Glenn Herbert Gould was born in Toronto, Canada, on 25 September 1932 to Russell and Florence Gold, who could trace her lineage to Edvard Grieg. From an early age young Glenn was encouraged by Florence to pursue a musical career. At the age of three he had perfect pitch and had learned to read music well before he could read words. At ten, he had an accident and his father built him an adjustable chair which Gould took everywhere with him when playing. At 12, he passed his final Conservatory examination and at 13 was performing with the Toronto Symphony.
Gould’s American debut was in 1955 and his first recording, for Columbia, came out the following year. By now he had developed a unique personality on stage which marked him not only as a genius on the piano keys, but as an eccentric for his choices in music and his lifestyle. He preferred late Romantic and early 20th century music and later added Bach and Schoenberg.
He insisted on playing 14 inches [about 36cm] above the floor, a technique which enabled him to play at a fast tempo while maintaining a clarity and evenness for each note. During recitals, the piano would be raised or lowered on wooden blocks. He’d also developed a clockwise motion when playing and would often hum as he played. It was about this time that he became a hypochondriac and started popping pills to relieve imaginary ailments. He was constantly trying to stay as warm as he could and, when he was recording, the heat had to be turned up to almost unbearable levels. He started wearing heavy clothing even in warm conditions including astrakhan hat and gloves. In fact he insisted on wearing gloves whenever he had to shake hands. He was once arrested for sitting on a park bench in Sarasota, Florida, presumably having been mistaken for a vagrant. He was also prone to cancelling performances at short notice.
According to Gould’s biographer and fellow Canadian, Kevin Bazzana, Gould believed that ‘the performer’s role was properly creative [and] he offered original, deeply personal, sometimes shocking interpretations (extreme tempos, odd dynamics, finicky phrasing), particularly in canonical works by Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms’.
In 1957 he became the first North American to embark on a tour of the Soviet Union since World War II. Vladimir Ashkenazy was present at some of the performances in Moscow and later related to the Gramophone magazine: “He was a sensation, of course, even though nobody knew him when he first arrived. His first concert was about half-full, but then the next one was sold out and that was quite incredible. I also went to his performance for the students at the Conservatoire. He presented us with Alban Berg and Schoenberg, music which was never played in Russia at that time because the Communist Party forbade it. And that was sensational because all the students came and the directors of the Conservatoire didn’t know what to do. They couldn’t stop him!”
One of Gould’s great admirers was Leonard Bernstein (also tagged a genius) and it was their collaboration which led to the controversy behind their performance of Brahms’ D minor concerto on 6 April 1962 at Carnegie Hall.
Gould had pre-warned Bernstein that he had some new ideas about the concerto. It was to take the form of some tempi changes. After Gould arrived in New York, Bernstein later wrote: “[He] set forth three unbelievable tempi for the three movements. In the first place, they were so slow that the first movement alone took about as much time as it should take to play the whole concerto”.
“I did forewarn the orchestra about this,” Bernstein continued. “I said ‘Now don’t give up because this is a great man whom we have to take seriously’ … but they were wonderfully cooperative and went right along with it.” It was very tiring for the orchestra. “After the rehearsal I asked [Gould] if he was still convinced about the ‘slowth’ of this piece,” Bernstein wrote, and Gould replied: “… more than ever; did you hear how wonderfully the tension built?”
With Gould’s permission, Bernstein also forewarned the Thursday night audience (see the insert for the full transcript of his talk). “You could never get a ticket for Thursday night”. Bernstein added: “It was a chic night, the night to be there”, hoping against hope they wouldn’t desert the concert after the first movement. They didn’t, of course. “The house A FLAWED GENIUS RANDOLPH MAGRI-OVEREND DISCUSSES GLENN GOULD February 2018 fine Music 102.5 7 came down although, if I remember correctly, it took well over an hour to play. It was very exciting. I never loved him more.”
Controversy followed. Harold Schonberg, then the chief critic of the New York Times and a serial opponent of Bernstein (especially his podium ‘gymnastics’), wrote his infamous ‘gossip’ letter. “Dear Ossip, You vill nyever guess vat last night in Carnyegie Hall hhappent! You know what, Ossip? I think that even though the conductor made this big disclaimer, he should not be allowed to wiggle off the hook that easy. I mean, who engaged the Gould boy in the first place? Who is the musical director? Somebody has to be responsible.” He finished with a swipe at Gould’s technique. The criticism travelled all around the world and, according to Bernstein, Gould never received the acclamation and reward his daring interpretation deserved.
In January 1966, the Legges (Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and husband Walter) were not as accommodating. Columbia had booked a recording studio in New York for three sessions where Schwarzkopf was due to record some Richard Strauss Lieder with Gould. From the outset Schwarzkopf had her reservations. “Gould began playing something quasi-Straussian,” she wrote later. “We thought he was simply warming up, but no, he continued to play like that throughout the actual recordings … my husband and I were baffled … I always tried to be as accurate as possible.” Plus, of course ‘the studio was incredibly overheated’ and Gould refused to sit in on the day’s recordings.
On the second day a similar pattern occurred. Schwarzkopf started to have misgivings. For his part, Gould saw the collaboration as a meeting of like spirits although he later admitted they had different approaches to the use of rubato. Finally Walter Legge decided to call it a day and the third day was cancelled.
Gould retired from public appearances and began recording in a private studio in New York from 1970. In September 1982 he suffered a stroke and his father was forced to deprive him of his life support soon after. At the autopsy, doctors discovered that Gould did not show signs of the many ailments from which he thought he was suffering.
Hear this unusual concerto recording in Glenn Gould: The Schwarzkopf and Bernstein Tapes at 2.30pm on Monday 12th February.
This article appeared in the February issue of Fine Music Magazine. Read the full magazine online here.