PIANIST GLENN GOULD | REJECTING THE ‘BLOODSPORT’ CULT OF SHOWMANSHIP

“A record is a concert without halls, and a museum whose curator is the owner.”

Glenn Gould was blessed with a musical talent that few have managed to match in our lifetime. A ‘child prodigy’ pianist, he was thrust into fame’s spotlight in 1955 at the age of 22 when Columbia released his groundbreaking Bach ‘Golberg Variations.’ (Gold was his birthname, which his parents had changed to “Gould” over fear of anti-semitism during WWII– the family was not Jewish. When he was often asked his religious ancestry he’d remark, “I was Jewish during the war.”) His rebellious style, anti-establishment vibe, and longish locks also made him a sort of counter-culture icon of Classical music.

Gould’s incredible playing– inventive, unorthodox, and originally shunned by classical purists like Leonard Bernstein, was often noted by a manipulated tempo, sometimes very fast, yet each note amazingly clear. He was also known for his signature ‘humming’– which he wouldn’t allow to be removed from the final tracks over fear that doing so would diminish the sound quality.  His other eccentricities are also legendary– the lone, personal folding chair he insisted on using for playing, the layers of gloves he’d wrap his hands in year-round, his refusal to shake hands, hypochondria, the social awkwardness, and difficulty with fame– mostly likely can be attributed to Asperger’s Syndrome.  By the age of 31, Gould had sworn off public performances.

Glenn Gould passed away from a stroke on September 27th, 1982– shortly after his epic second Bach ‘Goldberg Variations’ (recorded in 1981) was released.  Many who knew him said he was planning on abandoning the piano and move on to conducting.  God only knows what incredible works would have resulted.  Below is an incredible series of photographs taken during the recording of his 1955  ‘Goldberg Variations’ by another cultural icon, the photographer Gordon Parks.

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March 1955, Columbia recording studio, NY — Brilliant young Canadian pianist Glenn Gould listening intensely while a section of his performance of Bach’s Goldberg Variations is played back as the sound engineer (R) follows the score. — Photograph by Gordon Parks for LIFE

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March 1955, Columbia recording studio, NY — Glenn Gould eating his lunch (graham crackers & milk cut with bottled spring water) while sitting at the sound engineers table next to wall festooned with nude pinups.– Photograph by Gordon Parks for LIFE

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March 1955, Columbia recording studio, NY — Canadian pianist Glenn Gould playing concert grand piano, as he records the Bach Goldberg Variations.  The sound engineers & director are following score as they look on from glassed in booth.  Note the boomed mike doubling as Gould’s coatrack. — Photograph by Gordon Parks for LIFE

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March 1955, Columbia recording studio, NY — Pianist Glenn Gould laughing as engineers let him hear how his humming spoiled his recording of the Bach Goldberg Variations– after which he offered to wear a gas mask as a muffle. Gould would not let engineers remove the sound of his voice ‘humming’ in the backgound over fear that doing so would diminish the recording’s quality — Photograph by Gordon Parks for LIFE

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March 1955, Columbia recording studio, NY — Pianist Glenn Gould soaking his hands in the sink to limber up his fingers before performing.  He starts with lukewarm water and gradually raises the temperature to hot. — Photograph by Gordon Parks for LIFE

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March 1955, Columbia recording studio, NY — Pianist Glenn Gould studying the Bach piano score while discussing with the sound engineer how he is going to record the sections. – Photograph by Gordon Parks for LIFE

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March 1955, Columbia recording studio, NY — Pianist Glenn Gould shoeless as he listens to his ‘Bach Goldberg Variations’ performance playback. He decided to record the section again. — Photograph by Gordon Parks for LIFE

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March 1955, NY — Pianist Glenn Gould ‘singing’ as he samples the action & tone of a piano at the Steinway warehouse before choosing the final one for his ‘Bach Goldberg Variations’ recording session.  — Photograph by Gordon Parks for LIFE

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March 1955, Columbia recording studio, NY — Pianist Glenn Gould studying the Bach piano score while discussing with the sound engineer how he is going to record the sections. – Photograph by Gordon Parks for LIFE

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March 1956, NY — Canadian pianist Glenn Gould carrying his special folding chair (which he insists on using whenever he plays) as he walks to the Columbia Recording studios. — Photograph by Gordon Parks for LIFE

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March 1955, NY — Brilliant young pianist Glenn Gould ‘singing’ as he samples pianos at the Steinway warehouse before choosing one for his recording session. — Photograph by Gordon Parks for LIFE

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March 1955, Columbia recording studio, NY — Close-up of 22 yr old Canadian pianist Glenn Gould’s hands while he removes the two layers of gloves he wears even (in the summer) to keep his hands supple for performing. — Photograph by Gordon Parks for LIFE

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15 thoughts on “PIANIST GLENN GOULD | REJECTING THE ‘BLOODSPORT’ CULT OF SHOWMANSHIP

  1. To this day his work is truly phenomenal, and his early demise equally tragic. many thanks JP

  2. Goldberg was not his birth name.
    Gold was his birth name.
    The English/Scots family was afraid of being thought of as Jewish, so they added the “u” to Gold.
    Here’s who the Goldberg variations are named for–
    from wiki:

    The Goldberg Variations, BWV 988, are a set of an aria and 30 variations for harpsichord by Johann Sebastian Bach. First published in 1741, the work is considered to be one of the most important examples of variation form. The Variations are named after Johann Gottlieb Goldberg, who may have been the first performer.

    I am such a fan of your site. It is exciting to see what has captured your attention, what you are ready to share with all of us.
    Thank you, thank you, thank you, you clever rascal!!!
    Cathleen Day
    Austin, Texas

  3. As a Canadian growing up in the 90s, Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould was almost mandatory viewing. I’ve loved him since I was very small. Thanks for this!

  4. Was just in Toronto and attended a function in the Glen Gould Concert Hall. He – Gould – and Oscar Pettersen are Canada’s greatest gifts to the world of music.

    There’s the Gould trail in Toronto. You can visit all his favourite haunts, including “Fran’s” on College, where he ate dinner (Meat loaf, mashed potatoes & gravy) every night.

    His recordings of the Goldberg Variations are seminal; magnificent pieces of the highest technical brilliance. I’ve listened to them – his recordings – about once a month for over 20 years. They never get boring – to me, anyway – and I am awestruck every time I hear them.

  5. Your Blog is based on passion. That is a good thing. Gould (I never heard of him before reading this) is a great example of this. But all entries tend to be based on people who are passionate at what they do.

  6. you can almost ‘feel’ the atmosphere in some of those photos – ‘american Idol’ was on the tv in the background as I viewed this article, and I’m shaking my head at the inanity and blandness of the current era we live in – oh to have been been a teenager in post war America – I’ll just have to settle for being a teenager in the late 70s when punk was emerging – not too shabby!

  7. Great post.

    The bespectacled fellow in the studio photos is producer Howard Scott, who produced Glenn from 1955 to the early sixties. See the National Film Board of Canada’s film On the Record to see Glenn’s recording of the Italian Concerto in Columbia’s famous 30th Street Studio (the studio itself is worthy of a blog post).

  8. The art of ‘pianism’ is an eternal tightrope act between tradition and progression. Glenn Gould is one of the chosen few who have succeeded in it – and with such grace!

    May he rest in peace and his music live forever.

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