Glenn Herbert Gould (25 September 1932 – 4 October 1982) was a Canadian pianist who became one of the best-known and most celebrated classical pianists of the 20th century. He was particularly renowned as an interpreter of the keyboard music of Johann Sebastian Bach. His playing was distinguished by remarkable technical proficiency and capacity to articulate the polyphonic texture of Bach's music.
After his adolescence, Gould rejected most of the standard Romantic piano literature including Liszt, Schumann, and Chopin. Although his recordings were dominated by Bach, Gould's repertoire was diverse, including works by Beethoven, Mozart, Haydn, Brahms, pre-Baroque composers such as Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck, Orlando Gibbons and William Byrd, and such 20th-century composers as Paul Hindemith, Arnold Schoenberg and Richard Strauss. Gould was well known for various eccentricities, from his unorthodox musical interpretations and mannerisms at the keyboard to aspects of his lifestyle and personal behaviour. He stopped giving concerts at the age of 31 to concentrate on studio recording and other projects. Gould was the first pianist to record any of Liszt's piano transcriptions of Beethoven's symphonies (beginning with the Fifth Symphony, in 1967).
Gould was also known as a writer, composer, conductor, and broadcaster. He was a prolific contributor to musical journals, in which he discussed music theory and outlined his musical philosophy. His career as a composer was less distinguished. His output was minimal and many projects were left unfinished. There is evidence that, had he lived beyond 50, he intended to abandon the piano and devote the remainder of his career to conducting and other projects. As a broadcaster, Gould was prolific. His output ranged from television and radio broadcasts of studio performances to musique concrète radio documentaries about life in the Canadian wilderness.
Glenn Herbert Gould was born at home in Toronto on September 25, 1932, to Russell Herbert ("Bert") Gold and Florence ("Flora") Emma Gold (née Greig), Presbyterians of Scottish and English ancestry.His maternal grandfather was a cousin of Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg (who was himself of Scottish ancestry). The family's surname was changed to Gould informally around 1939 in order to avoid being mistaken for Jewish, given the prevailing anti-Semitism of prewar Toronto and the Gold surname's Jewish association. Gould had no Jewish ancestry, though he sometimes made jokes on the subject, like "When people ask me if I'm Jewish, I always tell them that I was Jewish during the war."Gould grew up in a home at 32 Southwood Drive, Toronto. His childhood home has been named a historic site by the City of Toronto.
Gould in February 1946 with his parakeet, Mozart, and his English Setter, Nick(y).
Gould's interest in music and his talent as a pianist became evident very early. Both his parents were musical, and his mother, especially, encouraged the infant Gould's early musical development. Before his birth, his mother planned for him to become a successful musician, and thus exposed him to music during her pregnancy. As a baby, he reportedly hummed instead of crying and wiggled his fingers as if playing chords, leading his doctor to predict that he would "be either a physician or a pianist". By the age of three, Gould's perfect pitch was noticed. He learned to read music before he could read words. When presented with a piano, the young Gould was reported to strike single notes and listen to their long decay, a practice his father Bert noted was different from typical children. Gould's interest in the piano proceeded side by side with an interest in composition. He would play his own little pieces for family, friends, and sometimes large gatherings, including, in 1938, a performance at the Emmanuel Presbyterian Church (a few blocks from the Gould house) of one of his own compositions. At the age of six, he was taken for the first time to hear a live musical performance by a celebrated soloist. This left a tremendous impression. He later described the experience:
It was Hofmann. It was, I think, his last performance in Toronto, and it was a staggering impression. The only thing I can really remember is that, when I was being brought home in a car, I was in that wonderful state of half-awakeness in which you hear all sorts of incredible sounds going through your mind. They were all orchestral sounds, but I was playing them all, and suddenly I was Hofmann. I was enchanted.
Glenn Gould with his teacher, Alberto Guerrero, demonstrating Guerrero's technical idea that Gould should pull down at keys instead of striking them from above. The photo was taken in 1945, before Gould fully developed this technique.
As a young child, Gould was taught piano by his mother. At the age of 10, he began attending The Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto. He studied music theory with Leo Smith, the organ with Frederick C. Silvester, and piano with Alberto Guerrero. Around the same time, he injured his back as a result of a fall from a boat ramp on the shore of Lake Simcoe. This incident is almost certainly related to the adjustable-height chair his father made shortly thereafter. Gould's mother would urge the young Gould to sit up straight at the keyboard.He used this chair for the rest of his life and took it with him almost everywhere. The famous chair was designed so that Gould could sit very low at the keyboard. The chair allowed him to pull down on the keys rather than striking them from above, a central technical idea of his teacher at the Conservatory, Alberto Guerrero.
Gould developed a technique that enabled him to choose a very fast tempo while retaining the separateness and clarity of each note. His extremely low position at the instrument arguably permitted more control over the keyboard. Gould showed considerable technical skill in performing and recording a wide repertoire including virtuosic and romantic works, such as his own arrangement of Ravel's La valse and Liszt's transcriptions of Beethoven's fifth and sixth symphonies. Gould worked from a young age with his teacher Alberto Guerrero on a technique known as finger-tapping: a method of training the fingers to act more independently from the arm.
Gould passed his final Conservatory examination in piano at the age of 12 (achieving the "highest marks of any candidate"), thus attaining "professional standing as a pianist" at that age. One year later he passed the written theory exams, qualifying for an ATCM diploma.
Gould the pianist
Gould asserted that he almost never practised on the piano, preferring to study music by reading it rather than playing it, another technique he had learned from Guerrero. His manual practising focused on articulation, rather than basic facility. He may have spoken ironically about his practising as there is evidence that, on occasion, he did practise quite hard, sometimes using his own drills and techniques.
He stated that he didn't understand the requirement of other pianists to continuously reinforce their relationship with the instrument by practising many hours a day. It seems that Gould was able to practise mentally without access to an instrument, and even took this so far as to prepare for a recording of Brahms piano works without ever playing them until a few weeks before the recording sessions. Gould could play from memory not just a vast repertoire of piano music, but also a wide range of orchestral and operatic transcriptions. He could 'memorize at sight' and once challenged his friend John Roberts to name 'any piece of music' that he could not 'instantly play from memory'.
The piano, Gould said, "is not an instrument for which I have any great love as such... [but] I have played it all my life, and it is the best vehicle I have to express my ideas." In the case of Bach, Gould admitted, "[I] fixed the action in some of the instruments I play on—and the piano I use for all recordings is now so fixed—so that it is a shallower and more responsive action than the standard. It tends to have a mechanism which is rather like an automobile without power steering: you are in control and not it; it doesn't drive you, you drive it. This is the secret of doing Bach on the piano at all. You must have that immediacy of response, that control over fine definitions of things."
Of significant influence upon the teenage Gould were Artur Schnabel, Rosalyn Tureck's recordings of Bach ("upright, with a sense of repose and positiveness"), and Leopold Stokowski.
Gould was known for having a vivid imagination. Listeners regarded his interpretations as ranging from brilliantly creative to outright eccentric. His piano playing had great clarity and erudition, particularly in contrapuntal passages, and extraordinary control. He was a child prodigy and in adulthood described as a musical phenomenon.As he played, he often swayed his torso in a clockwise motion.
Gould had a pronounced aversion to what he termed a "hedonistic" approach to the piano repertoire, performance, and music generally. For Gould, "hedonism" in this sense denoted a superficial theatricality, something to which he felt Mozart, for example, became increasingly susceptible later in his career. He associated this drift towards hedonism with the emergence of a cult of showmanship and gratuitous virtuosity on the concert platform in the 19th century and later. The institution of the public concert, he felt, degenerated into the "blood sport" with which he struggled, and which he ultimately rejected.
In 1945, he gave his first public performance, playing the organ, and the following year he made his first appearance with an orchestra, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, in a performance of the first movement of Beethoven's 4th Piano Concerto. His first solo recital followed in 1947,and his first recital on radio was with the CBC in 1950. This was the beginning of his long association with radio and recording. He founded the Festival Trio chamber group in 1953 with the cellist Isaac Mamott and the violinist Albert Pratz.
In 1957, Gould embarked on a tour of the Soviet Union, becoming the first North American to play there since World War II His concerts featured Bach, Beethoven, and the serial music of Schoenberg and Berg, which had been suppressed in the Soviet Union during the era of Socialist Realism. Gould made his Boston debut in 1958, playing for the Peabody Mason Concert Series. On January 31, 1960, Gould made his American television debut on CBS's Ford Presents series, performing Bach's Keyboard Concerto No. 1 in D minor (BWV 1052) with Leonard Bernstein conducting the New York Philharmonic.
Gould was convinced that the institution of the public concert was not only an anachronism, but also a "force of evil", leading to his retirement from concert performance. He argued that public performance devolved into a sort of competition, with a non-empathetic audience (musically and otherwise) mostly attendant to the possibility of the performer erring or not meeting critical expectation. This doctrine he set forth, only half in jest, in "GPAADAK", the Gould Plan for the Abolition of Applause and Demonstrations of All Kinds.
On April 10, 1964, Gould gave his last public performance, playing in Los Angeles, at the Wilshire Ebell Theater.Among the pieces he performed that night were Beethoven's Piano Sonata No. 30, selections from Bach's The Art of Fugue, and Paul Hindemith's Piano Sonata No. 3. Gould performed fewer than 200 concerts over the course of his career, of which fewer than 40 were overseas. For pianists such as Van Cliburn, 200 concerts would have amounted to about two years' touring.
One of Gould's reasons for abandoning live performance was his aesthetic preference for the recording studio, where, in his words, he developed a "love affair with the microphone". There, he could control every aspect of the final musical "product" by selecting parts of various takes. He felt that he could realize a musical score more fully this way. Thus, the act of musical composition, to Gould, did not entirely end with the original score. The performer had to make creative choices. Gould felt strongly that there was little point in re-recording centuries-old pieces if the performer had no new perspective to bring to the work. For the rest of his life, Gould eschewed live performance, focusing instead on recording, writing, and broadcasting.
The issue of "authenticity" in relation to an approach like Gould's has been a topic of great debate, although diminished by the end of the 20th century—a development that Gould seems to have anticipated. It asks whether a recording is less authentic or "direct" for having been highly refined by technical means in the studio. Gould likened his process to that of a film director—one does not perceive that a two-hour film was made in two hours—and implicitly asks why the act of listening to music should be any different. He went so far as to conduct an experiment with musicians, sound engineers, and laypeople in which they were to listen to a recording and determine where the splices occurred. Each group chose different points based on their relationship to music, but none successfully. While the conclusion was hardly scientific, Gould remarked, "The tape does lie, and nearly always gets away with it".
In a lecture and essay titled "Forgery and Imitation in the Creative Process", one of Gould's most significant texts, he makes explicit his views on authenticity and creativity. Gould asks why the epoch in which a work is received, influences its reception as "art", postulating a sonata he composes that sounds so much like Haydn that it is received as such. If, instead, the same sonata had been attributed to a somewhat earlier or later composer, it becomes more or less interesting as a piece of music. Yet it is not the work that has changed but its relation within the accepted narrative of music history. Similarly, Gould notes the "pathetic duplicity" in the reception of high-quality forgeries by Han van Meegeren of new paintings attributed to Dutch Golden Age master Vermeer, before and after the forgery was known.
Gould, therefore, prefers an ahistorical, or at least pre-Renaissance, view of art, minimizing the identity of the artist and the attendant historical context in evaluating the artwork: "What gives us the right to assume that in the work of art we must receive a direct communication with the historical attitudes of another period? ... moreover, what makes us assume that the situation of the man who wrote it accurately or faithfully reflects the situation of his time? ... What if the composer, as historian, is faulty?"
Gould is reported to have 'periodically told interviewers that if he had not been a pianist, he would have been a writer'. He expounded his criticism and philosophy of music and art in lectures, convocation speeches, periodicals, and radio and television documentaries for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Gould participated in many interviews, and had a predilection for scripting them to the extent that they may be seen as much as "works" as off-the-cuff discussions. Bazzana writes that although some of Gould's 'conversational dazzle' found its way into his prolific, written output, his writing was 'at best uneven, at worst awful'. While offering 'brilliant insights' and 'provocative theses', it was often marred by 'long, tortuous sentences' and a 'false formality'. Gould's writing style was highly articulate, but sometimes florid, indulgent, or rhetorical. This is especially evident in those works in which he attempts humour or irony, which he did often.
In these he praised certain composers and rejected what he deemed banal in music composition and its consumption by the public, and also gave insightful analyses of the music of Richard Strauss, Alban Berg and Anton Webern. Despite a certain affection for Dixieland jazz, Gould was mostly averse to popular music. He enjoyed a jazz concert with his friends as a youth, mentioned jazz in his writings, and once criticized The Beatles for "bad voice leading"—while praising Petula Clark and Barbra Streisand. He shared a mutual admiration with jazz pianist Bill Evans, who made his seminal record Conversations with Myself using Gould's celebrated Steinway CD 318 piano. Gould believed that "the piano is a contrapuntal instrument," and his whole approach to music was, in fact, centered in the Baroque. Much of the homophony that followed he felt belongs to a less serious and less spiritual period of art.
"The Last Puritan"
A 1962 quote is often used to summarize Gould's perspective on art: "The justification of art is the internal combustion it ignites in the hearts of men and not its shallow, externalized, public manifestations. The purpose of art is not the release of a momentary ejection of adrenaline but is, rather, the gradual, lifelong construction of a state of wonder and serenity."
Gould referred to himself repeatedly as "the last puritan", a reference to philosopher George Santayana's novel of the same name. Weighing this statement against Gould's highly individualistic lifestyle and artistic vision leads to an apparent contradiction. He was progressive in many ways, promulgating the controversial atonal composers, and anticipating, through his deep involvement with the recording process, the vast changes that technology would have on the production and distribution of music. Mark Kingwell summarizes the paradox, never resolved by Gould nor his biographers:
He was progressive and anti-progressive at once, and likewise at once both a critic of the Zeitgeist and its most interesting expression. He was, in effect, stranded on a beachhead of his own thinking between past and future. That he was not able, by himself, to fashion a bridge between them is neither surprising, nor, in the end, disappointing. We should see this failure, rather, as an aspect of his genius. He both was and was not a man of his time.
Gould was widely known for his unusual habits. He usually hummed while he played the piano, and his recording engineers had mixed results in how successfully they could exclude his voice from recordings. Gould claimed that his singing was unconscious and increased proportionately with the inability of the piano in question to realize the music as he intended. It is likely that this habit originated in Gould's having been taught by his mother to "sing everything that he played", as Kevin Bazzana puts it. This became "an unbreakable (and notorious) habit". Some of Gould's recordings were severely criticised because of the background "vocalising". For example, a reviewer of his 1981 re-recording of the Goldberg Variations opined that many listeners would "find the groans and croons intolerable". Gould was renowned for his peculiar body movements while playing and for his insistence on absolute control over every aspect of his playing environment. The temperature of the recording studio had to be exactly regulated. He invariably insisted that it be extremely warm. According to Friedrich, the air conditioning engineer had to work just as hard as the recording engineers. The piano had to be set at a certain height and would be raised on wooden blocks if necessary. A small rug would sometimes be required for his feet underneath the piano. He had to sit fourteen inches above the floor and would play concerts only while sitting on the old chair his father had made. He continued to use this chair even when the seat was completely worn through. His chair is so closely identified with him that it is shown in a place of honour in a glass case at the National Library of Canada.
A replica of Glenn Gould's chair
Conductors responded diversely to Gould and his playing habits. George Szell, who led Gould in 1957 with the Cleveland Orchestra, remarked to his assistant, "That nut's a genius." Leonard Bernstein said, "There is nobody quite like him, and I just love playing with him." Bernstein created a stir at the April 6, 1962 concert when, just before the New York Philharmonic was to perform the Brahms Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor with Gould as soloist, he informed the audience that he was assuming no responsibility for what they were about to hear. He asked the audience: "In a concerto, who is the boss – the soloist or the conductor? (audience laughter). The answer is, of course, sometimes the one and sometimes the other, depending on the people involved." Specifically, he was referring to their rehearsals with Gould's insistence that the entire first movement be played at half the indicated tempo. The speech was interpreted by Harold C. Schonberg, music critic for The New York Times, as an abdication of responsibility and an attack on Gould. Plans for a studio recording of the performance came to nothing. The live radio broadcast (along with Bernstein's disclaimer) was subsequently released on CD.
Gould was averse to cold and wore heavy clothing (including gloves), even in warm places. He was once arrested, presumably mistaken for a vagrant, while sitting on a park bench in Sarasota, Florida, dressed in his standard all-climate attire of coat(s), hat and mittens. Barbara Rose, daughter of the legendary cellist Leonard Rose, with whom Gould partnered on several recordings, later suggested that Gould had suffered from fibromyalgia, a condition which could not be diagnosed at the time and which made it impossible for Gould to tell hot from cold. He also disliked social functions. He hated being touched, and in later life he limited personal contact, relying on the telephone and letters for communication. On one visit to Steinway Hall in New York City in 1959, the chief piano technician at the time, William Hupfer, greeted Gould by giving him a slap on the back. Gould was shocked by this, and complained of aching, lack of coordination, and fatigue because of the incident. He went on to explore the possibility of litigation against Steinway & Sons if his apparent injuries were permanent. He was known for cancelling performances at the last minute, which is why Bernstein's above-mentioned public disclaimer opens with, "Don't be frightened, Mr. Gould is here... will appear in a moment."
In his liner notes and broadcasts, Gould created more than two dozen alter egos for satirical, humorous, or didactic purposes, permitting him to write hostile reviews or incomprehensible commentaries on his own performances. Probably the best-known are the German musicologist "Karlheinz Klopweisser", the English conductor "Sir Nigel Twitt-Thornwaite", and the American critic "Theodore Slutz".These facets of Gould, whether interpreted as neurosis or "play", have provided ample material for psychobiography.
Fran's Restaurant in Toronto was a regular haunt of Gould's. A CBC profile noted, "sometime between two and three every morning, Gould would go to Fran's, a 24-hour diner a block away from his Toronto apartment, sit in the same booth, and order the same meal of scrambled eggs." In a letter to the cellist Virginia Katims, dating back to January 20, 1973, Gould stated he had been vegetarian for about ten years.
It has been debated whether or not Gould's mind fell within the autism spectrum. The diagnosis was first suggested by psychiatrist Peter Ostwald, a friend of Gould's, in the 1997 book Glenn Gould: The Ecstasy and Tragedy of Genius.
Gould lived a private life: Bruno Monsaingeon said of him, "No supreme pianist has ever given of his heart and mind so overwhelmingly while showing himself so sparingly."
When Gould was in Los Angeles in 1956, he met Cornelia Foss and husband Lukas. Foss was an art instructor who had studied sculpture at the American Academy in Rome. Her husband worked for both the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra and the Brooklyn Philharmonia. After several years, Gould and Cornelia Foss became lovers. Foss left her husband in 1967 for Gould, taking her two children with her to Toronto. She purchased a house near Gould's 110 St. Clair Avenue West apartment. In 2007, Cornelia Foss finally admitted that she and Gould had had a love affair lasting several years. According to Foss, "There were a lot of misconceptions about Glenn, and it was partly because he was so very private. But I assure you, he was an extremely heterosexual man. Our relationship was, among other things, quite sexual." Their affair lasted until 1972, when she returned to her husband. As early as two weeks after leaving her husband, Foss noticed disturbing signs in Gould. She alluded to a serious paranoid episode:
"It lasted several hours, and then I knew he was not just neurotic – there was more to it. I thought to myself, 'Good grief, am I going to bring up my children in this environment?' But I stayed four and a half years." Foss did not discuss details, but others close to Gould said he was convinced someone was trying to poison him and that others were spying on him.
On September 27, 1982, just two days after his 50th birthday, after experiencing a severe headache, Gould suffered a stroke that paralyzed the left side of his body. He was admitted to Toronto General Hospital and his condition rapidly deteriorated. By October 4, there was evidence of brain damage, and Gould's father decided that his son should be taken off life support. Gould's public funeral was held in St. Paul's Anglican Church on October 15 with Lois Marshall and Maureen Forrester, a service attended by over 3,000 people and broadcast on CBC. He is buried next to his parents in Toronto's Mount Pleasant Cemetery (section 38, Row 1088, Plot 1050). The first few bars of the Goldberg Variations are carved on his marker. According to the Glenn Gould Foundation, the cemetery staff are often asked for directions to his grave.