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Glenn Gould Biography

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

Gould was known for his 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 a piece the same way twice.

His piano 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 Bach interpreters, notably András Schiff and Angela Hewitt.

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, which allowed him more control over the keyboard. Charles Rosen's view is that a low position at the piano is unsuitable for playing the technically demanding music of the 19th century. Since Gould generally disliked Romantic-period piano music, this low position did not impede him. Gould's position and technique yielded excellent results with contrapuntal music, and his choice of repertoire reveals an obvious inclination to polyphony. Even his few recorded excursions into the Romantic piano literature are biased towards uncharacteristically contrapuntal works. The music of Bach formed much of his repertoire, and it is for his interpretations of Bach's works that he is most remembered.

Regarding the performance of Bach on the piano, Gould said, "the piano is not an instrument for which I have any great love as such... [But] I have played it all my life and it is the best vehicle I have to express my ideas." In the case of Bach, Gould admitted, "[I] fixed the action in some of the instruments I play on—and the piano I use for all recordings is now so fixed—so that it is a shallower and more responsive action than the standard. It tends to have a mechanism which is rather like an automobile without power steering: you are in control and not it; it doesn't drive you, you drive it. This is the secret of doing Bach on the piano at all. You must have that immediacy of response, that control over fine definitions of things."

Glenn Gould usually hummed while he played, and his recording engineers varied in how successfully they were able to exclude his voice from his recordings. Gould claimed this singing was subconscious, 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 while sitting on an old chair his father had made. He continued to use this chair even when the seat was completely worn through. His chair is so closely identified with him that it is shown in a place of honour in a glass case at the National Library of Canada. [2]

Gould was so afraid of being cold that he wore heavy clothing, including gloves, even in warm places. He also disliked social functions. He had an aversion to being touched, and in later life he limited personal contact, relying on the telephone and letters for communication. Upon one visit to historic Steinway Hall in New York City in 1959, the chief piano technician at the time, Willilam Hupfer, greeted Gould by giving him a slap on the back. Gould was shocked by this, and complained of aching, lack of coordination, and fatigue due to the incident; he even went on to explore the possibility of litigation against Steinway & Sons if his apparent injuries were permanent. When he was still performing publicly, he performed in concert with the Cleveland Orchestra, after which conductor George Szell remarked, "No doubt about it—that nut's a genius".

Gould was not without a sense of humour, as in his creation of numerous alter egos for satirical, humorous or didactic purposes. From the liner notes to Bach Partitas, Preludes and Fugues:

Early in his life Gould suffered a spine injury which prompted his physicians to prescribe him an assortment of painkillers and other drugs. His continued use of prescribed medications throughout his career is speculated to have had a deleterious effect on his health. He was highly concerned about his health throughout his life, such as his high blood pressure, 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 syndrome, 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. (The diagnosis of Asperger syndrome did not exist in Gould's lifetime.) Gould's eccentricities, such as rocking and humming, isolation and difficulty with social interaction, and the uncanny focus and technical ability he displayed in music-making, can be related to the symptoms displayed by persons with Asperger's, according to Maloney.

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, suggesting that there are ample psychological and emotional explanations for Gould's eccentricities, and that it is not necessary to resort to neurological explanations.

Glenn Gould was the recipient of many honors during his lifetime and posthumously. In 1983, he was inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame. He won four Grammy Awards:
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