Glenn Gould: Eccentric, genius, virtuoso
(CBC Still Photo Collection)
He adored Arrowroot cookies, Barbra Streisand and animals. He abhorred sunlight, the stage and airplanes. Eccentric, genius, solitary, head-strong, hypochondriac, virtuoso... all describe Glenn Herbert Gould, one of the greatest pianists of the 20th century.
Gould was born on Sept. 25, 1932 in Toronto. His sudden death in 1982 at age 50 stunned the world, but his music and his legacy continue to inspire, delight and fascinate.
He was born into a musical family: Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg was a first cousin of his mother's grandfather. Both of Gould's parents sang. His father was an amateur violinist and his mother played the piano and the organ.
Florence, Glenn's first piano teacher, was first to notice her son's musical genius. Her son would sit at the piano, play a single note and listen intently as it faded away. Later Gould demonstrated his perfect pitch by playing tunes he heard only once on the radio. He'd spend hours at the piano, to the point that when he is 12, his mother, and his teacher, the Chilean-born pianist and conductor Alberto Guerrero, limited his playing to four hours a day.
He rarely participated in sports. Even as a young boy he had the tendency to avoid any balls that came his way, all in an effort to protect his hands. But he was very fond of the family cottage on Lake Simcoe, north of Toronto. He loved going for walks, boating with his English setter Nicky and would give impromptu concerts for his family and friends on the turn-of-the-century Chickering piano.Genius from a young age
News of Gould's talent spread and wasn't long before he started performing in public. In December 1945, at age 13, Gould gave his first concert, not on the piano but on the organ. It was a huge success. One review declared, "Boy... Shows Genius As Organist."
His friend and next-door neighbour Robert Fulford, later a well-known Canadian journalist, also wrote about the budding pianist in the school newspaper. In the article, Gould was quoted saying "popular music is terrible," and that he is a "confirmed bachelor."Watch a clip about Gould's rising star:
Gould would make his first network broadcast on Christmas Eve in 1950 when he was 18. It was his first time in a studio. He later said that this was when his fascination with the microphone began.
By the time Gould made his much-anticipated American debut in 1955 in Washington D.C., he had gained a reputation as a dazzling pianist with a unique, uncompromising style.
David Oppenheim of Columbia Records (now Sony Classical) was one of thousands who are awe-struck by Gould's talent. He signed the 22-year-old to an exclusive recording contract the day after hearing him play in New York.
A year later Gould recorded his famous Goldberg Variations
catapulted him into the international spotlight. J.S. Bach's Goldberg Variations
is one of the most difficult pieces ever composed for the keyboard, often taking musicians a lifetime to master. It consists of 30 variations on the popular 17th century slow dance called a saraband.Odd behaviour
But Gould was eccentric and right from the start critics spent as much time commenting on his odd behaviour as they did on his playing.
He was also known for how he sat very low at the keyboards -- hunched over, often with his legs crossed. He also had a habit of conducting himself while playing whenever a hand is free. He even happily admitted that he didn't possess a metronome, an instrument that helps musicians keep time.Hear Gould talk about his eccentricities:
Gould was always true to himself and marched to his own beat. In 1964 Gould was awarded an honourary Doctor of Laws degree from University of Toronto. In his speech to the graduating class, Gould advised them not to put too much weight into what others thought but to follow their own path and to be true to themselves.
But the constant humming, the feverish conducting and fanatical fear of germs are eccentricities that ended up defining Gould as much as his Goldberg Variations
. Years after the musician's death, Gould's unusual behavior continues to be a source of intrigue.
Timothy Maloney, a musical historian who studied Gould's manner and habit, has concluded he may have suffered from Asperger Syndrome, a form of autism. According to Maloney, people with Asperger's demonstrate exceptional skill or talent in a specific area. But because of their high degree of functionality and their naivete, they are often viewed as eccentric or odd. They often have obsessive routines and may be preoccupied with a particular subject of interest.
Gould had an encyclopedic knowledge of music, especially piano music, but his recorded repertoire focused on a limited number of composers. He preferred Bach, Beethoven and Schoenberg. He also recorded the music of Gibbons, Handel, Haydn, Mendelssohn, Brahms, Richard Strauss, Sibelius, Gunnar Berg, Anton von Webern and Paul Hindemith. He recorded all of Mozart's piano sonatas but his attitude towards the composer remained ambivalent.
He wrote obsessively about his own physical diagnosis - including the number of hours he slept, his blood pressure and what he ate. He was a hypochondriac who would pop pills at the onset of the slightest malady.
He had a fear of flying but was very fond of cars, trains and boats. And between 2 a.m. and 3 a.m. every day Gould would go to Fran's, a 24-hour diner a block away from his Toronto apartment, sit in the same booth and order scrambled eggs.
He loved animals. "By the time I was six," he confessed in a 1979 documentary Cities: Glenn Gould's Toronto
, "I made an important discovery that I get along much better with animals than humans."
He was a keen player of the stock market and would call his trader several times a day to sell and buy stocks. His long phone calls were legendary. He had a small but very loyal group of friends, who he kept in close contact with, telephoning them at all hours of the night.'The concert is dead'
At the age of 32, Gould stunned the world by walking away from the stage, declaring "the concert is dead." His last public appearance as a pianist was in Los Angeles on April 10, 1964.
He'd made no secret of his disdain for giving public performances but it is a move unheard of at the time. Gould said live concerts made him feel demeaned, like a vaudevillian.
"I detest audiences," he later explained in a 1966 interview on CBC Television, "Not in their individual components but en masse... I think they are a force of evil."
The future, Gould declared, was in the recording studio. For the reclusive perfectionist, the studio provided a womb-like atmosphere where he was free to splice and edit imperfections in his playing. He would record several versions of a piece and then weave the best passages together. Gould calls this process "creative editing" rather than cheating. He said it is necessary to achieve the highest quality of recording possible.Hear Gould talk about becoming a radio composer:
He excelled in the role of a radio artist. His multi-layered structure in documentary-making was extremely innovative at the time of its creation and remains entirely unique in that landscape. The musical structure of the fugue influenced Gould's radio documentary work. He would mix two or three voices as well as music on top of each other, using the human voice like different melodies in a piece of music. He called this method "contrapuntal style."
But his controversial practices ruffled more than a few feathers. Zubin Mehta, the world famous conductor, summed up Gould's arguments by saying that he was simply out of his mind.Impressive output
(CBC Still Photo Collection)
Still, retiring from the stage so early in his career gave Gould time to concentrate on making recordings. His output was impressive, producing more than 80 recordings.
As a man of many talents and interests, he never thought of himself primarily as a pianist. He was equally committed to writing, broadcasting, composing, conducting and experimenting with technology. He often joked that his private motto was: "Behind every silver lining, there's a cloud."
In the 1960s and '70s, he produced a series of innovative radio and TV documentaries for the CBC on a wide range of topics including Mennonites, Leopold Stokowski and British pop star Petula Clark.
His most famous documentary was The Idea of North
. It was first broadcast on CBC Radio in 1967 and was the first installment of the Solitude Trilogy and part of the Canada's Centennial celebrations.Listen to The Idea of North:
Two days after his 50th birthday, Gould suffered a massive stroke and died a week later. It was all the more shocking given the extreme, almost neurotic, lengths Gould took to avoid getting sick. But Gould's family had a history of high blood pressure and strokes. Gould's mother had also died from a massive stroke in 1975.
Each year fans from all over visit Gould's gravesite at Mount Pleasant Cemetery in Toronto, where Gould is buried near the woman who perhaps had the greatest influence on his life, his mother.
There have been numerous books, plays and films about Gould. He also has prizes named after him.
In 1977 NASA launched its twin Voyager spacecrafts. Aboard each is a copper recording and a record player with visual instructions on how to make the machine play. The record includes Gould's C major prelude and fugue by Bach. NASA included the recording as an example of humanity's best on its goodwill mission in search of life.
To commemorate what would've been legendary pianist Glenn Gould's 79th birthday, CBC has released a comprehensive DVD collection of his television broadcasts.
The 10-disc box set, Glenn Gould on Television: The Complete CBC Broadcasts
, is now available through Sony Classical and can be purchased through the CBC Shop and online
. You can learn more about the special collection in a previous 75th anniversary blog.
Posted on Sep 27, 2011 6:00:00 AM