Glenn Gould was one of the most celebrated and talked-about pianists of the 20th century, thanks to his groundbreaking interpretations of JS Bach and idiosyncratic personality. Humphrey Burton, who knew him, remembers an extraordinary artist.
When I first met Glenn Gould over half a century ago, he was 28 and artist in residence at the 1960 Vancouver Festival.
He was already a world-famous pianist, fabulously good-looking in the James Dean mould and blessed, so it seemed, with a warm, outgoing personality. And he was media-savvy, yet utterly devoted to music.
A pair of fly-on-the-wall films about Glenn, On the Record and Off the Record (both from 1959), had recently been shown on the BBC and made a huge impression, as did a Bernstein show called The Creative Performer, in which Gould played the Bach Piano Concerto in D minor; Stravinsky was the other guest and it was spellbinding.
In Vancouver, where I was moonlighting as a guest critic for CBC, I struck up a working relationship with Glenn which combined friendly banter with a proselytising zeal concerning musical education: I recall a riveting evening of Schoenberg featuring the Ode to Napoleon, the Hanging Gardens song cycle, and the Suite for Piano.
Later in the 1960s when I produced and hosted Conversations with Glenn Gould, one of the four programmes was devoted to Schoenberg, the others being on his beloved Bach, on why he preferred Petula Clark to Mozart, and on what he described as the ‘predictable unpredictability’ of Richard Strauss. His pronouncement on BBC One that the concert hall was finished set heads shaking and tongues wagging: it was even discussed in Parliament.
Glenn’s idiosyncrasies made him a publicist’s dream. He took his own folding chair wherever he went – built for him by his father Bert. It was scarcely a foot off the ground and left him with his nose level with the keyboard. He crouched over the notes like a leopard waiting to pounce and when a hand wasn’t playing he would deploy it to conduct himself.
Sometimes he groaned or moaned; more often he sang as he played, which was an irritation for many and a nightmare for recording engineers who wanted nothing but the notes. I found it endearing – it was as if he’d discovered an aria for which the keyboard served as an accompaniment.
Away from the piano the quirkiness continued: he wore two pullovers on the warmest of days, a long overcoat, gloves, a muffler and a flat cap. Leonard Bernstein, with whom Gould gave many concerts in the 1950s, told me how his wife asked whether the headgear had some kind of religious significance since Gould seemed so reluctant to remove it – even indoors.
When we were first introduced I reached forward to shake his hand. He snatched it away amid gasps from onlookers: did I not know that Mr Gould had recently threatened a lawsuit against a Steinway technician who had greeted him with a friendly slap on the shoulder?
He was determined not to put his hands at risk: he’d had circulation problems since childhood and he wasn’t the only pianist who’s spent half an hour before a concert with his hands and forearms soaking in hot water. Gould’s hypochondria was as much of a legend as his actual playing; I remember him in Vancouver showing off his medicine box, which I’d assumed was a documents case for his music but instead contained shelves of multi-coloured bottles and phials, a pill-popper’s paradise.
When and where was GlennGould born?
In his home town, Toronto, where he was born on 25 September 1932, Gould had been performing publicly since the age of 12, debuting with orchestra two years later in Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4. He also gave recitals on the organ and briefly played for a church congregation but was sacked for losing his place during the hymns.
When did he become famous?
He was 23 when he burst on to the international scene with what became his signature recording, the Goldberg Variations. Critics hailed him as a superstar: here was a pianist to meet Bach’s challenge, a pianist who had everything – a singing tone, fantastic finger dexterity permitting the lightest of staccatos and ultra-fast tempos, an exceptional range of dynamic intensity, an intellectual grasp which ensured a separate life to each part in Bach’s contrapuntal webs and above all a forward drive, a rhythmic spring in the step that was utterly exhilarating.
Over the years Gould was to bring his superb technique to bear on all the great Bach keyboard works, the partitas, the suites, the ‘48’ and even the very abstract Art of Fugue.
So impressive was the Goldbergs recording, so influential in musical circles, that soon he was receiving invitations from as far afield as Tel Aviv, Moscow and the Salzburg Festival. When Karajan invited him to play Bach with the Berlin Philharmonic, the veteran critic HH Stuckenschmidt rated his playing as the best since Busoni: ‘a marvel, an incomparable delight… his technical ability borders on the fabulous; such a combination of fluency in both hands of dynamic versatility, and of range in colouring’.
Why did he stop performing public concerts?
In London he did a Beethoven concerto series with Joseph Krips and the LSO. He visited Stockholm and Vienna and appeared every season with the New York Philharmonic under Leonard Bernstein; they got on famously until 1962, when there was a very public disagreement over the stately tempo Gould had chosen for the opening movement of Brahms Piano Concerto No. 1.
An embarrassingly facetious New York Times review by Harold Schonberg suggested that Gould maybe didn’t have the technique to play the Concerto any faster. The furore stiffened Gould’s long-held resolve to quit the platform. As it happens, I was the first to hear about it: he wrote to me in London a few days later with the news that ‘when the next season is over I shall give no more public concerts’.
He had been saying something similar since he was 18, he added, ‘but this time I really mean it’. He hated the circus aspect, the debilitating travel and the routine. I told him at the time it was such a sadness that he didn’t simply cut back rather than banning ‘live’ appearances altogether. But he stuck to his guns and never gave another concert.
The Brahms was the biggest orchestral work he did. His concerto repertoire was exceedingly small: Bach, including the Brandenburg No. 5, the Mozart C minor and the five Beethoven concertos; he also gave performances of the Schoenberg Concerto and Strauss’s Burleske. (He adored Strauss and made an astonishing solo transcription of Elektra.)
His recital programmes were much more adventurous: he announced himself to American audiences (Washington, 2 January 1955) with a Pavane by Orlando Gibbons, followed by a Fantasia by Sweelinck; works by Berg and Webern shared the rest of the evening with Bach and Beethoven (Op. 109). He often played Bizet, Grieg (a distant relation of his mother), Hindemith, Korngold, Krenek, Sibelius and Scriabin. But not a note of Schumann or Liszt, nor of Chopin once he’d left school.
When did he stop playing publicly?
Gould stopped playing publicly in 1964 but he went on making records until his death 18 years later: recording was central to his existence. His New York-based company CBS (subsequently owned by Sony) knew from the start that they had a best-selling artist on their books and gave him carte blanche over repertoire.
Glenn was the antithesis of the pre-war one-take approach to recording. He leapt at the chance to give himself multiple choices for the editing process. He would record the same passage over and over again, not because of errors but to explore different touches and tone colours, and different tempos varying from stately to jaunty.
His recordings always did good business: the catalogue is catholic in taste and runs to 80 CDs. Some are maddeningly perverse, either too fast or too slow – the theme of the first movement of Mozart’s Piano Sonata in A, for example, is excruciatingly ponderous. But as a body of work, his legacy is deeply impressive.
Eventually, to save him from wearisome travel to New York, CBS helped Gould create a studio in the basement of a department store in Toronto where he would work long nights after the shoppers had gone home. He was famous for his finicky editing which might involve taking a single note from one ‘take’, cutting to another for the next two semiquavers then on to a third for the phrase-end, all within the same bar.
Yet no matter how infuriating his method, his devoted recording colleagues went along with him because they respected his musical authority – and his commercial pull. He had a whim of iron, went the gossip, but he was always charming and courteous, even as he kept his editors up into the small hours; one wag observed that there are so many tape-joins in his final assemblies that for Glenn Gould variety was obviously the splice of life. How he would have enjoyed the digital age!
Gould and I exchanged letters discussing possible TV projects with the BBC well into the 1970s, but in the end I found I couldn’t cope with his interminable transatlantic phone calls in the middle of the night.
In any case he was already marvellously cared for by the Canadian media; much of the time that he saved by no longer playing in public was diverted to the production of television ‘specials’ for CBC such as The Well-Tempered Listener and The Anatomy of Fugue, and to radio documentaries of which the best-known is The Idea of North. I don’t think he ever ventured further north than a train could take him but Gould was obsessed with the Canadian hinterland – the roof of the world – and his 1967 radio feature, the first part of his Solitude Trilogy, was lauded at the time for its creativity.
To my mind its innovative collage of overlapping voices and noises, which Gould said were organised on musical principles, becomes more irritating than enlightening as the 60-minute transmission unfolds. Goodness knows how many man hours were used in its making.
Nobody could ever accuse Gould of idleness, however. In the 1970s he worked on a history of world music narrated by Yehudi Menuhin, with whom he’d earlier made a stimulating programme of Bach, Schoenberg and Beethoven in which they also debated the relative merits of live versus recorded performances. He had a weekly radio programme for CBC, The Art of Glenn Gould, and a long-running series devoted to music of our time.
In the mid-1970s he found a new champion in the French violinist and film-maker Bruno Monsaingeon; they made many films together. My interview technique for the BBC had been to challenge the more outrageous of Gould’s iconoclastic assertions, but Monsaingeon concentrated on extracting the essence of Gould, plying him with softball questions written by Gould himself. The playing is superlative.
When did Glenn Gould die?
Having dropped out of Gould’s telephonic circle, I was all the more shocked when in October 1982, just a few days after his 50th birthday, his death was announced in Toronto.
I learnt that he’d been in poor health for some time. His cousin Jessie said he went downhill with tragic speed. ‘His hair had thinned, he was stooped… he had been boyish-looking and now he was an old man.’ The notes he wrote to himself on a jotting pad in his final years give an extraordinary picture of the countless ailments from which he thought he suffered; he lists a host of prescription drugs used to tackle those illnesses – more than 20 different types, ranging from the predictable valium to such names as allopurinol and hydrochlorothiazide.
Apparently he was seeing four different doctors and playing them off against each other with a reckless disregard for possible side effects. (I’m reminded of the sad fate of Michael Jackson.) Almost totally paralysed by two strokes in two days, Gould sank into a coma and was placed on life-support systems ‘but within a few days’, reported the obituary in the Canadian Churchman, ‘his family made the agonising decision to withdraw those systems’.
Did Glenn Gould ever marry?
Gould had always lived on his own. His apartment was a mess, every bit of space on floor or furniture piled high with books and scores and LPs. Outside his work he had no social life. In his will he left everything to the Salvation Army and the Toronto Humane Society. He was a true solitary who drove the streets at night in his black Buick, living frugally and going nowhere.
The film study, Genius Within – The Inner Life, digs deep, revealing that the painter Cornelia Foss, wife of the composer Lukas Foss, whom Gould greatly admired, left her husband for Gould, taking her two small children to Toronto and living nearby for four years.
She says they talked of marriage: ‘He was an extremely heterosexual man. Our relationship was, among other things, quite sexual.’ But Gould never supplied confirmation: he became a good uncle to her kids but eventually she went back to her husband.
As I see it, his self-reliance was phenomenal. His piano teacher Alberto Guerrero instilled a fabulous technique. His mother gave him an unshakeable belief in his own ideas.
You could argue this was a disadvantage, since he wasted a good deal of time on attempting to conduct and compose, musical activities for which he clearly had little aptitude (all that survives is a string quartet and a choral frolic entitled So you want to write a fugue?).
His ‘contrapuntal’ radio programmes had no broad appeal, nor were his occasional attempts at humour successful, though his polemical writing is still well worth reading (Tim Page edited the excellent Glenn Gould Reader in 1990). His visionary prediction that music-lovers would assume control over how they listened to music, choosing, say, Klemperer’s exposition, Bruno Walter’s development and Karajan’s coda proved hopelessly, comically wide of the mark.
It’s sad that there was nobody in his life to persuade him to put away the medicine box and the tape deck in order to spend more time doing what he did so wonderfully: play the piano. But years after his death his memory is undimmed, his achievement still glorious and still unique.
We named Gould one of the greatest pianists of all time