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Glenn Gould
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Glenn Gould

Glenn Herbert Gould (September 25, 1932 - October 4, 1982) was a celebrated Canadian pianist, noted especially for his recordings of Johann Sebastian Bach. He gave up live performances in 1964, dedicating himself to the recording studio for the rest of his career.

Table of contents
1 Life
2 Gould as musician
3 Gould's recordings
4 Gould's eccentricities
5 Gould's documentaries
6 Tributes
7 Gould's music in films
8 External link
9 Books


Gould was born in Toronto, Ontario. After being taught piano by his mother, whose grandfather was a cousin of Edvard Grieg, Gould attended the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto from the age of ten. There he studied piano with Alberto Guerrero, organ with Frederick C. Silvester, and theory with Leo Smith.

In 1945 he gave his first public performance (at the organ) and the following year made his first appearance with an orchestra (the Toronto Symphony Orchestra) in a performance of Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 4. His first public recital followed in 1947, and his first recital on CBC radio came in 1950. This was the beginning of a long association with the radio and with recording in general.

In 1957, Gould made a concert trip to the Soviet Union. He was the first North American to play there after the Second World War.

On April 10, 1964, Gould gave his last public performance, in Los Angeles, California, and for the rest of his life he concentrated on his other interests: making recordings, writing, broadcasting, documentaries (see below), and composing (although he produced few works as a composer).

Gould died in 1982 in Toronto after suffering a massive stroke. He is buried in Toronto's Mount Pleasant Cemetery.

Gould as musician

Gould was known for a vivid musical imagination, and listeners regarded his interpretations as ranging from brilliantly creative to (on occasion) outright eccentric. It was said of Gould that he never played the same piece twice in the same way.

His playing had great clarity, particularly in contrapuntal passages. Gould lived at a time when a heavy, grandeur-emphasizing approach to the performance of Bach, dating from the 19th century, was still very much on the musical scene. In comparison, many listeners found Gould's own approach to Bach to be refreshing, even revelatory. Gould's style arguably has strongly influenced later pianists who have played Bach, notably Andras Schiff.

Gould had a formidable technique that enabled him to choose very fast tempos while retaining the separateness and clarity of each note. Part of the technique consisted of taking an extremely low position at the instrument. As Charles Rosen points out, this position is crippling for purposes of playing the louder and more virtuosic music of the 19th century, and Gould occasionally had to fake certain effects in his recorded performances of Liszt by overdubbing. However, it yielded excellent results for Gould in music originally written for the harpsichord.

Gould's recordings

Gould's first record came in 1955. For it he chose the Goldberg Variations by Johann Sebastian Bach. It was a piece with which he was to become closely associated, playing it in full or in part at many of his recitals. One of his very last recordings was also of the Goldbergs, one of the few pieces which Gould recorded twice in the studio. Both recorded versions are critically acclaimed. The two recordings are very different, the first highly energetic and often at frenetic tempos, the second slower and more introspective.

Gould recorded many of Bach's other keyboard works, including the complete Well-Tempered Clavier and the keyboard concertos. For his only record at the organ, he recorded around half of The Art of Fugue.

Gould also recorded pieces by many prominent piano composers, though he was outspoken in his criticism of some of them, apparently not caring for Frederic Chopin, for example. He was fond of some of the lesser known byways of the repertoire, such as early keyboard music of Orlando Gibbons, and also made critically acclaimed recordings of little known piano music by Jean Sibelius, Richard Strauss and Paul Hindemith. His recordings of the complete Arnold Schoenberg piano works are also highly regarded.

Gould's eccentricities

Glenn Gould frequently sang along while he played, and his recording engineers varied in how successfully they could exclude his voice from his recordings. Gould claimed this singing was unconscious, and increased proportionately with the inability of the piano in question to realise the music as he intended.

Gould also was known for his peculiar body movements while playing and for his insistence on sameness. He would only play concerts whilst sitting on a folding chair his father made. He continued to use this chair even when the seat was nearly worn through (image). His chair is so closely identified with him that it is shown in a place of honor in a glass case in the National Library of Canada.

Many people with Asperger's syndrome, many parents of children with this neurodevelopmental disorder as well as some experts in diagnosis of it, believe that Gould had Asperger's syndrome. He died before it was first included in the DSM (the main reference book for mental disorders used for diagnosis in the United States). Many people with Asperger's syndrome have extraordinary abilities, some are savants; it would not be unlikely that Asperger's syndrome contributed to Gould's musical genius.

Gould's documentaries

Less well known, but also critically praised, is Gould's work in radio documentary. Notable here is his Solitude Trilogy, consisting of The Idea of North, a meditation on the north and its people; The Latecomers, about Newfoundland; and The Quiet in the Land, on Mennonites in Manitoba. All three use a technique which Gould called "contrapuntal radio," in which several people are heard speaking at once. According to his co-producer Lorne Tulk, he first used this technique out of necessity, when he found he had fourteen minutes too much material for The Idea of North. It is this technique, combined with the skillful editing of music and the use of recordings of ordinary people in conversation, which makes his documentary work stand apart from the crowd.


Glenn Gould was the recipient of many honors both during and after his lifetime. In 1983, he was inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame. In 1993 he was the subject of an award-winning movie, Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould.

Gould's music in films

In addition to Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould, Gould's recorded music has been featured in many films, both during his life and after his death. Slaughterhouse Five (1972) and The Terminal Man (1974) featured selections from his 1955 recording of the Goldberg Variations, while Hannibal (2001) contains the Aria from his 1982 recording. The Wars (1983) features Gould playing music of Richard Strauss and Johannes Brahms. Triplets of Belleville (2003) includes a segment in which an animated Glenn Gould with greatly exaggerated mannerisms plays the Prelude No. 2 in C minor, from J. S. Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 1.

External link