Return to Glenn Gould (person)

Genius in the Making

Extraordinary [Canadian] [pianist], [organist], [composer], and [conductor] Glenn Gould was born in [Toronto] in 1932, and lived in this city all his life. His father, a [furrier], played [violin]; his mother played [piano] and [organ] and taught Gould until he was ten. Even at three years of age Gould exhibited perfect pitch and could read music, and he began composing at five. He was a child [prodigy] who was spared the intense pressure of many such, for he was allowed to pursue his own path to performing. Gould was not particularly popular with other children, for he wasn't interested in physical play and was focused on his music. He was close to his protective mother all her life, though she would punish him by not allowing him to play piano, severe [retribution] indeed for this boy who loved music.

At ten Gould began studying at the [Royal Conservatory of Music of Toronto|Royal Conservatory of Music] in Toronto, and at age 12 won the piano trophy at the annual Kiwanis Music Festival. After this, however, Gould refused to enter another such contest, declaring himself strongly opposed to the very idea of competition. In 1946 he passed the Royal Conservatory music theory examinations and was awarded a diploma with highest honors. In 1946 Gould made his [debut] as soloist with [orchestra] at a Conservatory concert, performing a [concerto] by [Ludwig van Beethoven|Beethoven]. He played the same piece with the [Toronto Symphony Orchestra] the next year, and gave his first public [recital] in 1947, at age 15.

In spite of all his musical accomplishments, Glenn Gould never graduated from high school.


He was already gaining a reputation as an [eccentric]: his interpretations of the pieces he played was [idiosyncratic], and he had some [quirky] performance mannerisms, like sitting on a low creaky folding chair (the inspiration for [Schroeder]'s playing style, by the way) and [hum]ming audibly as he played (you can hear him sometimes in his recordings, singing wordlessly in the background). His first [radio] recital was in 1950 for the [CBC], and Gould would go on to appear on CBC radio and television many times. In 1955 he debuted in [New York]; the concert was so sensational that the next day he was offered, and signed, a recording contract with [CBS]. His first recording, [Johann Sebastian Bach|Bach]'s difficult [Goldberg Variations], was made in 1955; Gould's incredible performance of these hitherto little played pieces, usually rendered on [harpsichord], were a revelation. Gould went on to make over 60 recording with CBS, including a slower rendition of the Goldberg Variations in 1982, the year of his death.

For the next nine years, Gould was a touring [virtuoso], appearing widely in North America, Europe, and [Israel]. Between 1957 and 1959 he made three overseas tours, and in 1957 was the first North American to perform in the USSR. In 1960 he made his first American television appearance with [Leonard Bernstein] and the [New York Philharmonic]. His brilliant concert career continued until 1964, when he foreswore public appearances altogether, citing [temperament]al, [moral] and muscial objections to the concert medium; he said he felt [demeaned] by public performing, "like a vaudevillian", and that he could better serve music in a recording studio than a concert hall. Accordingly, he only appeared thereafter on vinyl.

Freed from the stress of public performing, Gould pursued his other interests: writing, broadcasting, composing, conducting, and experimenting with [technology]. He made many recordings, radio and TV programs - conventional recitals as well as innovative shows on a theme that interested him. In the 1960s and 1970s he made what he called "[contrapuntal] radio documentaries", which are [evocative] sound tapestries blending [documentary], [drama], and music. Four are about musicians he admired (one was [Petula Clark]); the other three make up a "Solitude Trilogy" about living in [isolation]. Gould was exploring through technology an existence that he chose for himself: a [solitary] life which kept interaction at a safe distance, providing self-protection and allowing self-revelation. He felt that his character reflected "the North", which to him represented [solitude], [independence], [spirituality], strength of character, moral [rectitude], coldness, blue, and peace; he was uncomfortable with bright colours, personal display, and loud [passion].

A Real Character

As a [musician], Gould was [unconventional]. His [repertoire] was selective: he eschewed the [romantic] and [impressionistic] works which most pianists played, preferring [baroque], [classical], and modern music, mostly by Austro-[German] composers; the two most central to his [aesthetic] were Bach and [Arnold Schoenberg|Schoenberg]. He was admired for his [virtuosity], [intellect], [precise] fingerwork, rhythmic dynamism, and clarity of [counterpoint]. He believed that his role was creative, and would play original, often shocking [interpretation]s of classic pieces - played at a very quick tempo, for example, or with odd phrasings - that were, and still are, [controversial].

As a person, he was also unconventional, and had many odd quirks. He wore an overcoat, sweater, and [glove]s at all times, even in Toronto's [sweltering] summers, usually with a cap as well. He was afraid of getting a chill, but the clothing was also a kind of armour: he didn't like to touch people or be touched, and would get very agitated if someone tried to shake his hand. He was a [hypochondriac] who became addicted to [prescription] drugs, taking a variety of pills and potions every day with little regard for side effects or how the drugs interacted with each other. He was primarily [nocturnal], and was known for calling his friends at any hour of the night to talk for hours; these conversations were more in the nature of [monologue]s, for Gould did most of the talking, and friends would sometimes fall asleep at the other end of the line. Gould had a bad diet, living mainly off [scrambled eggs] and [toast]; he hardly slept at all and never exercised. Though a handsome young man, by his forties he began to look like aged and ill, stooped, wrinkled, pale and balding.

Though all this might make Gould sound [insufferable], musicians who played with him found him [convivial], not rude. He had a keen sense of humour, and liked to take on [alter ego]s, who included a fictitious "dean of British conductors", Sir Nigel Twitt-Thornwaite; a German critic, Dr. Herbert von Hochmeister; and a New York cab driver, Theodore (Ted) Slutz. He recorded tapes of himself as one of these characters interviewing himself as Gould, which illustrate well his love of words and of hamming it up. As a child his parents had a cottage north of Toronto, and Gould continued to go there well into his adulthood. He loved animals and kept several; he would drive a motor boat around the lake near his cottage to chase the fish away from fishermen.

Life after Gould

Gould died of a massive [heart attack] in 1982, aged only 50. Estranged from his father, who had remarried not long after his mother died, Gould left his considerable fortune to his two favourite charities: the [Salvation Army] and the [Humane Society].

Glenn Gould is buried in Toronto in [Rosedale] Cemetery next to his mother; people make [pilgrimage]s to visit his grave from all over the world. The apartment building on St. Clair West where he lived for many years has a small [plaque] commemorating him out in front, and the CBC building on Front St. has a [statue] of Glenn Gould sitting on a bench, though I know he would [shudder] with horror if he could see all the people who come up and put their arms around this representation of him to have their pictures taken.

If you want to know more about this musical genius, I'd highly recommend the clever and innovative film "[32 Short Films about Glenn Gould]". Written by [Don McKellar] and [Francois Girard], the movie incorporates interviews with people who knew Gould, like his cousin Jessie and [Yehudi Menuhin]; and [Colm Feore] gives his best performance ever as Gould.

An incredible repository of information on Glenn Gould can be found at the National Library of Canada's Glenn Gould [archive], The official Glenn Gould website is at There's an interesting meditation on Gould and the telephone at See also [So You Want To Write A Fugue?]