“The purpose of art is not the release of a momentary ejection of adrenalin but is, rather, the gradual, lifelong construction of a state of wonder and serenity,” Canadian musical genius Glenn Gould was quoted. He believed “that the justification of art is the internal combustion it ignites in the hearts of men and not its shallow, externalized public manifestations.” From his early childhood, music — its performance, its creation, its ability to touch the soul — occupied every fibre of Gould throughout his life.

The only child of Russell and Florence Gould, Glenn Herbert Gould was born in Toronto on Sept. 25, 1932. Living in the affluent neighbourhood of The Beaches, Gould’s father was a furrier. Both parents were musically trained, and his mother, who considered a career as a singer, tutored piano and voice. The family enjoyed summers at a cottage near Lake Simcoe.

Immersed in music when a wee child, Gould’s mother taught him piano lessons beginning at age four until he was 10. Next, he studied at the Toronto Conservatory of Music and attended Williamson Road Public School and Malvern Collegiate Institute.

Gould’s “classmates remember him as strange but lovable, and they were clearly impressed by his talents as a pianist,” wrote Alana Bell in her doctoral dissertation, The Lives of Glenn Gould: The Limits of Musical Auto/Biography, University of Hawaii at Manoa, May 2012. The gifted boy’s parents did not push him to become a dedicated musician, but Gould had his own plans.

At only age 13, Gould’s formal debut performance playing the organ took place at Eaton Auditorium in Toronto on Dec. 12, 1945. Five months later, “on May 8, 1946, he gave his premiere performance as a pianist, playing the first movement of Beethoven’s fourth piano concerto with the Toronto Conservatory Symphony Orchestra at Toronto’s Massey Hall,” stated “Glenn Gould Biography” at Musician Guide. Later that year, he earned “an associate diploma from the Toronto Conservatory.”

Leaving high school without a diploma in 1951, the exceptional musician was already performing on CBC Radio. Tweaking the equipment into producing unique notes, Gould realized that “through technology, he could overcome the piano’s limitations and improve upon his original result,” stated Kevin Bazzana, Betty Nygard King, et al in The Canadian Encyclopedia, edited March 4, 2015.  The outcome “would fundamentally influence his attitudes and approach to performance and recording.”

Supporting his son, Russell Gould made adjustments to his piano chair, customizing it by “sawing off the legs of a folding bridge chair and making each leg individually adjustable,” mentioned Bazzana. The musician “insisted on using the chair even when the padded seat was worn through.” Gould’s chair was significantly lower than the average pianist’s chair by 15 centimetres.

Performing concerts across the country, Gould was “establishing a reputation as one of the country’s most promising musicians.” By January 1955, he made his American debut in Washington, D.C., and New York City, executing his preferred selection of favourites instead of the overplayed 19th-century composers. His vast skill was immediately recognized. Columbia Records made the extraordinary offer of a contract to Gould after hearing “only a single performance in New York City.”

Rocketing to stardom, Gould’s “first recording, of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, was released in 1956 and became a best seller,” said Musician Guide. The quirks of the pianist drew attention as well, hunched low at the keyboard, singing and humming, and with a bottle of water at hand. Gould hated to be chilly, so he “wore wool sweaters under his tuxedo vest to ward off the cold of drafty concert halls.”

Touring until 1964, Gould performed several hundred concerts over his career. His interests in music stretched beyond performance art into composing and conducting, and he was a prolific writer on the subject of music. Gould gave lectures and made radio documentaries, all the while in the recording studio, too. The musician was not fond of performing, feeling like a Vaudeville act. He made a change.

Holding his last concert on April 10, 1964, in Los Angeles, Gould left performing while he was at the top of his game. Technology called him to come out and play.

Advancing his innovative ideas, the young man understood that the future of music involved electronic media, recording and broadcasting concerts. “In the early 1960s, he began giving radio and TV recitals that were unified or tied together with his own spoken commentary,” noted Bazzana. It was a time of inexhaustible writing for Gould as well, “exploring many musical and non-musical topics in (record album) liner notes, periodical articles, reviews, scripts and interviews.”

Expanding his talents to movie music, Gould’s magical touch contributed to the soundtracks for Slaughterhouse Five (1972) and The Wars (1982), among others. A highlight of his career came in 1982 when “he conducted members of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra in a recording of Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll,” said Musician Guide.

Making plans for slowing down and considering retirement, Gould was abruptly halted by a stroke in 1982. Unwell for years, he suffered ailments and pain throughout his body, including his back with poor posture on his piano low chair, and with his hands. Consuming a pharmacy of medication may have led to further problems. Also, “Gould is a strange and complex subject for a personality study,” according to Eugenia Biedma in “The Two Faces of Glenn Gould: On His Health and Personality,” at Glenn Gould Foundation, June 2022. But “of Gould’s high intellectual abilities there can be no question.”

Among many awards, Gould received an honorary degree in 1964 from University of Toronto, and earned a Grammy in 1973 for the album liner notes with his recording of Hindesmith’s Sonata No. 2 in G Major. Offered the prestigious Companion of the Order of Canada by the Governor General in 1970, Gould declined the honour.

Glenn Herbert Gould died days after his 50th birthday in a Toronto hospital on Oct. 4, 1982. He is regarded as one of Canada’s greatest musicians, and a master and visionary of the art.

Gould is remembered by scholarships at the Royal Conservatory of Music, and by the Glenn Gould Studio, considered “the jewel of the Canadian Broadcasting Centre,” in Toronto. In 1999, CBC commissioned artist Ruth Abernethy to create a life-size and life-like bronze statue of Gould, seated on a bench outside of CBC offices at 1255 Front St. W., Toronto. In 1983, the Glenn Gould Foundation was established to continue his legacy and offering prizes to amazing young musicians.

The scintillating works of Glenn Gould may be heard on CD, vinyl, and video recordings. YouTube has a selection of videos in which you can share the “wonder and serenity” of the musician’s music.