Glenn Gould, called idiosyncratic by Charles Rosen in a recent New York Times Review of Books essay, could be called eccentric.

I once had the luck to catch a glimpse of him one warm, humid afternoon in July or August on the downtown campus of the University of Toronto. Gould did not usually go out by the time I was there in the 70's. He had long since given up live performances in favour of recording records (does anyone remember those things?), and making superb television programs for the CBC. (Such as The Art of the Fugue.)

He was unmistakable! Scarfe tight around his neck. Gloves. And a kind of peaked hat. It makes me sweat just remembering him.

He did have his reasons. He never wanted to catch cold. And it is hard to play with cold hands.

But the reason Rosen called him idiosyncratic, is because Gould always played sitting extremely low. So low, in fact, that his arms were immobilized. As my teacher used to say, Gould may have seemed crazy, but he always had absolutely firm arguments for everything he did.

Rosen speaks of all pianists as idiosyncratic when they finish their lessons and go out on their own, because all teaching of technique is, I forget his exact word, but something to the effect of artificial. In the real world, we have to play piano in ways we evolve for ourselves, he says. Rosen goes on to catalogue many of the great pianist of the 20 Century, and describes their idiosyncrasies.

The irony of Rosen's essay is that in the very act of portraying these "idiosyncrasies," he is also describing a technique.

Gould's reasoning for playing low is specifically to immobilize his arms, so could concentrate on his fingers, and on the polyphony of the piece he was playing, especially if it were by J.S. Bach, or some other baroque composer. I, myself, used this approach to some little success. It works.

But is no good for playing, say Debussy. There what is required is not the independence of fingers for interweaving melodies, but the integration of fingers into hands into arms for the playing of grand sonorities, and the highlighting of individual tones, out of a handful of, say, 11 or 12 notes. Sitting higher is required. I played Debussy to greater success.

A similar stance is required, for different reasons, in the playing of Rachmaninov. The upper arms, and back to make those BIG sounds.

But I digress far from the idiosyncrasies of Gould. When he died, there was an outpouring of public sadness, and a public memorial. Although extremely private in his life, he had become public in his death. I regret I was unable to attend his memorial

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 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 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 humming 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, 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 temperamental, 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 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 interpretations 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 gloves 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 monologues, 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 egos, 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 pilgrimages 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?

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