Poll: Was Glenn Gould a Visionary or an Eccentric?

Tuesday, September 18, 2012 - 05:19 PM

Is there really more to say about Glenn Gould?

The answer in the autumn of 2012 appears to be a resounding yes.

Although the life and art of the late Canadian pianist has been dealt with exhaustively, the 80th anniversary of his birth on Tuesday, Sept. 25, brings a flood of new commemorative material. There are tribute recordingsbooks, record reissues, DVDs, magazine and newspaper articles, and more.

Certainly, Gould remains one of classical music’s most fascinating and enigmatic characters. Putting aside his personal quirks (wearing heavy coats and scarves in July, sitting on a 14-inch-high piano chair) his performances were utterly distinctive. There was a clarity and precision in his playing, but also a frequent humming when he played. He made two pivotal recordings of Bach's Goldberg Variations (see below) but ignored other pillars of the repertoire. In 1964, he abandoned the concert platform altogether so he could concentrate on studio recording and other projects. He died in 1982 at age 50.

We at WQXR are not resistant to the fascination with Gould. Next Tuesday, his legacy will be the subject of our discussion show, Conducting Business.

In the meantime, we'd like to hear from you: What do you think is Gould's true significance? Is he overrated? And who has inherited his mantle? Please take our poll and leave a comment below:


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Comments [9]

The Baron from Long Island City, NY

Although it is obviously true that not all eccentrics are visionaries, all visionaries are considered to be ecentric, at least by non-visionaries. Glenn Gould was an authentic visionary.

RECOMMENDED VIEWING: "Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould."

Nov. 04 2012 11:38 PM
Rosanna from NYC

To my ear Gould's Bach interpretations bring exceptional clarity and pure joy. I wish I could thank him for helping me through rough times in life! In the film "Genius Within" it was mentioned at one point that fans did write to Gould during his lifetime stating that his Bach recordings helped them to overcome depression or other adversities. For me they have a very elemental power. I can listen quite happily to Goode, Hewitt, Perahia, Schiff, or P. Serkin playing Bach and enjoy their performances, but do not feel the INTENSITY that comes from Gould playing Bach.

Sep. 22 2012 02:01 AM
Silversalty from Brooklyn

There probably should have been an "All of the above" choice in the poll.

What made Gould tick is "beyond my pay scale." I think Gould, if he wanted to, could have sounded like any of the pianists listed in this thread. He didn't want to. For whatever reason. The opposite though is most certainly not true.

In one of the movies about Gould he mentions a recording technique used by Oscar Peterson. That made me wonder about his involvement with non-classical musicians. Apparently he was, though I haven't been able to find much information on it. One clue is that Bill Evans, one of the greats of jazz piano, used Gould's Steinway CD 318 to record the album "Conversations with Myself," where he, Evans, also used over dubbing of himself, a rare recording technique for the time. Did Gould get the idea of concentrating on recording technique from Evans or others of the time?


I had a laugh at this quote -

At a jazz festival concert in 2004, pianist Bill Mays, joked: "I sat down to play a bebop piece on the CD 318 and Bach's F-major Invention came out.

Regarding Gould's singing, I'm listening to his playing of Mozart's Turkish rondo and the singing makes me smile. He's possessed by the music and that possession is contagious.


Maybe it's commonplace with pianists, but I marvel at the lack of sheet music with such a seemingly complex piece.

Beethoven 15 Variations and Fugue Op 35 - video in three parts

Sep. 21 2012 11:48 PM

I find his playing tedious to listen to. Don't mind the humming. There are far too many pianists of much higher caliber, who are not known because, frankly, they are not WEIRD. And it's not his Asberger's to which I refer.

Sep. 21 2012 07:06 PM
klaus moritz from Queens NY

I think that Glenn Gould was the reincarnation of J>S. Bach. I am not religious or believe in such things, but Glen was uniquely atuned to what I believe Bach was. It is a pleasure to listen to him play the master.

Sep. 19 2012 05:18 PM

One look at Glenn Gould's chair with the legs sawed off, and I think the question is answered. How can anyone so completely absorbed in his music not be at least a little eccentric? I first heard Glenn Gould play in the early 1970's when I was an art student in Boston. Since then, I always know when he's playing. The music will stop me in my tracks, even for just a moment, and make me smile. Perhaps eccentricity is a cart and horse question? Either way, the true artist will always follow a different path, and they will walk it alone...

Sep. 19 2012 04:59 PM
DocM from New York

There's an excellent free video on Hulu called Genius Within: The Inner Life of Glenn Gould. Definitely worth watching. It pulls together a lot of the aspects of his art and genius that I had had only in fragments. So to answer the original question, he was both a (very eccentric) genius and a visionary; they're not mutually exclusive.

I was at a Gould recital--maybe his only one--in Philadelphia in the 50s. He played the Goldbergs, of course. The newspaper reviews were at best lukewarm, and made much of his posture--playing with his nose practically touching the keys--his singing along, and mostly the quirkiness of his interpretation. We had been schooled, after all by Landowska on the harpsichord and Schweitzer on the organ, as well as many orchestral versions of his other works. For myself, I found it breathtaking: the clarity, the way he could bring out every voice at once, the sheer beauty of it all.

He says in the film that he varies his playing as a sort of shock therapy, to make people think anew about the meaning of the music. In that, he certainly succeeded.

Sep. 19 2012 02:41 PM
Les from Miami, Florida

I'm convinced he was a visionary in that he knew that a performer's objective to present the best of which one was capable was best realized by employing cinematic techniques to sound recording rather than what he considered the outmoded manner, namely, performing in concert halls the world over, in the 19th Century tradition. He would supervise splicing of passages recorded in many different takes if, on playback, he felt they would best present his conception of the composer in question. Here was a man with towering credentials and an international reputation who, in stating that the concert was dead (or anachronistic)expressed my feelings completely. I don't care a whit if a favorite performance was done in one,two, or a hundred takes if I've moved by the final product. If only he could have lived to see and employ today's computer recording and downloading opportunities! He's my favorite Bach keyboard performer; and I don't think his achievements will be equalled. He also felt that rather than concentrate on a selected repertory, guaranteed to wow audiences the world over, he would expand as an artist by exploring and recording a more comprehensive repertory. His catalog includes works of Prokofieff, Sibelius, Grieg, Hetu, Gibbons, Schoenberg, et al. Of the conventional concertos, he didn't care for Tchaikovsky 1, Chopin, Rachmaninoff or Grieg, to whom he was distantly related. I regret that he felt that way: wouldn't it have been fascinating to hear his conceptions of them? I also regret his feeling of almost nothinness ---or complete nothingness?--- for Italian or French opera.

Sep. 19 2012 09:06 AM

The most horrible Bach player I've ever heard. He plays Bach on the piano as if the piano were a harpsichord. Unbelievably mechanical. I can ALWAYS tell when Gould is playing. I haven't the faintest idea why he is so venerated.

Here are people who play Bach magnificently on the piano:

Edward Aldwell
Angela Hewett
Richard Goode
Murray Perahia
Peter Serkin
András Schiff

Sep. 19 2012 01:17 AM

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