Think about Gould’s incomparable technical facility, the uncompromising quest for an artistic ideal and sheer force of personality. Are these not the hallmarks of genius?
Glenn Gould, the internationally celebrated and proudly Canadian pianist and devoted Torontonian, was a legend in his own lifetime. Forty years after his premature death at age 50, Gould has become a mythical figure, as renowned for his personal eccentricities as for his enduring artistic achievements.
No Canadian performing artist has been the subject of so much biographical scrutiny, whether in print or onscreen. Peter Ostwald’s 1997 Gould biography was subtitled “The Ecstasy and Tragedy of Genius.” Kevin Bazzana titled his 2003 contribution to the genre “Wondrous Strange.” Catch the drift?
Nor, I suspect, has any Canadian performer been more memorialized, a mention in “The Simpsons” not excepted.
Gould’s childhood home at 32 Southwood Dr. in the Beach is a historic site, as befits a man officially designated by the Canadian government as a “National Historic Person.” Canada Post put him on a stamp in 1999. It was only 46 cents to mail a letter then.
The professional performance training division of Gould’s alma mater, the Royal Conservatory of Music, is named in honour of its most famous alumnus. Just last month, the atrium of that august institution was the setting for an imaginative Tapestry Opera production called “Gould’s Wall,” which metaphorically evoked an artist’s struggle to embrace their destiny.
The Canadian Broadcasting Centre on Front Street West is home to the state-of-the art Glenn Gould Studio. Outside the CBC’s mammoth building, selfie-seeking tourists snuggle up to Ruth Abernethy’s life-sized bronze statue of Gould, portrayed in his trademark cap, gloves and overcoat, sitting cross-legged on a park bench. One wonders how the germ-phobic Gould, who generally avoided physical encounters with fellow humans, would feel about that!
For a while, earlier this century, Italian furniture maker Cazzaro sold replicas of the famous creaky folding chair Gould’s father adapted for his son in 1953 and which the pianist insisted on using ever after. One of these survives in the offices of the Glenn Gould Foundation.
That charitable organization, established in Toronto in 1983, seeks to honour Gould’s spirit and legacy by, according to its stated mission, “promoting creativity and helping to transform lives through the power of music and the arts.”
The foundation’s most prominent activity is the awarding of what composer Philip Glass, a former recipient, called the Nobel Prize for the arts. Among 13 Glenn Gould Prize laureates to date, starting with Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer in 1987, are such luminaries as cellist Yo-Yo Ma, singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen and groundbreaking Japanese composer and musical theorist Toru Takemitsu.
The winner of the 14th Glenn Gould Prize, worth $100,000, will be announced at noon on Sunday, the 90th anniversary of Gould’s birth, in a public event at the conservatory’s Telus Centre for Performance and Learning.
But what of Gould the artist? That aspect of the man can sometimes get shunted aside amidst all the mythologizing. So what if he was a bit weird? Lots of artists are. So what if Gould cultivated a rather austere image when in fact he was quite amiable? Being a bit of a night owl and a recluse doesn’t necessarily make you anti-social.
And what of all the speculation that used to surround Gould’s sexuality or lack of it? That needless and prurient concern was put to rest in August 2007 when this newspaper, thanks to Michael Clarkson, one of its former reporters, revealed that starting in 1967 Gould had a passionate if troubled affair of more than four years with a married woman. She moved to Toronto with her children to be close to him but eventually returned with her husband when Gould’s behaviour became too unsettling. Cornelia Foss assured Clarkson that Gould was in every way a full-blooded heterosexual.
Gould first performed publicly at age five. At that time, before his father legally changed the family name, he was billed as “Glen Gold.” Gould vacillated about the number of “n’s” in his given name.
It was the start of a dazzling concert career, soon augmented by the stupendous success of his fast-paced 1955 recording of “The Goldberg Variations.” J.S. Bach never sounded so alive, so joyous, so profoundly moving. Its first bars are emblazoned on Gould’s grave marker in Mount Pleasant Cemetery. Visitors still leave flowers.
Gould became classical music’s equivalent of a rock star. His onstage mannerisms, his irrepressible humming and singing along with the music, his dress habits, his often witty, sometimes laboured creation of a cast of satirical alter egos; all were components of a carefully assembled persona, fully exploited by recording companies’ publicity departments.
Then, shockingly, in April 1964, at age 31, Gould abandoned live performance. It was not simply his disdain for what he described as the “blood sport” of concertizing. Gould was drawn to what recording technology offered in terms of musical refinement and control over outcomes.
You can get a sense of the depth of this commitment through Sony Classical’s 2017 “Glenn Gould — The Goldberg Variations — The Complete Unreleased Recording Sessions June 1955.” This fall, these are complemented by the release of the equivalent studio sessions from Gould’s much reconsidered and almost 13 minutes longer 1981 recording of the same music.
Said Robert Russ, the German music producer for both releases: “They give people an opportunity to witness how a recording comes into existence; to enter the studio and experience how an artist creates a masterpiece.”
It certainly illuminates Gould’s thoughtful embrace of the overall architecture of a composition as well as his famous ability to articulate clearly the complexities of contrapuntal music.
Gould’s discography remains formidable by any standard and the royalties certainly paid the rent when he said goodbye to juicy live performance fees. Still, as British pianist Stephen Hough pointed out a decade ago, Gould’s retreat from live performance and immersion in the artistic and technical possibilities of high fidelity recordings — in his era pressed onto 12-inch vinyl discs — would be financially life-threatening in today’s precarious digital, streaming marketplace.
Gould mused that live concert-hall performances would become obsolete, yet you’d have trouble getting a decent seat to hear pianist Bruce Liu this week in his Toronto Symphony Orchestra debut. Liu is the 25-year-old, Paris-born, Montreal-raised winner of the 2021 Chopin International Piano Competition. He's not just another pianistic whiz kid but a young artist of disarming maturity who gave an impressive performance on Wednesday night, (the concert repeats Thursday evening and Saturday), of the second piano concerto of an enduringly beloved composer Gould dismissed, along with most of Chopin’s fellow Romantics, as beneath his serious attention.
In death, as in life, Glenn Gould continues to divide opinion. Despite a cult-like reverence among his fans, the “Gouldies,” many of them born long after their hero’s demise, not everyone is willing to kneel at the altar of the pianist’s battered old chair, now preserved at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa like some religious relic.
There will never be agreement about Gould’s legacy. His opinions were so strident and gleefully iconoclastic they were almost certainly designed to ruffle feathers.
As a pianist, Gould’s idiosyncratic interpretations, however carefully thought out, could sound capricious and perverse to more traditionally inclined musicians. By classical music standards, Gould’s recordings have always done well, but not every piece of music he touched turned to gold, although they always turned to Gould. It’s almost impossible to mistake his playing for anyone else’s.
Yet, there is good reason Gould’s name still resonates so powerfully and positively within the music world and beyond. It is so much more than the amplification of a myth. Put aside all we know about his personal proclivities, phobias and pill-popping, about his obsessive and paranoid tendencies. Listen to his playing and his innovative radio documentaries. Read what he wrote, even about pop star Petula Clark.
Think about the incomparable technical facility, the fearlessly penetrating mind, the willingness to challenge dogma, the uncompromising quest for an artistic ideal and the sheer force of Glenn Gould’s personality. Are these not the hallmarks of genius?
Michael Crabb is a freelance writer who covers dance and opera for the Star.