In 2007 Glenn Gould would have turned 75 years old and it has been a quarter-century since his passing. With those milestones in mind, we pay tribute to the great Canadian classical pianist with the guidance of noted Gould biographer Kevin Bazzana, BMus ’88.
NOT ONLY JUSTLY FAMED IN HIS OWN COUNTRY—he was ranked by Maclean’s magazine as the most influential Canadian artist in history—pianist Glenn Gould has acquired a global profile more in keeping with a renowned composer than a musician. Even though it has been nearly 25 years since he died of a stroke in a Toronto hospital, he continues to captivate people all over the world. Gould easily surpasses piano icons such as Rubenstein and Horowitz in terms of Google hits (1.4 million), and still outsells most living classical musicians. It’s no exaggeration to say he remains an object of fascination—even adoration—to a large and disparate group of music fans, scholars and ordinary people attracted by Gould’s spirituality and total commitment to his art as much as his almost superhuman virtuosity.
It’s hard to imagine someone as private as Gould enjoying being the inspiration for behaviour that has more in common with Britney than Beethoven.
Gould was born 75 years ago this year and imminent anniversary celebrations are sure to ramp up interest in the pianist even higher than usual. Events are planned as far away as Berlin, but the big one happens in September at the Museum of Civilization in Gatineau, Quebec, a year-long exhibit beginning with a week of lectures and performances. One of the consultants is Victoria’s Kevin Bazzana, BMus ’88, a music historian who has published two books on the extraordinary pianist. His later tome, Wondrous Strange: The Life and Art of Glenn Gould, is an elegantly written, meticulous biography that received plaudits from The New Yorker and the Times Literary Supplement and has been translated into several languages.
“There is no other pianist who attracts the attention that Gould does,” states Bazzana, who holds a PhD from the University of California, Berkeley. “I updated an encyclopedia entry on him and when I did the bibliography I discovered that there were both translations and original books on Gould written in Danish, Dutch, Russian, Finnish, Hungarian, Portuguese, and Polish. They’re just crazy for him all over the world.” According to Bazzana, many fans are drawn to Gould as a person. “He had a purity and didn’t care about worldly things,” he says. “And there was a spiritual quality that many people sensed in his playing. Non-classical types can warm to him, because he wasn’t forbidding to people who didn’t know classical music.”
Bazzana also points to the range of Gould’s writings and radio and TV documentaries as other reasons for his posthumous fame. “Before he died, only one slim book on Gould existed. So if you were a guy in Paris, all you knew were the recordings. After his death all this stuff was disseminated all over the world and it created an explosion in the literature about him.”
Aside from enormous critical interest, Gould has spawned something akin to the cults that surround Elvis. Some people have insisted on seeing Gould’s collection of motel keys that is enshrined at the Canadian Archives so that they can stay in the same rooms and thereby presumably commune with his spirit. Signed photographs and other memorabilia sell for thousands of dollars. (Bazzana became the whistleblower in an unusual case where a woman was auctioning off a stolen sheet of Gould signatures and doodles.) There is even an Italian Web site that, for 990 Euros, sells handmade replicas of the battered old chair that Gould always used when he hunched over the keyboard.
“It does get kind of weird sometimes,” says Bazzana, who is a central figure in the Gould underground and thus a target for unusual phone calls and unsolicited gifts. A recent brush with what he jokingly calls the “dark side” came from an English music student who had traveled to Toronto on a Gould pilgrimage and sent Bazzana a photograph of the tattoo she had impulsively acquired: four bars from Gould’s String Quartet immortalized on her lower back, along with a rendering of the man’s initials. It’s hard to imagine someone as private as Gould enjoying being the inspiration for behaviour that has more in common with Britney than Beethoven.
Mind you, Gould himself could be undeniably eccentric, including his notorious habit of humming and singing to himself and wearing gloves while playing the piano. His meandering middle-of-the-night phone calls to long-suffering friends were common and so uni-directional that the person on the other end of the line would sometimes just fall mercifully to sleep as Gould rambled on. And this quintessential hypochondriac hated to tour, and when on the road traveled with a briefcase of pills and a personal chiropractor or physiotherapist in tow. (There is a wonderful anecdote, possibly apocryphal, about how he was once on the phone with a friend who sneezed so loudly that Gould hung up in alarm.) Although Bazzana, in his book, lists page after page of odd behaviour he is quick to claim that the common image of the man as the Howard Hughes of music is a gross exaggeration. Bazzana is one of many sympathetic Gould scholars who believe that his neurotic behaviour was necessary for the nurturing of his creativity.
Gould always loathed performing live, and created a stir when he ended his concert career in 1964 at the age of 31. For the next two decades he retreated to the studio to labour over his recordings. An extraordinary perfectionist, he would edit together bits from dozens of different versions of the same piece until he was satisfied. Gould was also influenced by Marshall McLuhan and did some of his best creative work as a “radio artist,” advancing the art and science of radio broadcasting. Throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s he made numerous radio and TV shows about classical music. But there were many remarkable radio documentaries on other subjects, especially The Idea of North, a uniquely Canadian celebration of the far north.
After spending more than 20 years researching and writing about Gould, Bazzana wasn’t sad about moving on. “I did a huge amount of primary research for my biography and the book almost killed me,” laughs Bazzana. “I put my doctor in the acknowledgements.” But even with a new, acclaimed biography (Lost Genius: The Story of a Forgotten Musical Maverick, about Hungarian-American piano prodigy Ervin Nyiregyházi), Bazzana knows he will never completely stray from the compelling, maddening and almost magical legacy embodied in the recordings and the life of an artist so wondrous strange. “Gould will always be somewhere on my hard-drive. Even if I press ‘delete,’ some trace of him will still survive, ready for retrieval.”
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Notes on photography: The feature images appearing on the first two pages of this story were taken by Paul Rockett in 1956 at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto. Mr. Rockett resides in Vancouver. The photos are reproduced with his permission and that of the Estate of Glenn Gould.