Glenn Gould sitting in chair
Picture by Don Hunstein

As hard as it is to believe, there are actual, real-life superheroes. Individuals whose talent surpasses anything most of us could ever dream of. These are humans with extraordinary, other-worldly abilities, who can do things, achieve feats that over time raise them to the level of myth or legend.

Glenn Gould was one such individual.

In 1955 Glenn Gould, only twenty-two years old at the time, recorded the Goldberg Variations, a visionary work that re-imagined the music of Bach. Gould played the Goldberg Variations differently, to say the least. He played them with speed, with electricity, with a technical, machine-like ability hitherto not associated with the liturgical Bach. In North America, he became a sensation overnight.

glenn-gould-on-train

Undoubtedly, Gould was a prodigy with immense talent; someone who the dour musical world had no choice but to take notice of. His interpretation and re-interpretations of Bach are still marveled at today, over three decades after his death.

Glenn Gould would have been eighty-four today.

Just like many fictional superheroes, Glenn Gould possessed genius of a quality that few were able to comprehend. Except, he was, well, real. Even professional musicians, themselves masters of their craft, had difficulty conceptualizing his virtuosity from a technical and theoretical point of view. And what was more, he reveled in the mystery surrounding himself; mystery that grew and over time approached myth and then, finally, legend. He reveled, too, in the many rumors swirling around him. Rumors of his health and his asexuality, all of which he encouraged because was able to use them as a shield thrown up between the world and his precious privacy, and they as well allowed him to remain opaque and inscrutable.

Gould showing off while playing Bach

Following this successful recording of the Goldberg Variations he would become an international sensation in 1957 during his tour of the Soviet Union. Little known in Moscow or Leningrad at the time, Gould flew in like a cosmonaut and wowed the audiences with his magnetism and playing.

Then, just a few years later, in 1964, at the age of 31, he suddenly disappeared from the concert tour, rebelling as he did against the grueling schedules, the travel, the unfamiliar pianos and climates, and the disapproving conductors who disagreed with his vision. (In one famous instance, Leonard Bernstein offered a disclaimer to concert-goers, going as far as to say he disagreed with Gould’s playing, but was committed to conducting all the same. A statement of this kind made by a conductor, who is expected to work in unison with performers, was something unheard of at the time. The press and media had a field day).

But Gould was his own man, and he was just getting started. He would play the way he yearned to play, others be damned. Gould’s pioneering efforts to modernize classical music, decades ahead of his time, would pave the way for visionary musicians and artists desiring to put their own individual stamp on the recording process, as well as to re-imagine the way classical music is perceived and performed (Nigel Kennedy, Vanessa-Mae, and David Garrett come quickly to mind).

(British violinist Vanessa-Mae performs her rendition of Vivaldi’s “Storm”)

Glenn Gould wasn’t afraid to no-show either, often canceling more concerts than he showed up for. Not to mention the host of idiosyncrasies: the overcoat in summer, the rickety old chair he would carry everywhere with him, the gloves he almost never took off, the bottles and bottles of pills to deal with his multiplicity of health concerns. Glenn Gould was a force to be reckoned with, and in time the myths surrounding him would only grow.

In the end, concert life was simply incompatible with the life of this solitary, private genius.

In the years to follow Gould would take his musical and artistic career in a decidedly different direction, moving instead into the realm of broadcasting, documentary film-making, composing and conducting, or spending thousands of meticulous hours in the studio producing new recordings.

Over time he became consumed with using his intellect and what was technologically possible to disassemble and re-assemble the parts of various compositions, reinterpreting them in ways not previously imagined. Before Gould, music in the classical world was played rather dryly, in the same old way it had been played, time and time again, from Bach to Beethoven to Mozart. Gould wanted to change all that.

He believed that if one was going to play or record a piece of music, then one should bring something new, something that would stand out from the rest. The art of music was not meant, he though, to be static, and often times he made note of the fact that composers themselves provided for variations in their compositions. And if this was the case, why shouldn’t conductors and musicians re-imagine these works in their own distinct, original ways. It made things, in his view, much more vital and current.

Never concerned so much with having others understand his personal habits, Gould had a strong desire to make others understand his point of view and musical intentions. He wanted to be seen as a creator, as first and foremost a revolutionary in the world of music.

Gould shortly before his death

He was not easy to work with. He was not easy-going. But this is the way of geniuses wholly consumed with their art. He was exacting. He would work late, often until two or three in the morning, and he would not stop until he had achieved the sound he wanted to achieve, in every minute detail. And perhaps most amazingly, he played completely from memory, without notes or sheet music of any kind. His focus was excruciating, his memory prodigious.

But there was a part of him — and this is the part of him that I am most fond of, that refused to take himself too seriously. A part that preferred so often to err on the side of playfulness.

I love to watch Gould’s interviews, both those in his early career that had not been staged, and then later, those that almost always were scripted. They tell so much about him, and speak to his cleverness, as well as his need to separate himself from the world with a shield of solitude and prearrangement. And then there was the list of nonsensical characters — Sir Nigel Twitt-Thornwaite, for instance — he created and used to act out comedic skits.

Watching these, I think almost that it is a shame he could never quite settle himself or form a family, could never quite get a handle on his own hypochondria, for he would have made a wonderful and impressionable father (but perhaps that is only me — dad of a young daughter– projecting myself onto him).

Gould doing one of his comedy routines

Glenn Gould always moves me. His playing has the ability to unlock emotion, time and time again. It is soothing, comforting, and yet also somehow quite sad. It leaves one longing for more from life, all the while understanding the essence of those yearnings will probably go unrealized; and yet, in the end coming to terms and being okay with a certain lack of fulfillment. Hearing his musical recordings is a reflection upon the act of feeling, of separation, solitude.

Glenn Gould was obsessed, one may say, with keeping aspects of himself hidden away from the world, but he also wanted to be heard, wanted his presence to be felt.

And although he was difficult, and strange, and never quite fit in (and never wanted to), for a brief moment he let us all in, gave us some amazing music, and made us feel what life, what existence meant for him, before departing from this world at the age of 51.

Glenn Gould wearing goves
Glenn Gould wearing his famous gloves.
Photo by Don Hunstein

Genius — though it is a term thrown into the air casually these days — is such a rare thing. To see it manifest before you in the mind and body of one man, is remarkable.

Looking back on his life, it is possible he was overwhelmed, bowed beneath the weight of his own exemplary abilities. They perhaps left him bereft of something vital. There was a tempest of creativity raging within him, and he could never quite control it; could stymie its exacting toll only with his quirky humor and a plethora of idiosyncrasies and a bevy of pills.

Gould’s genius, as it so often does to prodigies, drove him and, finally, completely exhausted him. But we are fortunate to have his recordings, and the world is deeper, more nuanced, indeed a more musical place, as a result of him having lived in it.

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