Glenn’s VHS Tape

Housed at The Glenn Gould Archive in Ottawa are a number of VHS cassette tapes, some of which contain episodes of The Mary Tyler Moore Show recorded by Glenn on his television set. It certainly would take a lot of tapes to hold all seven seasons (168 episodes) of the show. If Glenn were alive today, then probably he would have replaced the bulky tapes with a complete set on DVD. No rewinding and no commercials!

My own box set of the MTM show is one of the most precious items in my personal library of books, scores and recordings. I must have watched every episode at least a dozen times and many of them with my Mom, who remembers, as a college student in Minnesota in the early 1970’s – before she and my Dad went to the Arctic (click here for that blog post) – watching the show in its original airings. Living on my own, working hard at my projects, appreciating tidiness and good manners and doing my best to be a good person in the world, I like to think that a little part of me is like the character of Mary Richards and, while I have many reasons for why I think Glenn loved the show, you’ll have to refer to a previous blog post for that story. (Please click here.)


Now let’s get back to those VHS tapes at the The Glenn Gould Archive. In search of some information about the programs Glenn recorded from his tv set, I decided to contact the Archive. A lady in the department of Reference Services kindly pointed me to some catalogue listings for the tapes and, while it became clear that the only way to find out which episodes were on the tapes would be to make an in-person visit to the Archive (something I hope to do in the near future) what I was surprised to discover was that, in addition to the MTM show, Glenn also recorded a National Geographic television special.

Screenshot from the website of The Glenn Gould Archive, listing the contents of one of the videocassette tapes recorded by Glenn Gould.

“So Glenn recorded something called The Superliners,” I thought to myself. Of course, this set me on a hunt for all things Superliners and cooked up a great sense of anticipation as to what Gouldian tidbits I might find. “It must be something related to trains,” I guessed. Trains, no. Ships, yes. “There we go, now that makes sense,” I thought. “Glenn loved boating!”

From that point on, things weren’t so easy. Of course, it was easy enough to uncover the fact that the program in question was a 1979 National Geographic television special, written, produced and directed by Nicolas Noxon. What wasn’t as easy however, was finding a copy to watch, for even if I were located conveniently in Ottawa, judging by the Archive’s description of the item in question, the quality on Glenn’s old tape is “very poor” with “many tape faults apparent” and finally, “recommended for dubbing before further deterioration.”

Normally, I have little trouble tracking down old documentaries that, in many cases, can easily be viewed online for free. Not so with The Superliners: Twilight of an Era. The best I could come up with was a short clip, three minutes in length. Eventually, I ended up purchasing a used VHS copy on Amazon for about seven dollars and had it shipped to Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan. (My parents live in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario and, when a seller doesn’t ship to Canada, then we have a convenient address that we can use “across the river” in Sault, Michigan).

While home for the holidays, I picked up the tape, fiddled with the family VCR to the point of no return and ultimately, just plain brought the tape back home to Mississauga for viewing on the old machine I got while I was studying at the Eastman School of Music.

Thankfully the used copy I bought (shown above) was in excellent condition and I had no trouble viewing the entire documentary.

As I put the tape into the machine, my imagination greedily took hold of my thoughts and I excitedly waited to see what Glenn had watched on his big, chunky tv set nearly forty years earlier. It was as though I had been successful in tracking down another clue to set me on the path of understanding Glenn Gould.

As has been the case numerous times in the past when I discover a book, a musical work, a place or even a television program for which Glenn had a particular fondness, I almost always find that I too have a similar connection. That was certainly the case with Glenn’s arrangement for solo piano of the Siegfried Idyll by Richard Wagner and of Thomas Mann’s novel, The Magic Mountain. The former is something that I am presently practicing and, the latter is something for which my Mom is now reading.

As the tape wheels of The Superliners: Twilight of an Era began to turn, I was faced with the infamous National Geographic theme song composed by Elmer Bernstein. It must be nearly three decades since I last heard that Copland-esque (Aaron, that is) fanfare for brass. Picturing Glenn at home in his small apartment, sitting down to watch the program and hearing that same theme song just made him appear a little bit more human. Have a listen:

The Superliners: Twilight of an Era follows the QE2 on her two hundred and ninety-sixth voyage, a five-day journey from England to New York. Apart from the obvious reason for Glenn having been interested in a program such as this (he hated traveling by air) I found myself uncovering all sorts of other reasons why Glenn may have felt inclined to push the record button on his VCR back in the late 1970’s, possibly early 1980’s. While the onboard casinos, bars, shopping and table tennis were hardly the sort of activities enjoyed by Glenn, the documentary did touch upon a number of other aspects pertaining to life at sea, ones for which I believe Glenn had some attraction.

For Glenn, travel by automobile represented a preferred mode of transportation. Trains and boats however, were not far behind. In The Superliners: Twilight of an Era the notions of “man and the sea” and of “time and space” are looked at, as well as the sense of nostalgia felt by crew members and passengers alike for the days before jumbo jets. For example, QE2 Staff Captain, Allan Bunnell, speaks of “the demise of the great liners,” adding that there was a “romance attached to the sea” which is now in decline.

This business of the romanticism behind being out at sea is reminiscent of some of the themes at play in The Idea of North, Glenn’s contrapuntal radio documentary from 1967, a program in which he explores the idea of pitting oneself not against the sea, but rather, the Arctic. In this case, both the sea and the Arctic represent a kind of intense solitude which, when sought, even if only from the inner sanctum of one’s own thoughts and not in a literal, geographical sense, provides the proper time and space for reflection on one’s moral character and, above all, for transcendental experiences.

In 1962, Glenn wrote that the last quartets of Beethoven, as well as the Metemorphosen and Capriccio of Richard Strauss perfectly convey “that transfiguring light of ultimate philosophic repose.” I believe that Glenn viewed both the Arctic and the sea in the exact same manner. What comes to mind here is the Epilogue from The Idea of North where the narrator, Wally McLean, remarks that, “the moral equivalent of war is going north.” McLean might just as well have said that the moral equivalent of war is going to sea, though perhaps not by way of a luxury Superliner.

In all fairness, The Superliners: Twilight of an Era is not a documentary about solitude, or of the profoundly transcendental experiences to be had aboard a large seafaring vessel. Actually, the bulk of the documentary chronicles the heyday of such Superliners as the Queen Elizabeth, the SS Normandie and the Queen Mary.

I believe that Glenn was interested in the documentary not because he was gathering facts about Superliners, but rather, he was looking for connections and parallels between the effects of solitary experiences had at sea versus those faced in the Arctic or, for that matter, in the middle of a desert. The Solitude Trilogy could just as easily have featured a radio documentary about people who went to the desert instead of the Arctic, for these places force us, as McLean said, out of our “ruthless pavements” and “big city anonymity.”

Going back as far as the year 1620, The Superliners: Twilight of an Era outlines the trans-Atlantic crossing of the Mayfair and describes how over the next three centuries until the 1920’s, the main purpose of travel by ship was the transportation of immigrants. The documentary also mentions the sinking of the Titanic in 1912, a dangerous episode resulting in fifteen hundred lives lost. On that account, Mother Nature proved to be more dangerous than human nature.

With the advent of ship radars, the safety of Atlantic crossings was improved and from the 1920’s onwards, travel by ship shifted primarily from serving immigrants to serving tourists, not to mention celebrity figures such as Charlie Chaplin, Maurice Chevalier, Elizabeth Taylor, Vivien Leigh, Clark Gable, Laurence Olivier and many others for whom newsreel footage was taken aboard ship. With the creation of Superliners in the 1930’s and continuing throughout the next three decades, travel by ship took on the look of glamour and luxury.

Launched in 1932 (the year Glenn was born), the SS Normandie was a French Superliner with no less than twenty-three elevators. In the Depression era, people paid fifty cents for a tour. Having broken the speed record for a trans-Atlantic crossing, “the fate of the Normandie” as it came to be known, took place in 1942 when the ship caught fire and capsized, lying sideways in the New York harbour.

SS Normandie, 1930s. (Wikipedia).

Competing with the SS Normandie was the Queen Mary, a British ship completed in 1936 that continued in service for thirty-one years.

Queen Mary, 1960s. (AP photo).
Queen Elizabeth, 1960s. (CruislineHistory.com)

Begun in the mid-1930’s, the Queen Elizabeth, like the Queen Mary, survived the Second World War. Praised by Sir Winston Churchill, the Queen Elizabeth would continue operating until 1967, at which point trans-Atlantic jet liners were providing “almost over night” transportation that was both faster, smoother and cheaper than the Superliners. By the mid-1960’s, the era of the Superliners was over, the Queen Elizabeth having been scrapped and the Queen Mary having been turned into a museum.

The Superliners: Twilight of an Era showcases a great deal of wonderful old footage of the glory days of the three Superliners outlined above, as well as the then present-day, 1979 trans-Atlantic crossing of the QE2 which was, at that time, the last of the Superliners. According to Wikipedia, the QE2 operated from 1969-2008 and, since April 2018, has operated as a floating hotel in Dubai.

The documentary goes on to explain how the QE2 was losing money because, on the one hand, it had to maintain old world luxury and yet, it also needed to offer a lightning fast turn-around. Imagine the staff and crew having just six hours in New York City to prepare for the turn-around back to England! The Superliners: Twilight of an Era also offers interviews with some of the staff and crew of the QE2, many of which were considered old-timers and for whom the idea of just simply “cruising” was considered “too frivolous” for a great liner. Nevertheless, the captain of the QE2 remarked that he is “confident we’ll keep running one way or another.”

The documentary concludes with the QE2’s arrival in New York, where pandemonium breaks out. People scurry to shore in search of taxis and there is confusion everywhere, not to mention loads of baggage. It is at that moment that one wishes to recall not the stress of a departure or arrival, but rather, as the narrator describes, that mid-voyage period of “rare charm” for both passengers and crew. This “rare charm” is felt because the traveler has put physical distance (and, perhaps mental distance as well) both in front and behind of him/herself. This padding of time and space combined with the degree to which one is forced to confront Mother Nature albeit at arm’s length, is what Glenn sought not only in his road trips north or his childhood boat trips, but also (and in particular) in each of his recordings. We need only listen.

Glenn Gould and his dog, Nicky aboard their own Superliner. (GlennGould.com)

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