Glenn Gould From A To Z (by Michael Stegemann)



Gould’s debut recital in New York’s Town Hall took place on 11 January 1955. In the audience was David Oppenheim, director of artists and repertoire for the Masterworks division of Columbia Records. “I was – thrilled,” he later recalled. “And looked around to see if there were any of my colleagues from other record companies there – didn’t see them – and moved as quickly as I could to get to his manager the next day to propose a deal.” It was not that Columbia lacked pianists – its Masterworks catalogue included such eminent names as Robert Casadesus, Leon Fleisher and, above all, Vladimir Horowitz. But Gould was unique. The exclusive contract that initially ran for only two years envisaged four LPs a year and marked “the beginning of a beautiful friendship”. Gould seems never to have toyed with the idea of switching to another label, and for its part Columbia granted him almost all the liberties he wanted in terms of his choice of repertory and ensured that producers like Howard Scott, Andrew Kazdin and Samuel H. Carter treated the eccentric genius indulgently. Between 6 June 1955 – the day of his first recording session for the Goldberg Variations – and his final studio session on 3 September 1982, when he recorded Richard Strauss’s Piano Sonata op. 5, eighty-one Artist Contract Cards document this happy and fruitful symbiosis that was reflected in a total tally of around seventy-five gramophone records.


“Canada’s a place to live comfortably, amicably, and with reasonable anonymity.” Would Gould’s career have run along different lines if he had been a United States citizen or if he had been born in Europe? At least in his native country he enjoyed the status of a distinguished Canadian, whether as “Canada’s finest concert pianist” or as his country’s “most experienced hermit”. Until he made his United States debut in January 1955, he had appeared exclusively in Canada, where he was already a national celebrity. In January 1971 he set up his own recording studio in his home city of Toronto and in the final ten years of his life seems practically never to have left Canada. It was an ideal place to which to retire: “I think the latitudinal factor is important to me – the fact we’re a northern people, cross-pollinated by influences from the south.” In commemoration of his country’s Centennial in 1967, he recorded an LP featuring piano works by contemporary Canadian composers. And in 1979 he played the part of a city guide in John McGreevy’s film Glenn Gould’s Toronto, offering the Zoo’s elephants a loud and out-of-tune rendition of Mahler’s Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt.


The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) was established in 1932 – coincidentally the year of Gould’s birth – and was something akin to the pianist’s artistic home. He probably spent more time in the CBC studios than anywhere else, starting with his first radio recital on Christmas Eve 1950 and ending with a reading from Natsume Soseki’s 1906 novel The Three-Cornered World in December 1981. His producers always gave him a free hand, no matter whether it was a recital, a radio or television feature, a radio play or a docudrama. The studio was a kind of playground where he could romp to his heart’s content. His audio and video legacy with CBC is correspondingly varied. Today the Glenn Gould Studio that was opened in Toronto in 1992 recalls Canada’s most famous music and media star, as does a life-size bronze sculpture by Ruth Abernethy depicting him sitting on a bench outside the CBC building on Front Street West, wearing his trademark coat and cap and waiting patiently for the countless fans who have their photographs taken beside him every day.


The chair was Gould’s ultimate accessory. It was an old high-backed wooden folding chair whose legs had been shortened by his father. Screws tapped into the end of them allowed its height to be adjusted, while its back consisted of a stylized maple leaf. The seat was fourteen inches off the floor – “that’s still a bit too high for comfort,” Gould explained, “and so I put a block under each of the casters of the piano to raise the instrument about an inch and a quarter. […] I don’t understand, frankly, how anybody can play the piano at the conventional heights which are afforded by ordinary benches.” This chair accompanied Gould on all his tours, and when its seat broke in transit, he sat on the frame, covering it only in a piece of cowhide. While he was still giving public concerts, Gould was able to reduce conductors to despair with his chair, tinkering with it in the way that a racing-car driver might do with his car and causing George Szell, for example, to tell him to “stick one of those legs up your rear end, Mr. Gould!” Eventually the chair began to squeak with age, a noise audible in many of Gould’s recordings, although his singing along with the music was ultimately even louder. It is worth adding that Gould’s fans can now buy authentic replicas of the chair.


“On that hot, humid June day […] he ambled to the door wearing a winter overcoat over his Harris tweed jacket and sweater, a Shetland wool scarf, and a cap pulled down over long, straggly blond hair,” Columbia producer Howard Scott recalled his first encounter with Gould. And, of course, there were the gloves. (It may be added parenthetically that Gould almost certainly never played the piano in mittens, even if photographs exist suggesting that he did.) The way he dressed was neither chic nor modern but was as intrinsic a part of Gould as his inevitable folding chair. Clothes or disguise? Did he even notice what he was wearing? His socks, for example, never matched, as his producer Andrew Kazdin observed: “Usually one was dark blue and the other one gray or black. I have always suspected that this color scheme was not accidental.” The more Gould withdrew from the world, the more he neglected his outward appearance: Don Hunstein’s cover photo for Gould’s 1980 LP recording of Bach’s Little Preludes and Fugues shows a tramp in old clothes and in an empty room, the plaster peeling from its walls. And the pianist turned up for his second recording of the Goldberg Variations in April 1981 looking positively unkempt, unshaven, his thinning hair straggling over his shoulders, his face hidden behind unfashionable, outsize horn-rimmed glasses: “I am lost to the world,” to quote the title of one of Mahler’s Rückert Songs.


Glenn Gould’s work-list ranges from a Chorus for Post-Nuclear Frogs to strictly dodecaphonic piano and chamber music and from a cadenza to Beethoven’s First Piano Concerto to the half-hour String Quartet op. 1 in the late Romantic style of Anton Bruckner, to say nothing of So You Want to Write a Fugue? for four vocal soloists and a string quartet that Gould himself described as a “singing commercial” for the art of fugal composition. Among his unpublished papers were countless sketches, including some for an opera, Dr. Strauss Writes an Opera. “I’m more convinced than ever”, Gould claimed in an interview before his concert drop-out, “that I’d rather be a composer.” And he announced to the world that after he had turned fifty he would limit his activities to conducting and composition. How serious was he when he made this claim? And how seriously should we take his modest oeuvre? It is hard to say. What he lacked was a distinctive musical style: “It’s all either Schoenberg or Brahms, what I write.” But if we regard the three radiophonic docudramas that he made for CBC, then Gould was a true member of the avant-garde.


“There’s a very curious and almost sadistic lust for blood that overcomes the concert listener,” Gould once remarked. It was “a kind of gladiatorial instinct that comes upon the case-hardened concert-goer.” Gould hated the whole business of giving concerts not least because his antics on the platform often seemed to be of greater interest to the press and the general public than his actual playing. There were early signs of his decision to retire, and yet his abdication following a recital in Los Angeles on 10 April 1964 still came as a surprise. Gould was only thirty-two and never again performed in public – not even for the handsome fee of $100,000 that Carnegie Hall was willing to pay him for his comeback. In a long interview with the director of Columbia’s Masterworks division, John McClure, he explained the reasons for his retirement and sought to justify it. No other artist has broken as completely with the concert industry as did Gould. What remained was the “Hysteric Return” that he staged in 1980 as a radio fantasy for his Silver Jubilee Album in the form of a fictitious concert on an oil rig in the Beaufort Sea in Canada’s far north, at the end of which the entire audience was washed overboard into the storm-tossed waves. The last thing that could be heard was the random clapping and barking of a solitary seal.


Gould’s concert drop-out was to be followed by his actual drop-out. His contract with Columbia expired when he turned fifty and from then on he wanted to devote himself to conducting and composition: “Scores to learn” he scribbled down on a piece of paper shortly before his death. The list runs to two sides and catalogues the works that he wanted to record as a conductor, a list that ranges from Bach’s B minor Mass to Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, Richard Strauss and Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht. In the event, only one of these works was recorded, Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll. But did he need an orchestra at all? An early film shows the twenty-four-year-old Gould conducting the contralto Maureen Forrester in Urlicht from Mahler’s Second Symphony at the 1957 Chrysler Festival. The fluent and expansive gestures (without a baton) are almost the same as those that he used when conducting himself at the piano.