Glenn Gould was born in 1932 and by six years old was a child prodigy. At ten, he entered the Royal Conservatory in Toronto. He graduated from the Conservatory at age fourteen, the youngest graduate ever. The same year he made his debut as piano soloist with orchestra playing the Beethoven Fourth Concerto.
Ten years later Columbia Records signed him to a recording contract. Gould chose Bach’s Goldberg Variations. It caused an instant sensation because no pianist had ever played Bach this way. Gould’s interpretation of Bach put him on the music map. He became famous not through competitions or concerts but by his recordings. Gould transforms well-established masterpieces with a biting originality, timing, and ability to voice.
His American orchestral debut took place with the Detroit Symphony and the next year he made his New York Philharmonic debut with Bernstein in the Beethoven Second Concerto. At his Berlin Philharmonic debut with von Karajan, he played the Beethoven Third. He also performed in the Soviet Union.
By age 32 Gould decided to quit public performances in favor of the controlled environment of the recording industry. Like Chopin, who wrote that he could not “let myself become a machine and give concerts everywhere,” Glenn Gould saw live performances as a symbol of unhealthy competitiveness.
Gould will always be best known for his Bach playing. People accept Gould’s ideas on Bach as they did Rachmaninoff’s on Chopin, or Horowitz’s on Rachmaninoff. Bach had evolved full of plushly pedaled, un-Baroque sonorities when Gould was rethinking the Bach keyboard literature. The timbre of the piano under his hands became new and unexpected. Despite the new Bach musicology that preferred Bach on the harpsichord, Gould’s Bach continues to be popular.
Gould was also the great contrapuntal pianist in history, which a hearing almost exclusively polyphonic and with the voice always at the source of his inspiration. However, there was not a conventional thread in anything he ever played. Gould’s Bach has been described as sparse, abstract, never pretty, certainly not sensuous. Nor is Gould’s a “friendly” Bach. He is not the pianist to come home and relax to and be soothed by.
Gould was also attracted to music from before Bach, and he recorded Gibbons and Byrd, calling him “the patron saint of keyboard writing.” He gave performances that are captivating in ornaments with supremely disciplined fingers. He also played a clever Haydn.
Gould’s interpretation of Mozart is infamous. He disliked Mozart, yet recorded all the piano sonatas and fantasias. His Mozart was not sweet: the Alberti basses project into the melodies, the slow movements have no depth, and all movements are played with a nonlegato touch and extremely fast. His interpretation is cerebral and angular.
Gould also recorded plenty of Beethoven, including eighteen sonatas, variations, and concerti. He disliked, however, the heroic aesthetic of Beethoven. He could not abide the overt emotionalism of some Beethoven interpreters. His tempi have newly defined possibilities, his timbres are clearer, the big orchestral sonorities are gone from his economically pedaled Beethoven.
One of the largest groups of recordings was his contribution to twentieth century music. He recorded Berg, Krenek, Hindemith, Prokofiev, Sibelius, Scriabin, Hetu, Morawetz, and Schoenberg. Gould’s analytic power is well suited to the music of Schoenberg. In the Concerto and the solo pieces Gould is very individualistic. His use of the pedal is taut and his phrasing intricate. He handles the polyphony with precision.
Glenn Gould passed away in 1982. Paul Hume, one of Washington’s well-known critics, wrote “Glenn Gould is a pianist with rare gifts for the world. We know of no pianist anything like him of any age.”