Pianist Glenn Gould was one of the most brilliant, strange, and mysterious musicians ever. He was as famous for his interpretations of Bach as he was infamous for his eccentricities. He grew up exposed to music; his mother, a relation of Edvard Grieg’s, exposed Gould to music from day one. Apart from his playing career, he was also a composer, writer, and broadcaster.
Gould’s talent was freakish. Nobody played with more clarity than him. His greatest contribution was his two recordings of JS Bach’s Goldberg Variations, rarely performed live, because it’s simply too difficult and nerve-wracking. These recordings are “bookends” to his recording career; the first, in 1955, featured a 23-year old Gould, playing some of the variations at dazzling, breakneck speeds. Total recording time: 38 minutes and 34 seconds.
The second, recorded in 1981 when Gould was 49, has a deeply introspective tone, with a slower, deliberate quality and maturity not present in the first. Length of this recording was 51 minutes and 38 seconds. He loved the recording process and retreated to the studio and closed the door on the concert stage in 1964.
Gould was just as eccentric as he was musically gifted. He conducted himself while he played, and hummed so loudly it’s quite audible in his later recordings. He was fussy: the temperature of the recording studio had to be exact (too warm for most folks); the piano had to be at a certain height, and nothing but the low-stance chair his father built would do; he had to soak his hands and arms in hot water for twenty minutes before recording; and he had to have his pills with him. He also wore a warm overcoat, hat, scarf, and gloves, year round. He loved technology and had an aversion to socialising, preferring letters and phone calls. He probably would have loved email. One wonders what burst of creativity he would have had online, and if he would have embraced social media.
A self-admitted hypochondriac, Gould died after his 50th birthday from a stroke. His funeral service was attended by over 3000 people and was broadcast live. According to the Glenn Gould Foundation, cemetery staff is frequently asked for directions to his grave. On his marker is carved the first few bars of the Goldberg Variations.
This is his first recording of the Goldberg Variations.
Glenn Gould was born on September 25, 1932, in Toronto and died October 4, 1982, in Toronto.