Glenn Gould is a bona fide Canadian icon who became one of the most famous and celebrated classical pianists of the 20th century. His playing was distinguished by remarkable technical proficiency and capacity to articulate, in particular, the works of Johann Sebastian Bach.
Gould was born in Toronto in 1932, and enjoyed a privileged, sheltered upbringing in the quiet Beach neighbourhood. His musical gifts became apparent in infancy, and though his parents never pushed him to become a star prodigy, he became a professional concert pianist at age 15, and soon gained a national reputation. By his early twenties, he was also earning recognition through radio and television broadcasts, recordings, writings, lectures and compositions.
Early on, Gould’s musical proclivities, piano style and independence of mind marked him as a maverick. Favouring structurally intricate music, he disdained the early-Romantic and impressionistic works at the core of the standard piano repertoire, preferring Elizabethan, Baroque, Classical, late-Romantic and early-20th-century music. Bach and Schoenberg were central to his aesthetic and repertoire. He was an intellectual performer, with a special gift for clarifying counterpoint and structure, but his playing was also deeply expressive and rhythmically dynamic. He had the technique and tonal palette of a virtuoso, though he upset many pianistic conventions – avoiding the sustain pedal, using détaché articulation, for example.
Believing that the performer’s role was properly creative, he offered original, deeply personal, sometimes shocking interpretations (extreme tempos, odd dynamics, finicky phrasing), particularly in canonical works by Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms.
Gould’s American début, in 1955, and the release a year later of his first Columbia recording, of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, launched his international concert career.
His retirement was fuelled by his devotion to the electronic media. Gould was one of the first truly modern classical performers, for whom recording and broadcasting were not adjuncts to the concert hall but separate art forms that represented the future of music. He made scores of albums, steadily expanding his repertoire and developing a professional engineer’s command of recording techniques. He also wrote prolifically about recording and the mass media, his ideas often harmonizing with those of his friend, the influential intellect, Marshall McLuhan.
Though he never became the significant composer that he longed to be, Gould channelled his creativity into other media. In 1967, he created his first “contrapuntal radio documentary,” The Idea of North, an innovative tapestry of speaking voices, music and sound effects that drew on principles from documentary, drama, music and film. Over the next decade, he made six more such specimens of radio art, in addition to many other, more conventional, recitals and talk-and-play shows for radio and television. He also arranged music for two feature films.
Gould lived a quiet, solitary life, and guarded his privacy. He maintained a modest apartment and a small studio, and left Toronto only when work demanded it, or for an occasional rural holiday. He recorded in New York until 1970, when he began to record primarily at Eaton Auditorium in Toronto.
In the summer of 1982, having largely exhausted the piano literature that interested him, he made his first recording as a conductor, and he had ambitious plans for several years’ worth of conducting projects but, shortly after his 50th birthday, Gould died suddenly of a stroke.
Since then, he has enjoyed a remarkable posthumous “life.” His multifarious work has been widely disseminated. He has been the subject of an enormous and diverse literature in many languages. And he has 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).
Moreover, his ideas – like McLuhan’s – still resonate strongly today in the world of digital technology, which was in its infancy when he died. His postmodernist advocacy of open borders between the roles of composer, performer and listener, for instance, anticipated digital technologies (like the Internet) that democratize and decentralize the institutions of culture.
There is no question that Gould, perhaps more than any other classical musician, would have understood and admired digital technology – and would have had fun playing with it.
Gave his first public performance in 1945, playing the organ, and made his first appearance with an orchestra, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, the following year.
Recorded his first Columbia recording, of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, in 1955, which launched his international concert career.
Toured the Soviet Union in 1957, the first North American to perform there since the Second World War.
Honoured posthumously in 1983 with induction into the Grammy Hall of Fame for his 1955 recording of Bach: The Goldberg Variations.
The Glenn Gould Foundation was established in Toronto in 1983 to honour Gould and preserve his memory.