Book review of Gould biography

2004-08-19 / Times Literary Supplement / Angela Hewitt

The life and art of Glenn Gould
by Kevin Bazzana
Yale University Press

I had dreaded reading another biography of Glenn Gould. Aren’t there enough already? Sometimes it seems as though I can never get away from him: “Tell me, you are a Canadian pianist, known as a Bach specialist, and winner of the international piano competition held in his memory – what influence did Glenn Gould have on you and were you afraid to be in his shadow?”. “No” is always the answer to the latter part of the question. (It is Bach who scares me, not Gould.) As a kid I saw him regularly on Canadian television. “Who’s that kook?”, I asked my parents. Playing with his nose practically on the keyboard, and always at tempos that even at that age I knew were bizarre, he was clearly recognizable as a serious presence in Canadian musical life, but not, perhaps, one to be closely imitated. I recall a Bach class in the music festival at the Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto (where Gould himself played as a teenager) in which we all had to perform a Two- or Three-part Invention. One boy got up, obviously copying Gould in every respect, right down to the mannerisms. When he didn’t win, he complained to the judge, “Why didn’t you give me first prize? I played that exactly like Glenn Gould!”. The adjudicator answered, “I happen not to like Glenn Gould”.

Kevin Bazzana’s new book Wondrous Strange begins where most biographies end – with the life after death. In the case of Gould this is a smart thing to do, as a large percentage of his admirers around the world had probably never heard of him while he was alive (and many thought he was American, not Canadian). The author quotes an executive from Sony: “Dying was a great career move”. Gould’s death coincided with the advent of the commercial CD; he was a posthumous best-seller. His cult status, however, stems as much from his (to put it mildly) eccentric behaviour as from his musical achievements. Some biographers fawn over their subject, but Bazzana accepts the pianist’s frailties along with the genius. He says at the outset: [Gould] was a powerful communicator of deeply personal, sometimes shocking and subversive, but always compelling and entertaining interpretations, which he put across with great conviction. Performances so unique will probably always sound fresh and unconventional and retain their power to attract new audiences. The controversies that made Gould a fascinating as well as infuriating performer in his day have not abated . . . .

It seems to me that there are three types of interpreters: those who just play the notes; those who try their best to follow exactly what the composer has written without suppressing their own personalities; and those who deliberately set out to make things sound “different” (although all three will tell you they belong to the second category). Gould did his damnedest to do things his own way, and often ignored composers’ wishes. You can get away with this where Bach is concerned, because little is written in the score besides the notes (there are hardly any tempo markings, dynamics, slurs, or articulation signs). A competent musician of the baroque era would have been expected to perform within the boundaries of good taste. But living composers present problems. Gould once informed the Canadian composer Oskar Morawetz (who likes, and expects, meticulous interpretations of his work) that he didn’t understand his own music, and poor Jacques Hétu didn’t sleep for three days after hearing Gould’s version of his Variations.

Gould grew up in Toronto during the 1930s Depression. It was then a largely Anglo-Protestant city with a racial bias and a conservative work ethic (it was nicknamed “Toronto the Good”). His birth certificate gives the name “Glenn Herbert Gold”, and it wasn’t until he was seven that his name began appearing as “Gould” (a change that was never formalized). For generations the Golds had been staunch Methodists; Gould’s mother’s family was Presbyterian. His grandfather had started a fur business in 1913 in which Glenn’s father also worked, and together they felt their name was a liability, given the surprising amount of anti-Semitism in Ontario during the Second World War. I think Gould’s childhood memories of churchgoing (he stopped when he was eighteen) must have been significant. He spoke late in his life of the tranquillity and peace that Sunday Evensong brought him – a quiet moment before the “terrifying situations” (school and city life) of the week ahead. Gould was the product of a Victorian Protestant culture, and emotionally reticent even as a child. According to his father, he never cried; his schoolmates said he never told dirty jokes, never talked about the girls as sexual objects, and never swore. He even referred to a ball in the schoolyard as “a censored” to avoid any possible sexual connotation.

One point that Bazzana makes in his chapter on “Gould the Prodigy” was of particular interest to me. I always knew that we were total opposites in nature, which is why our Bach interpretations are so different. Gould hated vivid colours (he once threw a tantrum when given a red fire engine as a present), preferring “battleship gray and midnight blue”. Red to him meant violence. His first headache came after going to see Walt Disney’s Fantasia, which he hated for its “riot of colour”. Sunshine, physical exercise, emotional openness, Italian opera, and more were out. His fondness for the Canadian north and for living by night comes as no surprise. It was all there from the beginning.

One of my own teachers in Toronto during the early 1970s was Myrtle Guerrero, the second wife of Gould’s teacher, Alberto Guerrero. She used to say that Alberto had found Gould impossible to teach, but had tried to guide him in the right direction. Much has been made of the arm-soaking sessions before concerts and recordings (not least in the movie Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould), but, as Bazzana reveals, this was something first suggested by Guerrero. Gould’s taste for early music (not just Bach, but Byrd, Gibbons and Sweelinck) also started with Guerrero, who played forte-piano and harpsichord and was an acquaintance of Wanda Landowska. And it was Guerrero who introduced the young genius to Schoenberg – another of Gould’s interpretative strong-points. It seems sad that Gould gave Guerrero so little credit for all he learned from him. It was perhaps part of Gould’s image that he didn’t want to acknowledge an influence as banal – as fundamental – as a childhood piano teacher. It was best to have people believe he had come up with everything on his own.

The question of why Gould abandoned the public life of a concert pianist at the age of thirty-one has always intrigued me. Why would a pianist, who of all musicians spends the most time alone, want to give up that precious human contact? But after reading this biography, I began to understand why. Gould was a terrible traveller: always sick (always, at any rate, a hypochondriac), hating most hotel rooms and their heating systems, hating aeroplanes. He loathed the whole concert ritual; he called audiences “a force of evil” and damned their “gladiatorial instinct”. He asked his family and close friends not to come to see him play, even going so far as to insist that his agent’s secretary leave town before his performances. Post-concert receptions were the worst. He was no sightseer, and preferred to remain alone in his room, often registering as Johannes Ockeghem or Orlando Gibbons to evade fans. He likened a performance to a love affair, best conducted in private. I can see the reasoning behind that: to perform successfully, an artist has to give all of himself. But what is wonderful is that this is done through wordless music, so one’s secrets remain intact. Perhaps the act of public revelation bothered the prudish Gould.

Probably for the same reason he avoided the big display pieces that form the core of most pianists’ repertoire. For him, Beethoven’s Appassionata was full of belligerence and egotistic pomposity. No wonder his own performance dissects it using, as Bazzana rightly says, a “plodding” tempo. Gould was most at home with contrapuntal, complex, intimate works. He could play any number of voices at once with unbelievable clarity (listen to his own cadenza for Beethoven’s first piano concerto). His concert repertoire, as opposed to his discography, was indeed quite small, and Gould himself said that he got sick of playing the “same old tired pieces”. Audiences were both intrigued and repelled by his stage antics: singing to himself, sitting on his famous low chair, dressed mostly in what looked like second-hand clothes. The “Gould Show” became too much even for Gould, and he gave it up.

We all want to know if he had love affairs or was homosexual. Bazzana devotes fourteen pages to the subject, and while revealing that Gould did in fact have several affairs (with women), he mentions no names and the secrets, if known, are kept – something I find admirable. As for Gould’s being gay, Bazzana quotes a homosexual friend of the pianist who admits to having made a pass when they were students, at which Gould “practically fell out of the window”. Isolation was important to him, and in the end who could have coped with such a high-maintenance personality? Yet all of his friends and colleagues talked of his politeness, charm and gentlemanly behaviour.

Gould’s real love affair was with the microphone and the sound of his own voice, whether spoken or played. We may be familiar with the recorded legacy, but Bazzana delves into the other media in which Gould worked – radio and television. For the former he was given carte blanche by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, and again seemed to be in the right place at the right time. Radio was pre-eminent during his early career, and budgets for cultural programmes were generous. He was also there at the beginning of television. I remember the impact of those early programmes on Canadian audiences, who loved him even if they couldn’t understand a word he was saying (Bazzana doesn’t hesitate to criticize Gould’s “reluctance to apply the blue pencil”, or the “formal sprawl” which characterized both his writings and musical compositions). The author also makes the connection between Gould’s personality and his willingness to remain in Toronto all his life. Most Canadian artists are regarded with suspicion – a suspicion of artistic insularity – if they stay in their native land. But Gould was both good and a national treasure, and simply wouldn’t have been able to work productively anywhere else.

There will be other books on Gould (Timothy Maloney at the National Archives of Canada is researching a theory that Gould suffered from Asperger’s syndrome), but I doubt if there will be one that is more thorough and entertaining than this. You may be amazed, or even repulsed, by Gould’s pill-popping (some 2,000 pills in the last nine months of his life, though the autopsy report revealed little wrong with him besides hypertension), by his hypochondria (there was an extended lawsuit with Steinway & Sons over an alleged injury when their chief technician greeted him with a pat on the shoulder), and by his astonishing creative output, cut short by a stroke at the age of fifty. But you will also be charmed by his sense of humour, by his love of nature and animals (his estate is divided between the Toronto Humane Society and the Salvation Army), by his crazy driving habits, and, dare I say it, his Canadian-ness. Anyone reading Kevin Bazzana’s biography will, by the end, have a much clearer picture of Canadian musical life in the twentieth century – and for that alone I am grateful. Gould was its star, however, and Wondrous Strange is a fit description of that star’s brief but dazzling transit.