Glenn Gould


The controversial Canadian pianist, conductor and composer Glenn Gould is a well-known name among professional and amateur musicians and enthusiasts alike. He was a quirky virtuoso performer who hated performing but loved making recordings and pursuing his other musical interests such as composition, writing and conducting. He would have fit very comfortably into today’s multimedia society, in which the musician’s role of performer, educator, innovator, entertainer and scholar are blurred. Gould became famous for his unique interpretations of the standard keyboard repertoire, with the exception of early Romantic and impressionistic music, which he deeply despised. He preferred the Elizabethan, Baroque and Classical periods along with the late-Romantic and early 20th century music; particular favourites were Bach and Schoenberg.

Gould’s upbringing was privileged and sheltered. He was born in Toronto, Canada in 1932, into a wealthy family that lived in a quiet coastal neighbourhood. Already in his infancy, it was obvious that he possessed both talent and interest in music, though he was never pushed by his parents to become a star. Nonetheless, he made his debut as a professional concert pianist at the age of 15, quickly earning a national reputation, which grew rapidly in his early 20s through radio and television broadcasts, along with recordings, writings, lectures and compositions.

Gould studied theory (1940-7), organ (1942-9) and piano with Alberto Guerrero (1943-52) at the Toronto Conservatory or Music, where he earned his Associate Diploma at the age of 12.

Already in these early years, Gould’s peculiarity was evident. Not only did he reject the music of the early Romantic and Impressionist periods, he did not follow protocol when performing his preferred works. He would often interpret the tempos or dynamics of a piece in a very personal and extreme manner, shocking many listeners. In addition, he often played around with phrasing. These characteristics are most evident in the canonical works of Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms. From a technical standpoint, Gould was also incredibly talented, though he often chose to evade many pianistic conventions in his avoidance of the sustaining pedal and use of détaché articulation.

While Gould was not interested in following tradition, he was very intellectually focused. The structure and counterpoint in his performances are very clear and his expression very deep. He was also a firm believer in the artistic freedom of the performer, believing it the performer’s duty to offer creative interpretations as opposed to simply conveying the composer’s intentions.

Gould made his American debut in 1955 in Washington D.C. and New York which, together with his 1956 recording of Bach’sGoldberg Variations with Columbia, launched his international career. Interestingly, it was the day after his concert in New York that he was approached by Columbia, who offered him an exclusive contract.

Despite his hatred of performing, claiming he felt ‘demeaned, like a vaudeville’, he was in great demand and worked as a concert pianist until his retirement in 1964. He was also hesitant to perform overseas, giving less than 40 performances during three tours, despite his high demand. His overseas appearances were in the USSR, Western Europe and Israel.

It was not only Gould’s eccentricities as a pianist that drew so much attention, it was also his personality as his mannerisms on stage were flamboyant and he was a self-diagnosed hypochondriac. He defended his object to concerts, writing, ‘the purpose of art is not the release of a momentary ejection of adrenalin but is, rather, the gradual, lifelong construction of a state of wonder and serenity’.

Leaving the concert stage in 1964, Gould pursued more and more activities in radio and television along with composition. He began to refer to himself as ‘a Canadian writer, composer, and broadcaster who happens to play piano in his spare time’. He also became further captivated by electronic music and a true studio musician. Not only did he make numerous albums, but he also learnt recording techniques at a professional level and often wrote about recording and mass media, with ideas that correlated with those of his friend, Marshal McLuhan.

In 1967, Gould created his first of seven ‘contrapuntal radio documentaries, which combined speaking, music and sound effects and were based on many principles drawn from documentary, drama, music and film. He also made more conventional radio and television shows and recitals. Other projects included a four-film series for French television,Chemins de la musique (1974), and a three-film series of films for German and Canadian television,Glenn Gould Plays Bach(1979-81). In addition, he arranged the music for two feature films, Slaughterhouse-Five (1972) and The Wars (1982). Gould never really made a breakthrough as a composer during his short career, leaving behind early piano pieces and a bassoon sonata. His biggest work was a one-movement string quartet, composed between 1953 and 1955, that was later published and recorded.

Outside of performance and composition, Gould gave lectures and wrote periodical articles, liner notes, broadcast scripts and interviews.

A very private man, Gould never released details about his personal life or his relationships. He believed ‘Isolation is the one sure way to human happiness’.

Gould continued to record in New York until 1970, after which he continued to record in Toronto at Eaton Auditorium. Feeling that he had exhausted the piano repertoire that interested him, Gould set out in July 1982 to record Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll.His career was cut short after suffering a fatal stroke just days after his 27 September release of anotherGoldberg Variations recording.

Gould’s legacy has lived on after his death on 2 October 1982 in Toronto. His recordings are appreciated worldwide and many of his writings have been translated. Beginning in 1992, Sony Classical (later Sony BMG Masterworks) released both live and studio recordings of Gould, along with films and broadcasts. In addition, the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Company) began releasing some of Gould’s radio documentaries and early broadcast performances. Schott also published an edition of his compositions in 1995.

Gould’s work has inspired a foundation along with various concerts, festivals, societies, works of art and even a feature film—Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould.

Header Photo Credit: Estate of Jock Carroll