Performer Spotlight: Glenn Gould, the Bach Wizard
In today’s video, we’re going to explore the strange life of Glenn Gould, a world-famous Canadian piano performer.
Gould is essential to know if you’re into Baroque music and/or Bach. Even beyond that he’s known for a great diversity of piano recordings that are very unique (and thus very polarizing).
This video is divided into three parts – a discussion of Glenn Gould’s life and death, followed by a chat about his various eccentricities, and finally some details on his musical style and accomplishments.
Glenn Gould is one of the most renowned Classical piano performers of the 20th Century. He was born in Toronto, Canada in 1932, and died in 1982.
He’s perhaps best known for his performances of Bach, which are always controversial – you either love them or you hate them. Gould was a believer in taking creative liberties and making the pieces your own, which isn’t to everyone’s taste – some people have really particular ideas of what a piece should sound like.
Gould was also very well-known for being, well, eccentric. He had a lot of strange habits, not least of all his “piano chair”, from which he played from a much lower height than a standard bench would allow.
Fun fact: When I lived in Toronto, I actually lived right around the corner from Gould’s apartment on St. Clair West. And from there it was about a 30 minute walk to the Royal Conservatory, renamed to the Glenn Gould school.
Glenn Gould’s Life
Let’s start by talking about his life. Gould was one of those child prodigies who came from a musical family. His mother even intended him to be a musician, so exposed him to plenty of music during her pregnancy and his childhood.
He had perfect pitch (which was discovered when he was 3, and he could read music before being able to read actual words. When other kids would senselessly mash piano keys, Gould would press a chord and listen to the sound fade away.
He joined the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto at age 10, and passed his final exam at the age of 12, achieving the highest marks of any candidate before that point. That meant at age 12, he was qualified as a professional pianist.
Much farther in the future, the Royal Conservatory renamed itself to the Glenn Gould School in the nineties – Canada, and especially Toronto, has a lot of pride for Gould.
Reclusiveness and performing hatred
Gould did some performing and touring as a young man, but officially quit live performances when he was 31. This was for a variety of reasons, including performance anxiety, but his preferred method of musical expression was recordings, and that’s where he devoted his time and energy.
He had a pretty dark perspective on public performances, saying that performers were just in competition with each other, and the audience was just there to see you fail. He even went so far as to say public concerts were a “force of evil”.
He performed less than 200 times in his life. To put that into perspective, a typical professional piano performer would perform something like 100 times a year.
Gould and recording
Instead, Gould developed a “love affair with the microphone”. He liked having the control, and enjoyed splicing performances to create the perfect recording.
While some people might consider the idea of splicing musical takes together to make a final recording, Gould compared it to a film director. He thought that since a person doesn’t expect a two-hour film to have been made in two hours, why should you expect anything different from a recording?
On cutting together his recordings, Gould said, “The tape does lie, and nearly always gets away with it”.
Interesting, studio producers who worked with Gould said that he needed splicing less than most performers. He didn’t piece his recordings together to hide sloppiness – instead, he did it for complete creative control.
Other hobbies and skills
In addition to piano, Gould also enjoyed writing. He wrote for music journals, talking theory and philosophy. He thought that if he wasn’t a pianist, he would have been a writer.
He also did radio broadcasts, including performances, commentaries and stories.
Health and death
Glenn Gould was a self-confessed hypochondriac, but not all of his health ailments were imagined. To avoid germs and damage to his hands, he almost always wore gloves and refused to shake hands with people. He was concerned about high blood pressure, which is probably what caused his stroke (and subsequent death) when he was 50 years old.
Gould had a spine injury as a child (we’ll talk about that more when we discuss his piano chair), something which caused him trouble throughout his life. Because of this, he was always on a heavy cocktail of prescription medications, many of which likely contributed to his poor health.
When Gould had a stroke, it paralyzed the left side of his body and left him with brain damage. Gould’s father decided to take him off life support, and his funeral was attended by over 3,000 people and was broadcast live on CBC (Canada’s main broadcasting network).
The first few bars of Bach’s Goldberg Variations are carved into his headstone, a composition that he was most renowned for recording.
Let’s talk about some of Gould’s eccentricities, starting with his chair.
When Gould was a boy, he injured his back in a fall, so his father made him an adjustable chair for the piano. Gould ended up using this chair for the rest of his life, taking it with him on his travels.
The chair was at a really low height, which contributed to Gould’s unique technique – he was able to pull down on the keys instead of striking them from above, something encouraged by one of his conservatory teachers.
Gould’s Eccentric personality
Another strange thing Gould did, much to the chagrin of recording engineers, is sing while playing piano. They had the difficult and sometimes impossible task of removing his voice from the recordings. It was apparently an unconscious habit, something that likely started when his mother encouraged him to sing everything he played as a child.
Listeners and music critics aren’t always fans of these vocalizations – in the 1981 recording of the Goldberg Variations, a reviewer said that listeners would:
“find the groans and croons intolerable”.
He was also known for strange body movements, like moving in a circular motion while playing piano. The height of the piano needed to be just so. He would only play concerts on his father’s chair, as previously discussed – even when it was completely worn. He basically considered the chair another appendage.
He insisted on temperatures being really warm while he was recording, hating the cold. One time he was arrested in Florida because he was wearing a coat, hat and mittens.
Gould had social problems as well. Later in life he minimized personal contact and did most of his correspondence via mail and phone. He was so averse to touch that when a Steinway piano technician slapped him on the back as a greeting, Gould thought he might be permanently injured from it.
He also didn’t enjoy social events, and performed comparatively few concerts – if he even bothered to show up to them. He was notorious for cancelling performances at the last minute.
Gould was a creature of habit – for example, he would visit Fran’s Restaurant in Toronto, right around the corner from his apartment, every night between 2-3am. He’d sit in the same booth and order the same meal.
One common topic of debate when it comes to Gould’s eccentricities is whether or not he was on the autism spectrum. The theory is supported by a friend of Gould’s and psychiatrist who wrote a book about him (Peter Oswald – Glenn Gould: The Ecstasy and Tragedy of Genius).
Now that we’ve discussed a bit about Gould and his life, let’s talk about his playing style and what made him unique as a pianist.
Probably the most remarkable feature of his playing is its clarity. His articulation is so precise and clear, which is one reason his Bach really shines. Bach’s music is polyphonic, meaning it has multiple melodies happening at once, so clarity is key.
Gould’s technique was also legendary – he could play very quickly while also being able to maintain each notes’ separateness.
At the Conservatory, he was trained in “finger tapping” – basically of teaching the fingers to work independently of the arm, almost like little levers being pushed. This contributed to his clean and controlled technical style.
Aside from his sparkling technique, his style was also very creative – he loved to put his own interpretation on performances. In Gould’s opinion, there was no point in making a new recording if there wasn’t going to be anything different or unique about it.
Music he performed and recorded
Gould is most known for his Bach recordings, and we’ll talk about that. In general, he rejected Romantic music and wasn’t a fan of composers like Chopin and Liszt (too sentimental).
He also recorded quite a bit of Beethoven, and recorded many other composers such as Renaissance composers like Byrd, other Classical composers like Mozart and Haydn, Brahms from the Romantic period, and plenty of modern composers like Hindemith and Shoenberg.
Basically, Gould hated what he called musical “hedonism”. This was music he deemed emotionally self-indulgent and theatrical. As such, he wasn’t a fan of Mozart’s later works, and a large chunk of Romantic music.
When asked about not wanting to play Chopin, Gould said:
“No, I don’t. I play it in a weak moment – maybe once a year or twice a year for myself. But it doesn’t convince me.”
He considered Baroque, and its contrapuntal nature, to be more serious, spiritual and artistic than the simpler homophonic music that came later.
Glenn Gould and Bach
Gould’s recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations was his breakthrough work, and became one of the best-selling classical albums of all time. He re-recorded a newer version in 1981, one of his last recordings. It was slower and more deliberate than the original energetic version in 1955.
Gould loved Bach. He is quoted as saying that Bach was,
“first and last an architect, a constructor of sound, and what makes him so inestimably valuable to us is that he was beyond a doubt the greatest architect of sound who ever lived”.
He made recordings of virtually all of Bach’s important keyboard works – he even recorded some of Bach’s The Art of Fugue on the organ (but didn’t get a chance to finish before he died).
In order to get an even cleaner sound from his Baroque recordings, Gould fixed the action on some of his piano to be more shallow and responsive. Gould said,
“This is the secret of doing Bach on the piano at all. You must have that immediacy of response, that control over fine definitions of things.”
One thing I always find interesting to explore with composers and performers is their personal philosophy on piano practice. Like many other things with Gould, his approach to practice was quite unique.
Gould said that he rarely practiced piano by physically playing – instead, he studied music by reading it (something he learned to do at the Conservatory). Of course, we have to take this with a grain of salt, since Gould obviously practiced and there’s evidence that he especially worked hard on drills and techniques, often of his own creation.
We do know that Glenn was opposed to many hours of practicing, though (Chopin would have concurred). It didn’t make sense to him that people would spend hours at the piano each day. For him, mental rehearsal was even more important than physical rehearsal.
Gould was undoubtedly extremely skilled as a pianist. His ability to memorize was awe-inspiring – apparently he once challenged a friend to name any piece of music that Gould couldn’t instantly play from memory. Even if he didn’t know the piece, he was able to memorize it on the spot.
Since Gould put such a heavy emphasis on mental rehearsal, this doesn’t really surprise me. He probably had something of a photographic memory for music.
So there you have it – the life, eccentricities and style of Glenn Gould. I encourage you to listen to a recording of his Goldberg Variations as a starting point, but there’s plenty to explore where Gould is concerned.
Schirmer’s Library of Musical Classics. Composed by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750). Edited by Ralph Kirkpatrick. Piano Large Works. Baroque. Collection. With performance notes and introductory text (does not include words to the songs). BWV 988. 83 pages. G. Schirmer #LB1980. Published by G. Schirmer (HL.50481953).