“Occasionally irritated, often enthralled, usually impressed, and constantly fascinated.” -Critic
Born in 1932 and dead 50 years later, the Canadian classical pianist Glenn Gould is the most enthralling and enigmatic character classical music has ever seen.
Gould was born in Toronto on September 25, 1932 to Florence and Bert Gould. Ever since he was born, he displayed a natural aptitude for piano, and started playing at just three years old. He demonstrated perfect pitch, as well as an uncanny ability to memorize music quickly. Despite clear gifts and skills, Gould never did well in school, and never earned his high-school diploma. He studied with the Chilean pianist Alberto Guerrero, and became a world-renowned pianist at just 21 with his recording of The Goldberg Variations by Johann Sebastian Bach.
Gould started to tour around North America, and in May 1957, embarked on his biggest journey yet: a month-long series of concerts in Russia. Almost no Westerners had performed in the Soviet Union since the end of World War II, and Gould performed to sold-out crowds in Moscow and Leningrad. His influence to the musical students who were at his concerts still remain to this day. The tour could be considered to be the high point of Gould’s performing career. He contracted several illnesses in a subsequent tour around Europe the next year, and one particular incident greatly damaged his image of concerts. During a collaboration with the American conductor Leonard Bernstein for a concert in New York, they found themselves having different interpretations of the work they were to perform. The composition was ultimately played Gould’s way, but Bernstein gave an impromptu speech before the concert declaring that he did not agree with the interpretation. Gould loved the speech, but was consequently destroyed in newspaper reviews. In 1964, due to the New York performance, and a multitude of other reasons (he once said of concerts: “I think they’re a force of evil”), Gould decided to quit giving concerts in 1964 and focused on exclusively recording music.
Gould with Bernstein.
Switching to recording was the most controversial decision he ever made, as no classical musician had ever done so before (and no one has since either). Gould hated the multitude of variables that came with performing: different pianos, temperature of the halls and audience distractions. The recording studio offered him a shelter, where only a handful of people were in attendance at once and he could edit the works to perfection. He thrived out of the public eye, and kept a steady pace of recordings through the 1960’s and 70’s. In 1982, Gould died of a stroke in Toronto General Hospital. He had celebrated his 50th birthday just a week before, and had already planned to move to conducting and composing in his later years.
This decision wasn’t the only part of Gould’s personality that set him apart from others. The way he played his pieces – often completely disobeying the tempo and dynamic markings written out by the composer – infuriated critics and contemporaries. But his playing style was fresh and new, and that meant that there would always be people who loved the music and people who hated his playing.
But, as with most geniuses, Gould had his eccentricities as well. He was a creature of habit, wearing a scarf, hat and mittens in all temperatures, playing on the same chair for 30 years, and only eating one meal a day (it was always the same order at the same restaurant at the same time – scrambled eggs at a 24-hour diner around 4 A.M). Gould was also an extreme hypochondriac, once eating 2,000 pills in nine months, and recording his blood pressure every 30 minutes near the end of his life. These quirks naturally decreased his social life – Gould was never married. Gould was said to have been a lonely person, although those who were close to him remembered him as a warm, kind, and funny man. He loved nature, and often retreated by himself to Northern Ontario.
Gould wearing his infamous cap, gloves, and coat.
Glenn Gould: reluctant performer, recording aficionado, television and radio extraordinaire, reclusive eccentric, autistic savant, and a man that left a long-lasting legacy. He was different than any musician who had come before or after him in every single respect. But it’s also important to remember that he was the modern Renaissance-man – he also composed, made radio and television documentaries, and wrote about music. And even though he died nearly 35 years ago, thanks to dozens of books, documentaries and commemorations, we will never forget the 50 years when Glenn Gould captivated the musical world.
Gould, with the author.