Arts: Variations on a solitary theme: At 23, Glenn Gould recorded his 'Goldberg Variations'. At 31, he retired from live performance. At 50, he died. Michael White on the short life of a reclusive genius.

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The Independent Culture
IN NORTH AMERICA, the summer of 1955 was long and hot and big in the mythology of doomed youth. In September James Dean died, aged 24; and in June a 23-year-old pianist who could have passed for his younger brother arrived at a Presbyterian church turned recording studio in New York to make a disc that would become the theme tune to a wayward, maybe tragic, definitely short-lived genius.

The pianist / genius was Glenn Gould, the disc the Goldberg Variations; and with due deference to such shellac legends as Yehudi Menuhin's adolescent account of the Elgar Violin Concerto or Ernest Lough singing 'O for the Wings of a Dove', it has a fair claim to being the most celebrated classical recording in the history of the business, a totem in sound. It also inspired a cult of personality, with ground rules established on that warm June day when Gould turned up to play in several pullovers and a scarf because, he said, he felt the cold.

As well as the supplementary wardrobe, he also brought his own piano stool (a folding seat with the legs sawn down to 14ins from the floor, because he liked to sit low, with his wrists beneath the level of the keyboard), a dispensary of prescription drugs (uppers, downers, for tension, headache, poor circulation . . .) and a large supply of arrowroot biscuits. Before he played he doused his hands and arms in scalding water until the skin was red (supposedly to soften it). And as he played he sang: a mellow, disembodied moan that can be heard quite clearly on the disc, dusting the upper voices of the counterpoint like some kind of sonic eyebrow raised in semi-private ecstasy.

Each of these is not particularly remarkable: the piano is an isolating instrument, and pianists more than other species of musicians do develop curious mannerisms and behavioural quirks. But Gould was an extreme case. At 23 he was already locked into a sealed existence, circumscribed by rules and routines of his own devising. And of all the music he could have chosen for his recording debut with a major company (CBS), it was significant that it should be the Goldberg Variations, which are a masterpiece of ordered self-containment. The story goes that Bach wrote them to divert the restless night-thoughts of a rich insomniac; and they proceed through an elaborate mechanism of 30 variants on the baseline of the theme that tops and tails them, amounting to 32 links in a cumulative chain of tension. Effectively, they are a baroque fantasy on counting sheep: numerologically obsessive and not difficult to imagine as nocturnal music, filtering through the darkness of an 18th-century mansion at the dead of night. Material enough there to satisfy the needs of any marketing department.

But in 1955 the Goldberg Variations were an offbeat choice to launch a new career. They belonged to a handful of specialists like Wanda Landowska and were otherwise not standard repertory. Young pianists made their mark with Beethoven or Chopin, and CBS would have preferred their new catch to observe the convention. They soon found out that conventionality was not Gould's strongest point.

In fact, it was remarkable that he was so indulged so early on, when he was relatively unknown. Across the border in Canada, where he was born in 1932 to middle-class, musical parents (his mother was a piano teacher and the one who first encouraged him to sing as he played), Gould had long been hailed a prodigy. And not only as a pianist. 'Boy, age 12, Shows Genius as Organist', announced the Toronto Evening Telegram in response to his first public appearance; and the organist's detached, staccato style remained a feature of his keyboard technique ever after. On a bad day, when the Gould charisma wasn't functioning in overdrive, his playing could sound grimly like a 100wpm typist.

But that was Canada; and in 1950s New York, Canadian prodigies didn't count for so much. When Gould played his New York debut in January 1955, not many people went - partly because the programme was a typically bizarre Gouldian mix of Gibbons, Sweelinck, Bach, Webern and Berg. Throughout his life his repertoire was never mainstream. He had no affinity with (and frankly couldn't play) late Beethoven. He made great capital of loathing Mozart (his 'died too late rather than too early' was a much-quoted judgement). He had no time for Schubert, Schumann, Chopin, Liszt, Debussy. And he often said - probably truthfully - that his favourite composer was Richard Strauss, who wrote hardly any piano music at all.

YOU MIGHT wonder precisely what, at 23, Glenn Gould had going for him that was such a commendation. The declared view of the CBS executive who signed him was that he was 'alas, a little crazy but had a remarkable, hypnotic effect at the piano'. And CBS was looking for young, charismatic talent to fill the

gap in their artists roster left by Dinu Lipatti, who had died just a few years before at the tragically early age of 33. So Gould it was;

and the gamble paid off handsomely. Music critics deplored his eccentricities, but the general press seized on them as colourful copy. The legend of the crazy but hypnotic virtuoso who wore gloves and snowboots in summer, who couldn't bear to be touched, who withdrew from the world to live, hidden, in hotel rooms from which he emerged only at night (like a vampire) took root. The Goldberg Variations sold in massive quantities. And Gould went on to make another 60 of varying quality but guaranteed sales potential, until he died prematurely from a stroke in 1982. He was just 50.

By then, of course, he had become one of the world's most notable recluses, glimpsed if at all in his unvarying and slightly sinister wrap- around disguise of dark glasses, cap, overcoat and scarf. He 'retired' from live performance at the age of 31 in 1964, complaining that the concert circuit was mutually exploitative (by artists of audiences and audiences of artists) and thereafter devoted himself to making records - usually in marathon sessions that stretched through the night and into the not-so-early hours of the morning. The follow-up discussions with producers and collaborators would be done by telephone, playing edits down the line. And the number of collaborators reduced after 1969, when he stopped recording with orchestras. From then on it was just solo recital discs.

The paradox of Gould's retreat was that even as he withdrew from live contact with other human beings (animals were different) he was actively soliciting exposure on radio and television. He was a natural didact, never happier than when lecturing unseen audiences on music or other subjects. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation has an archive of Glenn Gould programmes which remains the prime source for what he offered in the way of explanation for his life and work. Sometimes it came with leaden pedantry, sometimes with a heavy- handed, Germanic kind of humour, sometimes with a devastating insight and directness; but almost always with a dose of moral reasoning that, one suspects, he used to justify decisions taken without recourse to any such thing. His retreat into recordings, for example, became a moral stance on the grounds that 'technology . . . imposes upon art a notion of morality which transcends the idea of art itself'. Recordings freed audiences from the 'servile dependency' of the concert hall and, through careful editing, gave them access to an idealised perfection unobtainable in live performance. Well, that may be true. But it was also true that Gould liked the recording studio because within it he could fabricate that closed and ordered world where everything obeyed his own rules. He sometimes said that the pivotal qualities in his playing were ecstasy and control; and his best recordings bear that out. But in the broader picture of Gould's life it was control that dominated. On the rare occasions when he gave interviews (usually at arm's length, by telephone or posted tape) he would supply not only the answers but also the questions. The apparently casual conversations he had on television with distinguished musicians were always scripted by Gould, down to the last 'Well, Glenn, it's interesting you ask me that'. And one of his abiding objections to Mozart was the debt the great scores owed to improvisational facility. Improvisation was conceptually abhorrent to Gould (although he was happy enough to do it in private) as a process of split-second reactions that necessarily fell back on tired ideas.

The equation, then, in Gould's mind was: withdrawal = control = perfection. Conversely: live participation = compromise = uncertainty. But it doesn't take a degree in psychology to find in his behaviour and reported comments a conflicting idea of withdrawal as an end in itself and music as the means. As he said of his own childhood: 'I was determined to wrap myself up in music because I found it was a damned good way of avoiding my schoolmates, with whom I did not get along.'

The perfection Gould achieved in the recording studio was largely a matter of remedial artifice: of skill with a splicing knife as much as skill in performance. His finished products were a patchwork of edits, made with painstaking thoroughness (at a rate of 10 minutes' music per day that made recording Glenn Gould an expensive proposition) but still decidedly unnatural. And though Gould would have dismissed naturalness as a false goal ('Art on its loftiest mission is scarcely human at all') and unrolled a carpet of arguments for editing as a creative not corrective medium ('transcending the limitations performance imposes on the imagination'), some of the technological interventions he endorsed were so bizarre they read like something out of Mary Shelley.

For example, he decided towards the end of his life that he did, after all, want to record some concerti, but preferably without the compromise of contact with an orchestra. So he approached Neville Marriner, conductor of the Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields, with a project for a ghoulishly dismembered Beethoven cycle - the idea being to record the piano parts in Canada and send the tapes to London to be re-recorded with the ASM playing alongside. Mercifully, it never progressed beyond discussions. But he got further with an equally grotesque idea to conduct and play, separately, Beethoven's 2nd Concerto. Conducting became, in the 1980s, a tentative exception to his refusal to work with orchestras; and on this occasion he recorded a performance with himself on the podium and a young pianist playing the solo part to his instructions. The plan was then to erase the young pianist from the tapes and fill the hole with Gould. At this point the idea was shelved: it's not clear why - except, perhaps, on grounds of taste.

Gould called these games 'creative cheating'; and however ironic its tone, the phrase signalled a serious belief in performance as a creative act: which is to say, an act of intervention and transformation. When Glenn Gould played he saw - and heard - himself as far more than a pair of hands doing the will of the composer. He became the composer; and not necessarily the one - Bach, Webern, Mozart - whose name was printed on the cover of the music.

Gould's interest in composition was lifelong and overt as well as surreptitious. He liked to talk about himself and the piano as though it were merely a passing relationship in the life of a musical polymath, poised to branch out in new directions. One of these directions was writing, although not much came of it apart from a striking, youthful and bizarrely late- Romantic string quartet. 'I specialise in unfinished works' was a standard interview line; and the Glenn Gould archive in Toronto is rich in heavily notated plans for everything from an autobiographical opera downwards, none of which progressed beyond ideas.

The problem for Glenn Gould the composer was originality: he was a masterful pasticheur of past styles, and his ability

to analyse and edit down large-scale orchestral works into two-hand keyboard transcriptions was phenomenal. Their virtuosity compared with Liszt - although Gould's view of Liszt was poor enough for him not to appreciate

the comparison.

But creativity was both the virtue and the curse of his playing. At best he brought a charismatic potency to what he did: so wilful, so determined, so persuasive you could call it a Svengalian genius. At the same time it was passionate and cerebral and technically exhilarating (the low posture at the keyboard meant the fingers were particularly flat and moved at breakneck speeds with little effort); and the effect on listeners was undeniable. He generated more than mere appreciation. He had followers, disciples who were devoted to his playing; and beyond them, there were countless more - especially in Canada - who may not have known much about the piano but could recognise an icon when they saw one.

He did not disappoint them. But when the whole of his work is considered, it is obvious how absurdly uneven it is. For every towering peak like the Goldberg there is a chasmic trough such as the disc that immediately followed it: the Beethoven sonatas, Opus 109, 110 and 111, which must count among the most ill- considered studio readings ever released. It may well be, as his biographer Otto Friedrich says, that Gould simply didn't care for this

repertory; but it begs the question why he

bothered to record it. And the Beethoven disc isn't an isolated phenomenon.

GOULD WAS by temperament provocative. He liked to shock; and to that end he encompassed grotesque distortions of the music he played. There was a celebrated incident before a live performance of the Brahms D Minor concerto with Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic when Bernstein turned to the audience and effectively dissociated himself from what they were about to hear. In fact, Gould could be an effective Brahmsian: his recording of the Intermezzi is acknowledged to be one of the best things in his catalogue, and he thought highly of it himself. But the reasons he gave were significant: he thought it worked because it sounded as though he was playing for himself with the door left open. The truth is that Gould always played for himself; and too often the door was closed.

What, then, did he leave behind? A collection of recordings that enthusiasts refer to as a 'legacy' - and with justification, because some of it is powerful and revelatory and speaks with the confronting directness of a doctor discussing life and death issues by the bedside. But as the legacy of a great pianist, it is decidedly patchy: full of gaps in the mainstream repertoire that ought to be there if only as a solid, rooting soil for everything else. And it is potentially damning to see how little of the legacy survives in the recommendations of standard record guides: even the Goldberg Variations have fallen prey to the wisdoms of period performance. Bach on a Steinway isn't how it's done these days. And for diehards who prefer a piano to a harpsichord - well, the guides say, go for Andras Schiff on Decca. Gould gets marginalised to the subsidiary status of interesting exotica.

By one of the odd organisational quirks that governed Gould's career, it ended as it began with the Goldberg. He almost never recorded the same piece twice; but in 1981 he returned to those Variations, and the disc was released shortly before his death. Asked what he thought, a quarter of a century on, of his original recording, he replied that he detected in it 'a real sense of humour'.-


1 Born in Canada in 1932; his earliest musical experience was of piano recordings played repeatedly while he was still in the womb - 'to give me a head start,' he later explained.

2 Although the young Gould took piano lessons in Canada, he regarded himself as self-taught.

3 He said, but probably didn't believe, that everything anyone needed to know about piano playing could be learnt in half an hour. Preferably with a vacuum in the background (see 4).

4 Practising Mozart while a maid was vacuum-cleaning the room, he discovered that the noise helped him to concentrate. From then on, he simulated the effect by working with radios tuned to conflicting stations.

5 One of the few people invited to Gould's home in later life reported that his living room had 18 television sets, switched on and tuned to 18 channels.

6 At 23 he found international fame with his first and still most celebrated commercial recording: the 32-section Goldberg Variations of J S Bach.

7 The murders in The Silence of the Lambs are committed to the sound of Glenn Gould's Goldberg Variations disc. Hannibal Lecter plays it in his cell.

8 After Goldberg, Gould found even greater fame as an eccentric and recluse. This was not actively discouraged by his record company CBS.

9 He retired from live performance in 1964 at the age of 31, on 'moral' grounds.

10 Thereafter he dedicated the rest of his life to making records - very slowly and at dead of night.

11 He died in 1982, aged 50, from a stroke, and left his fortune equally to the Salvation Army and a charity for the homeless.

12 There are dedicated Gould fans who believe his death was faked and that he's living under an assumed name.

13 Possessed of an incisive intellect but a bizarrely childlike sense of humour, he did in fact assume various alter egos when he was (unequivocally) alive - including Sir Nigel Twitt- Thornwaite and Herbert von Hockmeister.

14 After his retirement, most of his contact with other people was conducted by telephone.

15 He was a gift to the telecommunications industry. His phone calls, usually unsolicited and in the middle of the night, were marathon monologues that could drag on till daybreak.

16 With what he called a 'contrapuntal' mind, he could think about (and do) two unrelated things at once - including learning scores during his phone calls.

17 An extreme hypochondriac, he filled notebooks with details of his pulse, blood pressure and other ailments - including blue spots that appeared on his skin but subsequently turned out to be ink from a leaking pen.

18 The notebooks now form part of the Glenn Gould Archive in the National Library of Canada, with a box of 32 felt-tipped pens he used as batons to 'conduct' his own playing.

19 The archive also has boxes of the scarves, dark glasses and gloves he wore in public; and a box of cufflinks, cadged before performances from anyone who happened to be near his dressing-room, and not returned.

20 The illnesses he complained of were probably imagined. But he did have poor circulation, which made him susceptible to cold; and a childhood back injury may have lingered.

21 He couldn't bear to be touched by strangers - hence the fascination with gloves.

22 He sued Steinway for dollars 300,000 because of the 'unduly strong handshake and other demonstrative physical acts' of one of its piano technicians. The case was settled for dollars 9,000.

23 He once, in Israel, played a concert in an overcoat because he thought the hall was cold.

24 His normal concert-wear was lounge suits, almost never white tie. He objected to it.

25 Among a catalogue of paranoid fears - one of which was playing concerts in Philadelphia - he was afraid of flying, and therefore travelled very little out of North America.

26 He was none the less the first North American musician to be invited to the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

27 He was not afraid of driving fast cars recklessly, and had a long relationship with the Toronto traffic police that survived (as he did) several crashes.

28 Nor did his reclusiveness deprive him of a public career in radio and television, giving talks with titles such as: 'How Mozart Became a Bad Composer'.

29 Surprisingly, he never went to a psychiatrist.

30 His sexuality is undetermined. Widely thought to be gay, he none the less telephoned a mystery woman every night for two years and perhaps had some kind of relationship with her.

31 The peculiarities of his life and genius inspired one of the best music biographies of modern times - by Otto Friedrich, to whose research this list is heavily indebted.

32 When the US government sent Voyagers I and II into space with illustrative evidence of life on Earth, the cargo included a copper record bearing the voice of the President, the sound of a whale, and a Bach prelude and fugue - these were played by Glenn Gould.

(Photograph omitted)