Glenn Gould

updated 11/30/1981 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/30/1981 01:00AM

Ring him up in Toronto and leave your name with the answering service. He just might call back late that night or the next—and talk for three hours. If he knows you, he may mumble that he's Theodore Slutz, the arts editor of an underground weekly. Or in a prissy whisper he may try to pass himself off as Dr. Karlheinz Klopweisser, a learned Bavarian musicologist. Few of these vocal disguises work, though, with friends in pursuit of one of the world's major pianists. They know Glenn Gould is only sampling from his little bag of mimetic tricks. His recorded repertoire at the keyboard is far larger. It includes virtually all the works written for piano that the reclusive 49-year-old Canadian thinks are worth playing—hundreds of pieces by composers ranging from the 16th century's William Byrd to the 20th's Paul Hindemith. Gould's dominating passion, however, has been for the works of J.S. Bach. On the first record Gould cut, released in 1956, he gave Bach's austere Goldberg Variations a performance that was both refreshingly original and exasperatingly mannered. It lifted Gould to the top rank of pianists and launched a career that inspired the fearsome conductor George Szell to proclaim, "That nut is a genius."

A few months ago, in the silver anniversary year of his Goldberg, Gould made one of his rare trips to New York to record it again. This time TV cameras were also on hand. When the program airs on the new CBS cable network next fall, it will afford Gould fans their first glimpse of the artist in recital since March 28, 1964. On that afternoon, when the last notes of Beethoven's Sonata opus 110 faded away, Gould walked off a Chicago stage and since then has not played to a live concert audience.

Those who remember the Gould of yore will notice a change beyond the thickening torso and the receding hairline. After being advertised for years as a Steinway artist, he is seen playing a Yamaha concert grand. The piano's fall board, which rises perpendicularly behind the keyboard, has been removed to give Gould's fingers more room on the keys, which he feels he pulls rather than pushes. The 5'11" pianist still sits—or rather squats—on the same antiquated 14-inch-high folding chair that he has used since 1953. Some of the slats in the seat have fallen out, and he must span the void. By now the chair has become his "Linus blanket," but it also positions him—head, shoulders and hands—close to the keys. From down there he can still cant forward for hushed pianissimos or tilt back for noble profiling. While Gould plays, he adds an accompaniment of croons and groans that beguile some of his fans. One sound engineer who was not charmed suggested that Gould wear a gas mask to keep the humming off the tape. "I don't see why anyone puts up with it," the artist admits, "but I play less well without it."

Other Gould idiosyncrasies come and go. When he was still on the concert circuit he did not shake hands and could not bear to be touched. Once he went backstage to congratulate good friend Lukas Foss on a new work. The composer countered with a bearhug, whereupon the pianist denounced him as "an idiot." Another time Gould sued the Steinway company, claiming that one of its admiring technicians had leaned on his left shoulder and injured a disk, forcing him to cancel a string of performances.

Additional phobias have included air conditioning and drafts. Throughout the year Gould wears two or three heavy shirts under a sweater, which is under a tweed jacket. Before venturing out, he is likely to add a topcoat, cap, scarf and gloves, even in summer. Gould's best-known eccentricity, of course, is his self-imposed isolation. He says he gave up concertizing because he almost always wanted to stop in midperformance and start over again with an entirely different approach to the piece. Gould told a former Columbia recording director that he thought live concerts deaden a musician. "Concert pianists are really afraid to try out the Beethoven Fourth Concerto if the Third happens to be their specialty," Gould explained. "That's the piece they had such success with on Long Island, by George, and it will surely bring them success in Connecticut. So first there's tremendous conservatism. And then stagnation sets in. Or it certainly did in me." Gould also finds it impossible to believe that any pianist would settle for a once-straight-through performance in a drafty hall, under glaring lights and for a coughing audience, when he could patch together a perfect work from as many sessions as needed in a sound studio. "I treat recorded tapes," Gould says, "the way a film director treats his rushes."

Gould's addiction to his art no longer drives him to attend the concerts of other pianists. They, when booked into Toronto, will occasionally look him up. Gould often says to them, "How the hell can you stand what you are doing?" The venerable Arthur Rubinstein once asked, "You never felt you had the souls of those people in your hands?" Gould replied, "I don't really want their souls."

Gould admits he has always held peculiar views. "Until I was about 13, somehow I managed to assume that everyone reacted to everything just about as I did," he has explained. "I took it for granted that everyone shared my passion for overcast skies. It came as quite a shock when I discovered that there were actually people who preferred sunshine." He wishes the whole year were dour like, say, the first week of November in Toronto.

It was there, at age 3, that the genius got his musical start. Glenn's mother, Florence, who numbered among her forebears Nordic composer Edvard Grieg, began to teach him scales. She remained his piano teacher until he was 10. Father Russell, an amateur violinist and singer, was a Toronto furrier. At 10 Glenn began studying the piano and organ—and Bach—at the city's Royal Conservatory of Music. At 13, after a few hundred play-alongs with a 78-rpm recording that Artur Schnabel had made, Glenn performed the first movement of Beethoven's Fourth Piano Concerto with his school orchestra.

His piano teacher at the conservatory was Alberto Guerrero. But when Gould heard his first Rosalyn Tureck record, he preferred her Bach ("upright and with a sense of repose") to his teacher's. Gould also remembers discovering, at the age of 17, that the conductor whose way with big symphonic works impressed him most was Leopold Stokowski. The flamboyant old maestro's last piano concerto recording, Beethoven's Emperor, was made with Gould, who then published a long analytic account of their session. A lighter Gould essay, printed in High Fidelity, was an unexpected homage to British singer Petula Clark, whose fan he became after discovering her pop hits on his car radio.

In 1955 all the other young pianists of dizzying technical prowess were trying to outdazzle Horowitz with their Liszt and Prokofiev showpieces. Gould, 22, made his American debut at the Phillips Gallery in Washington with the chaste works of Bach. His program was filled out with compositions by Beethoven, Webern, Berg and Sweelinck that often produce more resentment than excitement at first recitals because of the great demands they make on listeners. But not at Gould's. "We know of no pianist like him of any age," the Washington Post's critic Paul Hume wrote. Nine days later Gould received similar approval from New York critics for the same program.

He then set out to put together a performance that he could approve of. He spent seven days at a Manhattan studio playing, replaying and pondering until he had the Goldberg Variations the way he wanted them locked on 38 minutes of magnetic tape. As an LP it was a phenomenal success from the start and even now remains in print—and in demand. In retrospect, Gould judges that first performance as fairly impressive—for a youth. It was his maturation as an artist, plus the sound technology now available, that prompted him to record his new interpretation.

Nowadays Glenn Gould is a full-time night person. He gets out of bed in his Toronto apartment at about 4 every afternoon and then writes, reads (history, philosophy, theology), edits tape and makes long-distance calls in his studio, 10 minutes away, until 7 in the morning. The studio, which is without a piano, is in a hotel. He relies on its 24-hour room service to bring in vegetarian meals, a clear departure from earlier diets; for a while he was a steak fan who would snack on arrowroot cookies and Poland water. Air-conditioned rooms have become a tolerated evil, but smoking and drinking have not. Gould gives little thought to the amenities of life. For instance, his idea of changing shirts is often to put them back on, already worn but in a different order. Though Gould's life seems monastic, the solitude is occasionally broken by friends of both sexes, for varying lengths of time. Since the pianist is hardly a public person, neither are his relationships.

For weeks he does not touch any of his five pianos—two in his apartment, two stored elsewhere in Toronto and another in New York. Gould seldom practices more than half an hour a day, but while driving or eating he may be working out a Bach fugue in his head. "Fingers don't have much to do with playing the piano," he insists. "The idea that they do must be unlearned."

If he were tempted, Gould could earn $1 million a year in fees on the concert circuit. As it is, royalties from his 55 albums support him in a comfortable style, allowing for his new artistic pursuits. Starting in 1967 Gould spent eight years making a trilogy of radio documentaries called Solitude for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. These were collages of conversations he recorded with ordinary Canadians living in isolated regions such as the Far North. He is still an ardent pre-serve-the-Arctic buff. Subsequently he made his on-camera debut in a film titled Glenn Gould's Toronto (others in the 13-episode Canadian series on cities: George Plimpton's New York, Anthony Burgess's Rome and John Huston's Dublin). "It has been fascinating to get to know Toronto after all these years," Gould says at film's end. But he is still not quite sure why he lives there. He would have cracked up, he thinks, in New York or Rome, but feels he could have lived very productively in Leningrad.

Ever since Gould began diversifying, he has talked of writing a screenplay based on the 1906 Japanese novel The Three-Cornered World, by Natsume Soseki. He is challenged by the difficulty of turning its "wispy, dreamlike atmosphere" into an action-filled script. Directing a film is another ambition. A more predictable one pertains to the music business. Within three years, Gould figures, he will run out of piano music that interests him enough to record on his label, CBS. After that, he would like to return to a sound studio to produce and direct an LP by one of the keyboard giants who still believe every recording should simulate a live concert—that is, be performed once straight through. By imposing his multiple-take philosophy, Gould is confident that he will win a convert while showing that "the charity of technology can benefit even the unbeliever."

Should Gould convince a major artist to agree to such a project, the pianist would, of course, still have to choose music measuring up to Gould's standards. Even the programming of artists like Horowitz and Richter sometimes leaves him cold. Horowitz gives deeply serious accounts of Chopin pieces that Gould would play only for laughs. But Gould, who has composed a string quartet, a choral work and "quite a few things lying about in a state of dissatisfaction," is even harder on Mozart. "Anybody who had to write 28 symphonies before he wrote a good one can't be much of a composer," he decided 25 years ago. Now that Gould has recorded all 17 Mozart sonatas, he takes the revisionists' view that the composer started well but finished mediocre, turning out "perfectly acceptable background music." Beethoven's Appassionata, which Gould has recorded, is "an egoistic pomposity." Liszt never learned to write for the piano, in Gould's view, but that did not deter Gould from recording Liszt's piano transcription of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony—which Gould finds even more boring in its full orchestration. To perk it up, the Gould record of the Fifth has liner notes in which three foreign critics and a North Dakota psychiatrist denounce the performer. All were written, of course, by the man who also calls himself Klopweisser and Slutz. That is, Gould.

Perhaps the jokes—from deadpan one-liners to his stable of telephonic impersonations—are a necessary outlet. The array of imaginary characters in his life fits nicely with his reputation as a recluse. But it would be a mistake to categorize Gould as a lonely Phantom of the Concert Hall. His world is rich, if hidden. And he relishes small surprises—though not exactly the one he received a while back. At the time he was reveling in an especially close friendship with a painter. There were occasions when he called her, and a Chinese maid answered. But it proved to be no maid. It was the painter's husband—a slightly more accomplished mimic than Glenn Gould.

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