Glenn Gould, who passed away in 1982 at the age of 50, is one of the most fascinating personalities in the world of music. He was supremely gifted, having been discovered to have had perfect pitch at age three and who learned to read music before he learned to read words. He entered the conservatory in his native Toronto while still in elementary school, winning quite a few prizes and giving a few recitals. His concert giving was limited by his parents, who didn’t want him to become another tragically exploited prodigy like Mozart. He burst onto the scene in 1955 with his recording Bach’s Goldberg Variations, a recording which has never been out of print since. He was the first North American pianist to play in the Soviet Union. He played with some of the great orchestras of his time. However, after eight years of touring, he in effect called it quits and retired from the concert stage for good. Another huge talent from the same period, Van Cliburn, who came to fame by winning the Tchaikovsky International Piano Competition in Moscow in 1958 at the height of the Cold War, would also later quit giving concerts, though unlike Gould, he did come back from time to time, albeit rarely.
He believed that concerts are a thing of the past and will be superceded by electronic media. Gould hated giving concerts. Luckily for him, he excelled in recording. He did give concerts after a fashion, but only on radio and television. Eventually, he began editing and basically producing his own recordings, going so far as to buy his own equipment.
Gould was different. He was very eccentric. His eccentricity was such that some, such as his friend, the late psychiatrist Peter Ostwald, felt Gould had Asperger’s Syndrome. However, the jury is still out on that one. It’s easy to say that there were some definite traits, such as the need for routine. Gould thrived on it. For the last years of his life, he ate nothing but scrambled eggs. (For a while, he ate mostly steaks, but later cut meat out of his diet all together.) He dressed in the same winter clothes, even in summer. He had a great fear of drafts and catching a cold. And yes, he was a hypochondriac. In fact, Gould’s hypochondria was very extreme. He had a veritable stable of doctors, all of them prescribing him different pills. He had an obsession with his blood pressure and kept highly detailed journals of his blood pressure thoughout the day.
Not everyone is convinced. While some of Gould’s friends, such as the music critic Tim Page (who also has Asperger’s Syndrome), believe Gould had Asperger’s, some psychologists dismiss it all together. Gould clearly had something. As far as relationships go, Gould tended to conduct most of them over the telephone. He was extremely reclusive, though he did have a relationship with the wife of conductor Lukas Foss. That relationship became serious enough to where she and the children moved to Toronto, though as Gould became even more eccentric, she returned to her husband. Gould tended to keep people at a distance.
I first came across Gould as a teenager. I admired his playing and wanted to emulate it, something that I couldn’t do in a million years if I tried. It is comforting to realize that quite a few professional pianists have said the same thing. Gould was special and utterly unique. There will never be another one quite like him.
Shortly before his death in 1982, he re-recorded the work which brought him his early fame. It was in some ways a summation to an unusual, yet brilliant career. For all his quirks and highly unorthodox interpretations, I still have to admire how he bent the world to his will. And while the convention wisdom was that in order to be a successful pianist, you have to give concerts, Gould forged another path entirely.