“The defining moment of Glenn Gould’s career came in 1964 when, at the age of 31, he withdrew from all public performance. The move was viewed by audiences and critics as willful and bewildering, and was seen as evidence that despite his demonstrably supreme artistry he was, in the argot of the common man, a nut.”~~~Mark Satola
Glenn Gould (September 25, 1932 – October 4, 1982) was born in Toronto to Russell Herbert Gold and Florence Emma Gold, Presbyterians of Scottish and English ancestry. The family’s surname was changed to Gould informally around 1939, in order to avoid being mistaken for being Jewish, given the prevailing anti-Semitism of prewar Toronto and the Gold surname’s Jewish association. A pampered only child, Gould was taught piano by his mother, and demonstrated such remarkable talent that, in 1942, he entered Toronto’s Royal Conservatory of Music. His piano style and independence of mind soon marked him as a maverick. 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.” He had the technique and tonal palette of a virtuoso, although he had a habit of upsetting many pianistic conventions.
Throughout his life, Gould was plagued by many imaginary maladies. But it was his dislike of performing in public, of being ‘looked at’ by audiences, that allowed his hypochondria to blossom and enabled him to cancel performances. Soon he became the habitué of specialists ranging from chiropractors to psychiatrists. Gould’s American début, in 1955, and the release a year later of his recording, Bach’s Goldberg Variations, launched his international concert career, earning him widespread acclaim, despite his musical and personal idiosyncrasies. As Gould’s celebrity grew, some of his peculiarities became as famous as his playing. He insisted on sitting in a special low-slung chair his father made for him, so that his long arms seemed to angle upward to the keyboard. This famous chair was designed so that Gould could sit very low at the keyboard and allowed him to pull down on the keys rather than striking them from above. At times, he seemed like the Howard Hughes of classical music: a pill-popping hypochondriac who wore gloves, a scarf, overcoat and flat cap even at the height of summer, and who was so averse to physical contact that ordinarily he wouldn’t even shake hands. His rambling interviews and humming loudly when onstage fueled publicity that only served to heighten his celebrity.
Gould 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 texture of Bach’s music. In the case of Bach, Gould said, “(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 Glenn Gould on the piano at all. You must have that immediacy of response, that control over fine definitions of things.”
Gould died of a stroke soon after his 50th birthday. Since then, he has enjoyed a remarkable posthumous ‘life.’ During his lifetime, Gould was often portrayed less as a real person than a collection of tics. He has been the subject of an enormous body of literature, translated into many languages. He has also inspired conferences, exhibitions, festivals, societies, radio and television programs, novels, plays, musical compositions, poems, visual art and a feature film; Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould. Here’s a short video of Gould hunched over the keys demonstrating his remarkable talent while sitting in his low-slung chair.