests arrived, Wertheimer burned the stacks of papers on which he had written his life’s work in the form of thousands of aphorisms. He also ordered a worthless, badly out-of-tune piano from the Mozarteum. After not having played for more than a decade, Wertheimer proceeded to perform works by George Frideric Handel and Bach on the piano every time his guests were in the house. Driven wild by the unbearable noise, they caroused in the village and tore apart the lodge, until after two weeks he sent them packing. Shortly thereafter he left for his sister’s. Finally, alone in Wertheimer’s room, the narrator listens to Gould’s recording of the Goldberg Variations, which had been left on Wertheimer’s record player.
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