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 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 eccentricitiesGlenn 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. His chair is so closely identified with him that it is shown in a place of honour in a glass case in the National Library of Canada.
Gould was very afraid of being cold, and wore very warm clothes, including gloves, at all times even when he was in warm places. Gould also disliked social functions. He had an aversion to being touched, and in later life he refused to talk to almost anyone in person, relying on the telephone and letters for communication. He conducted interviews with himself, wrote unusual personal advertisements about himself which he submitted to newspapers, and recorded other people's conversations in public places.
Gould was addicted to many prescription drugs, some of which had contradictory effects and his use of these drugs may have had a deleterious effect on his health. He was highly concerned about his health throughout his life, such as his congenital high blood pressure (a blood pressure monitor is visible in photographs of Gould's apartment shortly after his death) and was always concerned about the safety of his hands.
Dr. Timothy Maloney (PhD), the director of the Music Division of the National Library of Canada has written about and discussed the possibility that Gould had Asperger's Disorder, a disorder related to Autism. This idea was first tentatively proposed by Gould's biographer, Dr. Peter Ostwald (MD), though Ostwald died before he could develop this theory; there was no diagnosis of Asperger's possible in Gould's lifetime because Gould died before it was first included in the DSM (the main reference book for mental disorders used for diagnosis in the United States). Glenn Gould's eccentricities such as the pre-performance ritual of soaking his hands and arms in hot water, his rocking and humming, his isolation and difficulty with social interaction, and the uncanny focus and technical ability he displayed in music making can, according to Maloney, be related to the symptoms displayed by persons with Asperger's.
Others, such as Dr. Helen Mesaros (MD), a Toronto psychiatrist and author, dismiss this theory as post-mortem diagnosis based on circumstantial evidence by people without medical training. Mesaros wrote a rebuttal to Maloney's paper and suggests that there are ample psychological and emotional explanations for Gould's eccentricities without resorting to neurological ones. [see External links]
Gould's documentariesLess well known, but also critically praised, is Gould's work in radio documentary. These were, in part, the result of Gould's long association with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation for whom he produced numerous television and radio programmes. 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.
TributesGlenn 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.
The Glenn Gould Foundation was established in Toronto in 1983 to honour Gould and perpetuate his memory. Among other activities, the foundation awards the Glenn Gould Prize every three years to "an individual who has earned international recognition as the result of a highly exceptional contribution to music and its communication, through the use of any communications technologies." The prize consists of $50,000 Cdn. and an original work by a Canadian artist.