The Last Puritan: Henry Sheen on Why Glenn Gould Still Haunts Other Pianists 20 Years after His Death. (Classical Music)

By Sheen, Henry | New Statesman (1996), November 18, 2002 | Go to article overview

The Last Puritan: Henry Sheen on Why Glenn Gould Still Haunts Other Pianists 20 Years after His Death. (Classical Music)


Sheen, Henry, New Statesman (1996)


In Thomas Bernhard's novel Der Untergeher (The Loser), the virtuoso pianist Wertheimer happens to walk past a room in the Salzburg Conservatorium where the young Canadian Glenn Gould is playing the aria from Bach's Goldberg Variations. The aria is simple, but he has never heard such reverential zeal. It is an "inhuman state" to which he can never aspire. He abandons his musical career, auctions off his piano and takes up the human sciences. Later, he kills himself. On his record-player in the room where he commits suicide is Gould's 1955 recording of the Variations.

Glenn Gould died in October 1982. Twenty years on, he remains a spectre to aspirant pianists: revered by most, even the few who dislike his playing concede that Gould's interpretations are always fascinating and instructive. It is fortunate that he bequeathed such a large recording output, a result of his renunciation of the concert hall in 1964 and his subsequent devotion to the recording studio. "At live concerts," he said, "I feel demeaned, like a vaudevillian." He loathed the showpiece element of the concert hall: its artificiality, time constraints and the elevation of the individual above his craft -- a Romantic legacy as uninteresting to Gould as music that was not contrapuntal.

The biography is disconcerting. He was born in Toronto in 1932. His father was a furrier (and amateur violinist), his mother a singing teacher who played piano and organ. He had perfect pitch and learnt the piano under his mother's tutelage until 1943, when he went to the Toronto Conservatory to study under the Chilean pianist Alberto Guerrero -- or at least, as Gould said later, "to crystallise my point of view against his". He continued his studies with Guerrero until 1952. His first public recital was on the organ in 1945, which resulted in a headline in the local press: "Boy, 12, shows genius as an organist." In 1947, he performed Beethoven's G major Piano Concerto with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. With characteristic rigour, the 14-year-old knew every nuance of Schnabel's interpretation -- and could reproduce it, provoking an acerbic critic to say: "Who does the kid think he is? Schnabel?" Another observed that "he sat at the piano a child among professors, and he talked with them as one with authorit y".

This sort of self-confidence was born out of his quasi-religious attention to his subject: a childhood friend remarked that "even as a child, Glenn was very isolated because he was working like hell to be a great man". In Gould's own words, he "opted out creatively", choosing not to indulge in personal relationships owing to his asceticism and devotion to his craft -- even though he was considered the Marlon Brando or the James Dean of the keyboard by the sensationalist media.

Between 1951 and 1964, Gould played in 153 orchestral concerts and made 117 solo recitals, becoming the first North American to play in the Soviet Union (in Leningrad) in 1957. The most renowned was Gould's US debut in Washington, DC, in January 1955, followed by New York nine days later. His programme was idiosyncratic, reflecting his interest in counterpoint -- or, as he said, music with an explosion of simultaneous ideas". The managing director of Columbia's classical division, David Oppenheim, was at the recital and promptly contracted Gould for Columbia Records.

The remark: "He's great, and Columbia's got him! …

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