Glenn Gould

Canadian musician Glenn Gould (1932-1982) provoked much controversy with his piano interpretations, his writings on music, and his preference for recording to playing live concerts. Unlike most renowned pianists, he avoided much music of the 19th century, concentrating instead on that of the Renaissance, Baroque, and early 20th century.

Glenn Herbert Gould was born in Toronto September 25, 1932, and died in the same city October 4, 1982. He was the only child of musical parents, his father being an amateur violinist, and his mother a pianist and organist who had aspired to a musical career earlier in life and who taught him until age ten. Gould was musically precocious, though he denied having been a prodigy. He began reading music at the age of three, discovered that he had perfect pitch at around the same time, and was composing small pieces when he was five. At ten he could play the entire first book of Bach's Well Tempered Clavier.

In that year, 1942, he began studies at the Toronto Conservatory of Music (since 1947 called the Royal Conservatory of Music of Toronto). His teachers there included Frederick C. Silvester, organ; Leo Smith, theory; and Alberto Guerrero, piano. Guerrero, with whom he studied for ten years, was to be his only piano teacher. Gould, himself, minimized the importance of his piano lessons, but fellow pupil John Beckwith attributed Gould's position at the piano, the angle of his fingers to the keyboard, and his pure finger technique to Guerrero's teaching. To Gould, the greatest influences of his youth were the playing of Artur Schnabel, which showed a greater respect for the music than for its medium, the piano; Rosalyn Tureck, for her approach to Bach; and the organ, which he credited as the basis of both his piano technique and his interpretations of Bach. Gould composed throughout his student years, in both tonal and twelve-tone idioms. He passed his associateship exam, by which he established a professional rank, and his music theory exam in 1945 and 1946 respectively.

Years on the Concert Stage

His career as a concert performer also had its beginnings in his student years. In a Toronto Conservatory concert of June 1946 he appeared as soloist in the first movement of Beethoven's fourth piano concerto, and in January of the following year he performed the entire concerto with the Toronto Symphony under Bernard Heinze. By 1952 he had given several performances with orchestras in Toronto, Hamilton, and Vancouver; had toured the western provinces; and had given network radio performances for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC). That same year he stopped his lessons with Guerrero and partially withdrew from the public eye in order to examine music more carefully and to assess his musical possibilities.

Re-emerging onto the concert stage, Gould made his American debut, playing recitals at the Phillips Gallery in Washington, D.C., on January 1, 1955, and at Town Hall in New York City ten days later. The program chosen for these recitals represented the affinity for introspective and contrapuntal writing that Gould maintained throughout his career. It consisted of music by Beethoven, Bach, Webern, Berg, Sweelinck, and Gibbons.

A contract with Columbia Records the day after his New York debut attested to the success of that performance. The first product of what would be a life-long affiliation with Columbia was a recording of Bach's Goldberg Variations in June 1955. This best-selling, highly acclaimed record catapulted Gould into the front rank of concert artists. His String Quartet No. 1, a post-Romantic work owing much to Richard Strauss, received its premier by the Montreal String Quartet in February 1956 and was subsequently recorded and published. In May 1957 he began his first tour outside of North America with several concerts in both Moscow and Leningrad. No Canadian musician had performed in the Soviet Union prior to Gould's appearance. After hearing the pianist's Berlin debut in the same month, the noted German critic H. H. Stuckenschmidt hailed him as "an absolute genius, the greatest pianist since Busoni."

End of His Concert Career

Gould continued to play concerts for the next seven years, to perform on television, and to lecture both in Canada and the United States. He also began to contribute frequently to periodicals, including High Fidelity, Saturday Review, and Piano Quarterly. Throughout these years, however, he became increasingly attracted to the recording medium, and in 1964, after an appearance in Chicago, chose to abandon the concert stage altogether in its favor. He offered several reasons for doing so: a dislike of applause and of "being demeaned like a vaudevillian;" a dislike of music suited for a large hall, especially the bravura concertos of Chopin, Liszt, Schumann, and Rachmaninoff; a reluctance to use those devices, such as rubato and exaggerated dynamics, necessary to project music in a large hall; and what he called "the none-take-twoness of public performances."

Throughout the remainder of his life Gould explored the prospects of recording. The editing process became a vital and integral part of his musical expression, and he felt that even the splicing of two distinct interpretations showed neither a lack of integrity nor necessarily interrupted the continuity of a performance. Eventually he produced his own recordings. Apart from the sound recordings, Gould became involved in film. The series Conversations with Glenn Gould, produced by the BBC in 1966, featured the pianist on four occasions discussing the music of Bach, Beethoven, Schoenberg, and Richard Strauss. For the 1972 film of Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five, Gould performed and arranged the music, some of which he also composed. He also wrote two radio plays, The Idea of North and The Latecomers, which employ a carefully controlled overlapping of spoken voices that Gould calls "contrapuntal radio," and which he regarded as a distinct musical genre.

Gould was certainly among the most remarkable and interesting pianists of the century. His interpretations intentionally confronted the listener with the thoroughness and originality of their conception, often achieved through such means as extreme tempos and novel articulations. Among the most convincing are those of Bach and Schoenberg, both of whom were well-served by his complete finger independence and his attention to overall design. He also championed unusual repertory, including English Renaissance composers and the little-known piano music of Sibelius and Richard Strauss. His renderings of Mozart, for whom he admitted a lack of sympathy, were often less successful.

The possessor of an astounding technique, Gould eschewed music that drew attention to technical feats of the performer or to the instrument, rather than to the piece itself. Throughout his career Gould displayed several unconventional mannerisms, among them humming audibly while playing and conducting himself whenever he had a free hand. Most agree that these were part of his musical personality and not conscious attempts to attract attention to himself.

Further Reading on Glenn Gould

Gould wrote voluminously during his career, usually in the form of record jacket notes or magazine articles, and on every subject that appealed to him. Excepting autobiographical information, which he dismissed as uninteresting, he remains the best source for his ideas. His writing is usually cogent and always spiced with wit. Three volumes of his selected writings provide perhaps the most accessible basis for study. The Glenn Gould Reader (1984), edited and with an introduction by Tim Page, contains the largest and most broadly chosen selection. Conversations with Glenn Gould (1984) contains interviews by Jonathan Colt, originally published in Rolling Stone magazine, with updated and added material. Glenn Gould Variations, By Himself and His Friends (1983), edited by John McGreevy, contains some of Gould's writings interspersed with tributes from other musical luminaries, including Herbert von Karajan, Leonard Bernstein, and Yehudi Menuhin. Geoffrey Payzant's Glenn Gould, Music and Mind (Toronto, 1978) provides the most comprehensive biographical information and attempts to interpret Gould's writings and his often unorthodox opinions. Two interviews with Gould have also been recorded: At Home with Glenn Gould, by Vincent Tovell (CBC, 1959); and Glenn Gould: Concert Dropout, by John McClure (Columbia BS 15, 1968).

    Post a comment