"Toronto, however, belongs on a very short list of cities which I've visited and which seem to offer — to me, at any rate — peace of mind. Cities which, for want of a better definition, do not impose their 'cityness' upon you."

Glenn Gould

The documentary

"Glenn Gould's Toronto" is an hour-long episode of the documentary series Cities, which saw notable public figures providing tours of cities that were important to them. Among the presenters of other episodes were Peter Ustinov (Leningrad), Elie Wiesel (Jerusalem) and Germaine Greer (Sydney).

As the title makes plain, this particular episode features the renowned classical pianist Glenn Gould showing the viewer around his hometown of Toronto. Like other episodes in the Cities series, it was directed by John McGreevey. It was released in 1979, 15 years after Gould retired from public performance and three years before his untimely death at the age of 50.

Gould makes it plain at the outset that he is not a conventional city dweller, noting that if he could he'd live in the country full time. He alludes to some of the eccentricities he'd become famous for — hatred of the cold, a dislike of bright colours and sunlight — but he likes Toronto, he says, because it lacks the non-stop hustle and bustle of cities such as New York. (Ustinov would famously refer to the city as "New York run by the Swiss," but I digress.)

The documentary references landmarks such as the CN Tower, Ontario Place, the Eaton Centre, Fort York and the Canadian National Exhibition. The latter two provide amusing backdrops to scenes in which Gould, clearly not in his element, explains their historical significance. He almost revels in not being in his element, though, as though he's sharing a private joke with the viewer about how insane this all is.

He also touches on the city's cultural diversity and the divide between the "old and new" Toronto as exemplified by its dual city halls (Old City Hall now being used as a courthouse) and, at that time, changing moral culture. In one segment, he notes that up until the 1960s it was illegal to hold concerts on Sunday whereas at the time of the documentary's filming, city councillors were debating whether to allow the consumption of beer at baseball games. And he explains the city's borough system, calling North York his favourite part of Toronto (though he didn't live there), its complex system of trails and green space and Bay Street, its financial core.

Some thoughts from a Torontonian

While the non-Torontonian would learn some interesting things about the city from this film, it's probably of much more interest to people already familiar with the city — particularly more than 30 years after the fact. I commuted into Toronto every day when I was in university between 2003 and 2007, and moved to the city after graduating. I can't help but think of the skyline, as it existed in 1979, as unfinished somehow. The Eaton Centre — somewhere I've spent a lot of time — looks the same and yet different, with the same architecture and familiar layout filled with different stores and decor. (The Ex hasn't changed at all, but that's another story.)

What's really interesting is, knowing about Toronto in the present day, wondering what Gould would have made of it. He mentions more than once that he stays in Toronto despite his dislike for cities because it's not obsessed with becoming New York or Paris. (In the documentary's final scene, he suggests that if this were to happen he'd "have to leave town." Of course, apart from occasional visits to the country, Gould never did "leave town;" he died from complications from a major stroke shortly after his 50th birthday and is buried in the city's Mount Pleasant Cemetery.)

A lot more has changed since 1979 than just the skyline, though it's now filled with so many more skyscrapers and condominiums that the version shown in the documentary looks almost barren. The episode makes it very easy to imagine him flabbergasted by the recent condo boom, or the equally recent attempts to establish the city as a centre of culture and fine dining. The boroughs officially became part of the city as part of the province-initiated amalgamation just over a decade ago, and even the tranquility he praised in North York is giving way to a more urban feel.

Given his great dislike of live concerts, it's hard to say how he'd feel about the fact that his musical alma mater, the Royal Conservatory of Music, is now also home to one of the city's most highly regarded concert halls. (The CBC, where he made several recordings and produced several TV and radio broadcasts, converged its operations in one location on Front Street in 1993; not only does the Canadian Broadcasting Centre have its own concert space, but it named it after Gould, who professes in this documentary to not only not give concerts but not attend them either. But he would have certainly dug the fact that both Koerner Hall and the Glenn Gould Studio are regularly used for recordings.)

On the other hand, he might have liked the rebirth of the downtown portion of Yonge Street, which he referred to as "an embarrassment" during one scene. (Put it this way: he notes that people call it "the strip," then wonders whether whoever came up with the name was aware of the double entendre. Today, "the strip" is mostly home to a wide range of restaurants, as well as some shops. (There are still at least two strip clubs, but for the most part the city's party scene has shifted to an area unimaginatively known as the "entertainment district;" the area of Yonge Street Gould spoke of is now inhabited by clothing stores, restaurants and, increasingly, the ever-expanding Ryerson University.)

It's important to note that there is currently something of a cold war between the "old city" — the original Toronto — and the somewhat more outer regions that became part of the city as part of amalgamation. The short, uber-paraprased (and stereotypical) version of events is that Torontonians on the outer edges of the city, many of whom commute into the "old city" to work, see the citizens of that region as a group of effete bicycling condo-dwelling left-wing hipsters, who then in turn view the edge dwellers as SUV-driving rednecks with no respect for the environment or culture. These are both gross caricatures, it has to be said.

Still, the current goings-on raise the interesting premise of how Gould would have viewed his city in the present day. Would he have sided with one faction over the other? Damned if I know. I can't presume to know how a man who's been dead for 30 years would have responded to circumstances he never lived to see. I do, however, know that the city has adopted some of the longing to be thought of as "world class" that he decried in this documentary.

Final thoughts

Philosophizing aside, the documentary was very enjoyable. Gould's dry wit — while he was almost ubiquitously described as eccentric, it absolutely can't be said that he wasn't charming, self-deprecating and funny (scripted or not; he's credited with writing the program) — is apparent throughout.

The documentary was nominated for three Genie Awards — Canada's answer to the Oscars — and lost all three. But as one YouTube commenter notes, so many questionable things have won Genie Awards that losing should be considered a badge of honour.

Above all, the documentary provides an interesting look at the city as it was in 1979, as well as some biographical insight into Gould's life. He's an engaging host, poking as much fun at himself as at some elements of his hometown. (He also sings Mahler to some elephants. It's kind of amazing.)



The entire documentary is available on YouTube in six parts (part one is located here; from there you can get to the remaining segments). There is also an abridged version available in three parts. The full version is better.

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