Glenn Gould - Biography
By Bob Fagan
Glenn Gould was one of the most stunningly gifted and polarizing classical musicians of the 20th Century. A pianist of extraordinary delicacy and precision, his playing was a unique blend of cool clinicism and powerful emotion. He once famously stated that he didn’t like the piano and seldom practiced. Several years before The Beatles and other rock bands had begun to use the recording studio as a creative tool, as an instrument in its own right, Gould had scandalized the classical world by editing recorded performances, altering tempos and splicing takes together to create the final product. Again like The Beatles, he was nearly always unsatisfied with the imperfections that came with live performances, and abandoned the concert stage in favor of the controlled environment of the studio. He was famously eccentric, sitting at the piano on a child’s chair only a foot or so off the ground, humming along loudly with his playing both in concert and on recording, and dressing up as a variety of humorous alter-egos and expounding on topics ranging from sports to his favorite pop singers (notably Petula Clark and Barbra Streisand).
Glenn Herbert Gould was born in 1932 in Toronto, Canada and remained a resident of Toronto his entire life. He was a child prodigy and first performed with an orchestra – the Toronto Symphony - when only 14-years-old. Following a few appearances on recordings by others, he made his solo debut in 1955 with a recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations. At the time, Bach was not as high in the pantheon of the classical repertoire as he now is, and the Variations were little known, less recorded and even then always on harpsichord rather than piano. Landowska’s harpsichord recordings (1933-36) were probably the best known versions. It was a bold choice with which to initiate a career, and Gould’s unique combination of coolly detailed reserve (think Lenny Tristano) and warm, brilliant emotion made the LP (The Goldberg Variations, 1955 Columbia) a surprise best seller, eventually becoming Columbia Records’ all-time best selling classical LP. The record also sold in record numbers to the general public, many of whom had never before owned a classical music LP. If Gould’s boyish good looks and ecstatic demeanor at the piano helped to sell the album in record numbers, it was the music itself that swept listeners away.
Gould deserved every bit of the praise he received. His technique was such that even the most demanding and rapid passages were so clearly articulated that the spaces between the notes seemed to breathe. He could practice “mentally,” read a score of an unfamiliar piece (sometimes while driving – he was a notoriously poor driver with scores of minor fender-benders to his name) and perform it flawlessly that evening from memory. He was aesthetically opposed to the romantic thundering and pedaling sustain used by so many pianists in the lowest registers of the instrument (although he does allow for some thundering in his rendition of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonatas). Indeed, his touch more closely resembled that of a harpsichordist than a pianist. (His recording of Handel’s Harpsichord Suites 1-4 is exquisitely executed.)
Following the release of the Goldberg Variations he embarked on a seemingly endless
circuit of concert performances around the world, where audiences packed halls in unprecedented numbers to see this 23-year-old man conducting an invisible orchestra with one hand, his head thrown back and hair falling across his face. His concerts routinely sold out, and audiences demanded encore upon encore.
Not all critics were so kindly disposed toward Gould, however. His highly personal interpretation of pieces meant that he often performed them at much slower tempos than the score indicated, and he would alter whatever aspects of the traditional arrangements he felt would benefit from the change. He had little time or patience for tradition, and the liberties he took with various canonical works often offended critics’ sense of propriety and respect for the composer. Still, even his more controversial re-interpretations generally met with acceptance and praise, even his radical re-imagining of Mozart’s Piano Sonatas. There was no denying the impeccable quality and powerful intellect behind his most extreme revisions of entrenched tradition.
Gould gradually wearied of the rigors of the touring circuit. A recluse most happy in his native Toronto, he grew homesick; he disliked staying in strange hotels and eating unfamiliar food. He also grew to hate the parade of unsatisfactory pianos and poor acoustics in many of the concert halls in which he performed. After nearly 10 years of an exhausting schedule of recording dates and concert appearances, he retired from live performance in 1964, thereafter only appearing on radio or television shows, and otherwise retreating to the recording studio, which he would come to use as an integral part of his creative method in a way no classical musician had previous done. Mixing and splicing various takes of a piece together, Gould was the first classical musician to draw a conceptual line between a recording and a performance. He saw nothing wrong with assembling a completed track from several available versions, or altering tempos by altering tape speed, as The Beatles were to do several years later, in such songs as “Strawberry Fields.” This approach was anathema to many in the classical audience, who believed a recording ought to be an historical document of an actual start-to-finish performance. Jazz pianist Bill Evans, who shared a mutual admiration and friendship with Gould, was subject to some of the same prejudice from jazz audiences after he recorded, via overdubbing, his seminal work Conversations with Myself.
Gould also wrote a handful or so of original compositions. In the main, these relatively few pieces were either amusing jokes (such as the a capella piece “So You Want to Write a Fugue”) or competent but obvious pastiches of other composers. However, in 1967 he was invited by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation to produce a radio documentary for the Canadian Centennial. Gould was a lifelong radio fan, having grown up listening to his family’s radio, which was one of the first in his neighborhood. As a child, he had considered radio news announcer as an alternative career to concert pianist. Although he had abandoned live performance, he continued to make many live appearances on radio, and had already produced a 24-week series of programs discussing various aspects of classical music, including interviews with musicians such as Walter (Wendy) Carlos, who pioneered the performance of Bach and other classical composers on the Moog synthesizer.
Gould was friends with Canadian media philosopher Marshall McCluhan, and had internalized the latter’s insistence on the importance of the medium in transmission of the “message.” For Gould, radio was a world of pure sound, a medium in which his “message” – a “pure” music disconnected from both audience and performer – could be realized. The series of three radio documentaries that resulted from this collaboration with the CBC stand as his greatest and most original compositions. Using Canada’s Northern Territories (broadly speaking, the Canadian equivalent of America’s Wild West) as a focal point, Gould assembled a radio program – “The Idea of North” – which was unlike anything heard before. He abandoned the standard format of narrator/interviewer and subjects, and instead assembled – composed might be a better term – a blending of voices, sound effects and commentary that resembled musical counterpoint more than radio documentary. It is not known whether Gould ever read William Burroughs, but “The Idea of North” is a particularly successful example of Burroughs’ cut-up concept – in which the linear progress of a typical novel is abandoned, for a process that attempts to more closely mirror everyday reality, with its ever-changing sounds and perceptions. Gould himself referred to his approach as “Contrapuntal Radio.”
The piece is presented in the format of a two-day railroad journey to the North, with the sound of the train ever-present beneath the voices of Gould’s interview subjects, each of whom offers an individual (and often conflicting) view on their relationship to and experience with the North. At times the various voices overlap to the point where it is almost impossible to follow one or the other; the effect is that of a stroll down through the passenger cars of the train, overhearing snatches of conversation over the constant sounds of the train clattering down the tracks. Gould chose his subjects as much for the tonal qualities of their voices as their views and comments, and the result is a unique work, one that is a wonderful hybrid of music and radio documentary. Two more similar radio programs followed; The Latecomers was concerned with the disappearances of old traditions and ways of life in Newfoundland, while A Quiet in the Land dealt with a Mennonite community’s isolation from mainstream society.
Gould was a lifelong hypochondriac of epic proportion. In reality, his health was indeed often poor; he suffered from high blood pressure and an assortment of other ailments. He took numerous prescription medications, and paid little or no attention to a proper diet. In 1981, for what turned out to be his final LP released in his lifetime, he returned to The Goldberg Variations, this time offering up a slower, more contemplative take on the pieces. The record is a sere, Zen-like performance. Listening to this quiet, elegiac music, and viewing Gould’s pained expression on the LP jacket, one wonders whether he sensed the end nearing and had returned to his signature work to effect completion of a full circle in his career. In September of 1982, only 50 years old, Gould suffered a stroke and died several days later.
Virtually all of Gould’s recordings remain available, the bulk of them on Sony Classical. While Gould is seen foremost as one of the pre-eminent interpreters of Bach, there is little in his discography that should be avoided – virtually everything he recorded bears his inimitable stamp of creativity, imagination and superlative technique. He recorded the bulk of Bach’s keyboard works and all of it is excellent. His recording of Bach’s Art of the Fugue is the only recorded example of his organ playing. He was an ardent supporter of Schoenberg from the beginning of his career, and ultimately recorded all of the composer’s keyboard pieces. His performance of Liszt’s transcription for solo piano of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony is a highlight, as are his Richard Strauss LPs. His oft-stated dislike of Mozart did not prevent him from recording the Complete Piano Sonatas, although his highly idiosyncratic approach to the Sonatas, including major alterations of tempo and sequencing, might put off some listeners. He also championed and recorded works by much lesser known composers, from the early keyboard compositions of Orlando Gibbons, the Finnish composer Sibelius, the tortured genius Scriabin, and works by Webern, Krenek and Berg. Towards the end of his life he made some attempts to move toward conducting, an oft-expressed goal. In 1982 he led an orchestra of a dozen musicians drawn from the Toronto Symphony, in a languid and beautiful performance of Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll (1994 Sony Classical) that was released on LP after his death. His all-Bach soundtrack to the movie Slaughterhouse Five is available on Glenn Gould at the Movies (1999 Sony), which also includes all the music from the semi-biographical movie 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould. The three CBC documentaries are available on a 3CD set by Sony.