By James Sandham
Well, music lover, this week marks the 80th anniversary of Glenn Gould’s birth (September 25, 1932), and next month will be the 30th anniversary of his death (October 4, 1982), so I thought I’d take this opportunity to reflect back on the man, his music and his career. The question is: Where do we begin?
Despite dying at a mere 50 years of age, Gould was nonetheless recognized internationally as one of the 20th century’s great musicians, one of the era’s most well-known and celebrated pianists, and a renowned composer, conductor, broadcaster and writer.
We might as well start at the beginning, way back in September of 1932, when Gould was born to Russell and Florence Gold (they changed their name to “Gould” in 1939), right here in Toronto. He grew up in the city’s east end (32 Southwood Drive, to be exact, which is now recognized by the City of Toronto as an official historical site), and his musical talents were clear from the beginning. It was reported that as a baby he hummed instead of crying and wiggled his fingers as if he was playing chords.
By age three Gould’s perfect pitch had already been noticed, and he could read music before he could read words. Of course, both his parents were musical – especially his mother, who had planned to become a professional musician and helped establish Gould’s early musical habits, including that of “singing” everything he played, which manifested throughout his career as subconscious humming (much to the bane of his sound engineers). Still, the young Gould’s talents seemed almost preternatural. For example, by the age of six he was already performing his own compositions at the Emmanuel Presbyterian Church, and by age 10 he was attending the Royal Conservatory of Music. He would pass his final conservatory examination in piano two years later, receiving the highest marks of any candidate.
Gould went on to perform with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, making his first appearance with them in 1946. They played the first movement of Beethoven’s “Piano Concerto No. 4.” His first solo recital was the following year. Ten years later, in 1957, he embarked on his tour of the Soviet Union, the first North American to play there since the Second World War.
In spite of these early successes as a performer, Gould eventually came to see the public concert as “a force of evil,” and later stopped performing them completely, arguing that they devolved into a competition with a non-empathetic audience primarily attendant to the possibility that the performer would err or fail meeting critical expectation. Gould also had a pronounced aversion to what he termed the “hedonistic” approach to music: superficial theatricality, the cult of showmanship and gratuitous virtuosity. The institution of the public concert, he felt, encapsulated all of this, thereby degenerating art into a “blood sport.”
Thus it was that on April 10, 1964, Gould gave his last public performance, playing in Los Angeles at the Wilshire Ebell Theatre. He’d performed fewer than 200 concerts over the course of his career – which, to put that in perspective, is about the equivalent of two years of touring for one of his contemporaries, like Harvey Van Cliburn. In addition to the aforementioned reasons, Gould said he abandoned live performance because he simply preferred the control of the recording studio, where every aspect of the final musical product could be tweaked to his specifications. He subsequently chose to spend the rest of his life focused on the recording, writing and broadcasting of music, as well as writing and lecturing on musical critique.
After years of prolific output, Gould suffered a stroke on September 27, 1982, that paralyzed the left side of his body. He was admitted to the Toronto General Hospital, where his condition deteriorated quickly; by October 4 there was evidence of brain damage. Gould’s father decided that his son should be taken off life support. He now lies next to his parents in Toronto’s Mount Pleasant Cemetery, the first few measures of the “Goldberg Variations” carved onto his marker.
Extract from �The Art of Piano� � Glenn Gould playing Bach�s Partita No. 2