BORN: Toronto, Ontario • 25 September 1932
DIED: Toronto, Ontario • 4 October 1982
Fans and friends, intimates and strangers could all agree on one thing about Glenn Gould: he was more than a little weird. He often wore winter gloves, a hat, and an overcoat on hot summer days.
He liked to sleep during the day and record music all night. He lived for days on nothing but milk¬ shakes and custard. His friends rarely saw him, but he would often call them on the telephone late at night and talk for hours at a time. He was, in short, one of the great Canadian eccentrics of all time.
Less extraordinary but more important, he was also one of the great musical geniuses of his era. His interpretations of pieces performed thousands of times before were nothing short of revolutionary; his infrequent live performances are still talked about; and his achievements in recorded music were ahead of his time.
It was apparent early on that Gould had a head start on becoming both an eccentric and a genius. At three, he could read music and had perfect pitch. He showed a passion for the piano immediately on being introduced to it. At school, meanwhile, he was mostly withdrawn and self-absorbed; friends remember him vigorously conducting silent symphonies on the walk home.
Despite his parents’ concern that Gould not be rushed into public performance, it soon became clear that they had a child prodigy on their hands. His debut at the age of thirteen attracted rave notices, and, a year later, Gould was concerto soloist with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. He was a regular on CBC radio before he was twenty.
When he first took the stage in the United States in January 1955, the response was overwhelming: Gould’s passion for every note he played, evidenced in his extreme shifts of tempo and intensity, made the works he performed unfamiliar to many who had heard them before.
He signed a recording contract almost immediately and embarked on a world tour. The same year, Gould’s recorded version of Bach’s Goldberg Variations—his first major album—was received as a milestone accomplishment. Bach’s careful, measured harmonies seemed to take on a life of their own.
In no time he gained the celebrity status that most clas¬ sical musicians could only dream about. It helped that, talent aside, Gould cut an unforgettable figure every second he was on the stage. He hummed aloud; he often appeared bewil¬ dered and distracted; his hair was unruly and his clothes often rumpled; his piano stool was so low that he seemed to be reaching up to the keyboard.
The media’s obsession with his quirky character traits made Gould’s performances sometimes seem like a circus act. Certainly he felt that way and often threatened to leave the concert stage forever. Finally, he made up his mind.
“The concert is dead,” Gould announced after a show in Chicago on Easter Sunday in 1964, with typical determina¬ tion but uncharacteristic clarity. Nobody believed him at first, but at the age of thirty-one, his performance career was over for good.
His life at the keyboard was just beginning, however. Gould’s self-absorption had always been about perfecting the music, and the recording studio gave him the opportunity to aim for perfection. Typically, he recorded a piece from start to finish, then slowed the tape down and painstakingly fixed every possible flaw.
No classical artist had ever approached recording this way, and Gould’s experiments with micro¬ phone placements, balancing, and editing were far ahead of his time. The results, measured in reviews and record sales, were spectacular.Though a reclusive figure from the mid-1960s, Gould developed a sideline career in radio.
He starred in several documentaries and produced others on his own. He was on the verge of giving serious attention to becoming a regular conductor when he died suddenly of a massive stroke, not long after his fiftieth birthday. By then Gould had recorded more than eighty albums that, combined, sold over 1.2 million copies.
Of course, Glenn Gould’s live and recorded piano performances were only as good as the individual listeners thought they were. Many were stunned, some even awed, at the way this Canadian played the piano.
But there remained those who were unimpressed, claiming that Gould was reck¬ lessly extravagant in his musical interpretation and more crazy than brilliant. Either way, the world of live and recorded classical music that he left was far different from the one he found.