From the archives: Glenn Gould, 1932-1982 - Macleans.ca
 

From the archives: Glenn Gould, 1932-1982

Read Maclean’s 1982 special report following the pianist’s death at 50: “The tragic ironies of Gould’s death would fill several epics.”


 

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The pianist hunched over the keyboard, culling the essence from Bach’s Goldberg Variations. His body never stopped its ecstatic dance as he faithfully executed the composer’s will. When one hand had no part to play, it conducted the other with rococo flourishes. Woven into the rich counterpoint was the sound of the pianist humming. When he finished, he bowed his head and folded his hands in reverence. The last videotape of Glenn Gould, made during a recording session of the Variations and televised last week by the CBC, came to an end. It was a fitting tribute to the memory and to the profoundly innovative work of the great musician, who died last week at the age of 50.

The tragic ironies of Gould’s death would fill several epics. With a family history of high blood pressure, Gould had been obsessed with physical health, even to the point of avoiding people with colds. Still, he was the victim in his prime of a massive stroke that killed him after life-support systems failed. Moreover, in this last televised session, he was rerecording the first work he made with Columbia Records (now CBS). Said his close friend, film producer John McGreevy: “He had a passion for structure, and it is rather poetic that he died at full sail. With the release of the new Variations, he supplied his life with the perfect bookend.”

But Gould’s death also came at the dawn of a new era. The last audio tape he recorded, which has not yet been released to the public, confirms rumors that he was shifting careers from recording pianist to conductor. The tape is a transcription of Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll for chamber orchestra with Gould conducting. Although it is not yet clear whether it will be released as a record, a private hearing indicates clearly that Gould’s brilliantly insightful and surprisingly romantic interpretation stands as a landmark performance of Wagner’s music.

Gould’s recording output over the vears was nhenomenal: more than 80 discs, with total sales topping 1,250,000 since 1955 when the first version of the Variations appeared. That record even outsold The Pyjama Game in its heyday and is still popular, having recently passed the 100,000-copy mark. But Gould’s legacy goes well beyond his library of recordings. He also put together three radio documentaries and played a prominent role in more than a dozen CBC TV documentaries, such as Musicamera and Music in Our Time. He wrote more than 40 magazine articles, and his record liner notes were legendary. Also, in addition to a string quartet, he composed some of the music for three movies, including Slaughterhouse Five and the yet to be released Canadian film The Wars.

Throughout his career, he maintained an extraordinary level of musicianship, and, on his death, tributes flowed from his colleagues around the world. In Geneva pianist Artur Rubinstein said straightforwardly, “He was a very great musician, and his death is a great loss to the musical world.” At the same time, the lives of great artists are often as legendary as their work, masterpieces in their own right, and Gould’s was no exception. Violinist Yehudi Menuhin, like Gould a child prodigy, eulogized him, saying: “When a man is as great as that, it illuminates the world in a way that lies beyond the ordinary mortal. Gould added another dimension to our existence.”

Much has been made of Gould’s supposed aloofness, but Menuhin speaks for legions of friends in calling him “a very tender and easy person to communicate with.” And,for all his reputed reserve, Gould was not an ivory tower recluse. In fact, few musicians of his stature engage so eagerly in the world around them. In a famous sequence from the television documentary Glenn Gould's Toronto, produced by his friend McGreevy, Gould is up at dawn serenading polar bears at the zoo with Mahler songs.

The term “genius” is often used loosely to describe the exceptionally talented, but Gould was a genius in a more formal sense. Like Mozart and Einstein, he seemed to perceive the world in the light of an inner vision complete in itself. Gould’s vision was composed of pure music, but his joy in it was qualified by the feeling that a piece of music exists perfectly in the mind and always imperfectly when it is actually played. The effort, he felt, was worthwhile, however. “The purpose of art,” he wrote in 1962, “is the gradual lifelong construction of a state of wonder and serenity.” But solitude was necessary to achieve that state, and Gould’s need to withdraw was constant. His intensely spiritual nature made him uncomfortable with, and even fearful of, his physical body, so that he appeared more distant than he really was.

Not all geniuses receive the sensitive, sensible care that Gould experienced as a child growing up in the Beaches area of east Toronto. His poor health made him unusually dependent on his mother, Florence, a distant relative of the Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg. When Gould’s perfect pitch became evident at the age of 3, she began to teach him piano and did not expose him to official competition and schooling until he was 10. Each year his father, Russell, an amateur violinist, had Gould’s piano transported to their summer cottage on Lake Simcoe, 145 km north of the city, then back again in the fall so it would not be damaged by the winter cold.

Since Gould always sat much lower than other pianists, his father also constructed a piano chair to his son’s specifications. The chopped-down chair was to become his trademark, since he used it—battered and patched with adhesive tape though it was—while touring as a concert pianist and in the recording studio. Gould’s chair became so well known, in fact, that the Smithsonian Institution in Washington wanted to acquire it. Much to the dismay of Columbia record producers, however, the chair’s squeaks, along with Gould’s hums, were audible on tape. Finally, they offered to construct a replica with built-in swayability—but without the squeaks.

Once his parents had unleashed him into the world of music, Gould’s rise to the top was meteoric: he played a Beethoven concerto with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra at 13 and gave his first radio recital on the CBC at 18. He was also the first pianist to appear on CBC television, when he was 20. After the 1955 release of the Goldberg Variations, a flamboyant concert career took him around the world: he was the first North American ever to play in the Soviet Union, and his records continue to sell well there. His unusual stage presence and revolutionary interpretations of the classics fuelled his growing fame. But his colleagues were not always as favorably impressed. In 1962 conductor Leonard Bernstein prefaced a Gould performance of the Brahms D Minor Concerto with the New York Philharmonic by informing the audience that he dissociated himself from Gould’s interpretation.

Stories about Gould’s lifestyle at that time abound, many apocryphal but enough of them true to justify labelling him a genuine eccentric. He did soak his hands in warm water or hold them under a heater before performing; he did wear overcoats, rubber overshoes and cutoff gloves in summer. Heavy media exposure made the bundled-up Gould hurrying away from CBC headquarters a familiar figure. Despite his concerns about his health, his diet, consisting largely of custard and milk shakes, would have made wholeearthers blanch. “I never eat greens,” he snorted. “Greens are damnation.” He liked driving at high speeds, whether it was the family boat at the lake or the Lincoln Continental which he bought as his concert career began to flourish and which he used to park far from the curb when he arrived for lunch at Toronto’s posh Benvenuto Place hotel.

Far more upsetting than those quirks to traditionalists was his crusading passion for 20th-century music, especially the works of Arnold Schoenberg. At the Stratford Music Festival, which he codirected for several years in the 1960s, he promoted modern music as well as the careers of many musicians, including contralto Maureen Forrester. Gould accompanied her during her first concert in 1954, and one of the Bach arias she sang then was on her program for the memorial service for Gould in Toronto this week.

When future music historians look back on the 20th century, 1964 might well be seen as a major turning point. After a concert in Chicago that spring, Gould took the unprecedented step of abandoning his successful concert career, claiming that he felt “demeaned, like a vaudevillian ” onstage. The possibility of more completely realizing a composer’s intent through recording and its gadgetry convinced him that performing in front of large audiences was an entirely different art form from studio recording. Machinery held no terrors for him: on the contrary, according to Gould, technology was “a charitable enterprise.” Besides, Gould was always nervous about being watched. Says violist Paul Armin: “Nobody will ever know how Picasso held his brush. Glenn just didn’t want to be watched while working—it was too intimate.”

By shifting the focus of performance into the recording studio, Gould was actually fulfilling a desire he had expressed in 1956: “In 10 to 15 years I want to be known primarily as a composer, not a pianist.” In effect, by completely analysing a piece of music and putting it back together again irrespective of real time and the performer’s particular eccentricities, Gould was assuming the role of original composer. That may explain why his impulse to compose needed no other outlet once he was involved in recording. At the same time, he experimented with what he called “contrapuntal radio documentaries” in which he blended voices together as if they were instruments in a chamber piece.

In addition to recording, leaving the concert stage also gave Gould more time to write articles, expanding on his musical theories. In magazines such as High Fidelity he defended the late works of Richard Strauss against all comers, ranked British singer Petula Clark with her classic hit Downtown above The Beatles, lauded the Moog synthesizer, and decried the romantic piano music of Chopin, Schumann and Liszt. His writing was crisp and dense, very like the music he most appreciated; the title Should We Dig Up the Rare Romantics? No. They're Only a Fad is typical of his style and approach.

Once his concert touring was over, Gould happily settled down in Toronto again and began to explore both the geographic and mythic aspects of the Canadian landscape. Among his radio documentaries is The Idea of North, broadcast on CBC in 1967, which Gould claimed was his most autobiographical work. He passionately identified with the romantic stance of heroic solitude, an attitude also expressed by the five speakers confronting the Canadian North in this piece. As Gould said on television in 1974, “One cannot feel oneself heroic without having first been cast off by the world, or perhaps by having done the casting-off oneself.” He would spend summers on trains in the far North, enjoying both the grandeur of solitude and chance encounters with lumberjacks and fishermen. He had a particular affinity for motels. As he explained to Artur Rubinstein in 1970, “The motel is one of the great inventions of Western man—the idea of having one’s bill to society paid in advance, of having the option to check out whenever you feel so inclined.” But he was no sun chaser and found grey fall days most congenial. Christmases were sometimes spent in the Carolinas, where the weather suited him perfectly— 12 C on average and cloudy.

Gould’s physical isolation was most evident in the lengthy phone calls he made at any time of day or night to good friends or to just casual acquaintances. It was generally understood that Gould’s rule was “Don’t call me, I’ll call you.” An insomniac and inveterate nighthawk who rarely rose before noon, Gould was always happy to commune with fellow sufferers. Mario Prizek, the CBC producer who worked with Gould on his television documentaries, remembers Gould trying to sing him to sleep over the telephone with a complete oneact opera. At other times Gould liked driving around the Toronto area and pausing at four in the morning for coffee and conversation at a truck stop.

Details of Gould’s personal relationships were kept very private by friends, as if all had sworn to keep a sacred trust. Foi* years he maintained an apartment in midtown Toronto and an editing studio in a hotel chosen because it had round-the-clock room service and a discreet side entrance. All the time he also had a house, which even many of his friends did not know existed. Bits of personal information were given to some and not to others; many people are convinced Gould kept track of what got back to him to see if any confidences had been betrayed.

The solitude necessary to his creativity was not resented, however. Says violinist Adele Armin: “He was utterly kind and thoughtful—it was a paradox, because he was completely self-centred as well.” One of Gould’s few public appearances with a woman was on the album cover of Hindemith’s song cycle Das Marienlehen with Toronto soprano Roxolana Roslak; Gould looks almost suave, Roslak distractedly beautiful, and their performance makes the concept of soloist and accompanist outdated. Says Roslak: “He knew what he wanted, but I never felt pressured—the operative word was collaboration.”

Gould left nothing to chance. “He had the next 10 years planned, he was always miles ahead,” says his friend and business associate Ray Roberts. The new recording technique known as digital sound, which makes possible greater clarity and precision, was heavenly music to Gould’s ear. His only other digital recording-six Haydn sonatas—will undoubtedly win that neglected composer new converts, just as Gould had already introduced many listeners to Bach and Schoenberg. Despite the technical problems that have plagued digital technology in its infancy, he was considering rerecording more of his early works. Normally, according to Prizek, he was averse to going back over his previous recordings. Many of them have yet to be released. “Columbia’s vault is full of them,” says Prizek. “He had embarked on complete versions of Bach, Beethoven and Schoenberg, but Columbia just doled them out two or three a year. They would get caught in their own trap by changing technology, like stereo, Dolby and digital.” Many were recorded in Gould’s favorite Toronto “studio,” the Eaton Auditorium recital hall. There, despite ongoing renovations and winter chill, Gould kept playing, wrapped as in years before in an overcoat and warmed by a propane heater.

However, the next logical step for Gould, having mastered the piano repertoire that interested him and all available production techniques, was to guide others toward his interpretations of orchestrated works. He wanted to see if he could record a piano concerto by conducting the orchestra, then playing the piano and overdubbing the tape of the piano onto the orchestral tape. The experiment in conducting started three months ago when he rented the Hamilton Philharmonic and a community college auditorium for a day, flew up a pianist from the Juilliard School of Music in New York, and conducted Beethoven’s second piano concerto. The experiment was a success; French-horn player Robert Hansen called Gould’s conducting “very unorthodox .... It made you sit down and think about Beethoven in a whole new light.” In Gould’s chamber orchestra version of Siegfried, his conducting elicits virtuoso performances of the utmost sensitivity from noncelebrities in the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. The tape ends with Gould exclaiming passionately,

“That was heartbreaking!” But then, with typical Gould humor, he cuts quickly to a voice announcing, “Your cheques will be in the mail next week, ” followed by hearty applause from the orchestra.

Gould never realized these projects, which promised to establish him even more prominently as a pioneer in interpreting music. Says Ray Roberts: “Ironically, he had talked for years about retiring at 50.” Last week, as the newspapers swelled with eulogies from celebrities around the world, others who did not know him personally came to the funeral home to render homage. “I have never done this before,” said Toronto physician Erica Fischer. “I just came to pay my respects to a great and extraordinary man. We have all lost a bit of ourselves with his death.” Next week will see the Canadian release of the new Goldberg Variations: between the two versions flowed a unique outpouring of music imprinted forever on tape and a full, creative life captured forever in memory.

With Shona McKay and Alan Walker in Toronto


With Shona McKay and Alan Walker in Toronto.

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