This Week in Music History: September 24 to 30

Sep 25, 2012

By David Ball

Classical pianist par excellence, master of performance and modern composition, foremost interpreter of Bach, media visionary, perfectionist, genius, icon – yes, David Hasselhoff is indeed all of these things. But these characteristics also apply to the late, great Glenn Gould.

I’m a pop, blues and rock guy at heart, so I won’t attempt to wax philosophic on the intricacies of Mr. Gould’s legacy, lest I offend any classical-loving folk with a few misplaced, but well-meaning notes. But I do know this truism: Glenn Gould is one of the most influential and important musicians of the 20th century.

A young Glenn Gould.

Born in Toronto on September 25, 1932, the only child of middle-class parents, Gould showed extraordinary musical promise at a very early age. He enrolled in Toronto’s prestigious Royal Conservatory of Music in 1943, where he was taken under the wing of renowned instructor Alberto Guerrero, whose own style was partly the basis for Gould’s own sensitive touch. Gould once described Guerrero’s keyboard technique as not so much striking the keys as “pulling them down” (Mark Satola, All Music Guide). Gould was also influenced by the nuanced finger pressure methods used in playing the organ.

Gould made his first public appearance at age 16 in Toronto and toured Canada shortly afterward, all the while making frequent appearances on the CBC. He was a concert pianist phenomenon by the age of 22, and a legend before he was 30. His audacious 1955 debut of Bach’s “Goldberg Variations” shot to the top of the charts as it turned the classical music world on its traditionalist head, and continues to be the best-selling classical instrumental album of all time.

Despite his profitable headlining concert career and the continuing notoriety stemming from his remarkable interpretation of the “Goldberg Variations,” Gould abandoned his public performances in 1964, in part to focus his creative energies toward discovering inventive new ways of communicating music through mass media (though other more simple reasons included that he disliked being looked at while on stage and was growing more reclusive).

Glenn Gould circa "Goldberg Variations," 1955.

Friends and colleagues thought his radical new path would ruin him, but Gould proved his naysayers wrong when he embarked on a fruitful recording career with CBS Records while continuing to collaborate with the CBC, performing recitals, creating television essays and producing documentaries for both TV and radio.

Perhaps because the stodgy classical elite perceived him as a polarizing figure – too avant-garde and afflicted with distracting highly publicized eccentricities – Gould won few international accolades during his lifetime, although he did receive several awards posthumously, including his induction into both the Grammy Hall of Fame and Canadian Music Hall of Fame. Suffering from hypertension, Gould suffered a stroke and died on October 4, 1982, just a week or so after celebrating his 50th birthday.

Ruth Abernethy's bronze statue of Glenn Gould in Toronto.

If you find yourself walking past the CBC headquarters on Front Street in downtown Toronto, be sure to quietly pay your respects to Glenn Gould. You can’t miss his bronze likeness lounging on a bench, at peace, as the ignorant and oblivious trudge on by. He wouldn’t have it any other way.


Anne Murray’s “Snowbird,” from the 1969 album This Way Is My Way, couldn’t climb any higher than Billboard’s No. 8 on September 26, 1970, but for most of her fans – and there are millions of them worldwide – it’s easily No. 1 in their collective hearts. The Nova Scotia songstress has had plenty of tracks that went on to greater chart success in the United States, but “Snowbird” is her signature song and, more importantly, one of the most beloved singles ever produced from this country, hence its inaugural induction into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame when the shrine first opened its doors, figuratively speaking, in 2003. The appeal of “Snowbird,” written by Canuck songwriter Gene MacLellan, brought Murray international fame and officially kick-started her long career.

Although the tune cracked the Top 10 on Billboard’s Hot 100, it placed higher in Canada, becoming RPM’s No. 1 country single and runner-up on its pop chart. Incidentally, “Snowbird” was a Top 10 Billboard country hit, topped the U.S. publication’s easy listening chart and was the first single ever to be certified gold in the U.S. by a Canadian female artist.


I know exactly where I was on September 30, 1989: in front of my old tube TV, enduring yet another punishingly unfunny “Saturday Night Live” episode, all in the name of witnessing what would be Neil Young’s historic musical guest slot. His jaw-dropping five-and-a-half minute rendition of “Rockin’ in the Free World” remains not only one of the best one-offs in the iconic NBC sketch comedy’s history, but it easily ranks up there in the greatest balls-to-the-wall live rock performances ever in the annals of the small screen. Others on this informal list include The Who’s epic “A Quick One, While He’s Away” from the made-for-TV “Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus” special from 1968; Patti Smith’s “Gloria” on the first season of “Saturday Night Live” in 1976; My Morning Jacket’s “One Big Holiday” on “Late Night with Conan O’Brien” in 2003; and Jimi Hendrix doing anything on any show ever.

Neil Young on "Saturday Night Live," September 30, 1989.

Young was mired in a battle with his record company through most of the 1980s, which subsequently found him producing a series of poor-selling non-mainstream albums (some believe intentionally). But in 1989, freed from his crippling contract with Geffen, Young triumphantly returned to his late ’70s rock prime with the release of Freedom, and his guest appearance on the second episode of the sketch comedy’s 15th season was seen as his unofficial re-launch. Dressed in ragged jeans, an Elvis T-shirt and a black leather jacket, Young literally destroyed the SNL stage, sneering like he had something to prove. Perhaps he did. It really didn’t matter that he performed two more songs during the broadcast – a solo version of his classic “The Needle and the Damage Done” and another Freedom standout rocker, “No More,” – because Neil Young was back with a vengeance even before “Rockin’ in the Free World'”s final screaming guitar solo ended.

Next week: Alanis Morissette and the O’Keefe Centre

Bach’s “Partita No. 6 in E Minor” performed by Glenn Gould