Eccentric Genius: Is it Time to Rethink the Cult of Glenn Gould?

Monday, September 24, 2012

Glenn Gould in Toronto, during the 1970s Glenn Gould in Toronto, during the 1970s (Don Hunstein, courtesy of Sony Classical)

In 1955, Canadian piano prodigy Glenn Gould made a recording of Bach's Goldberg Variations that made him world-famous. But Gould became just as famous for his eccentricities – humming along while he played, wearing gloves and overcoat in summer, middle-of-the-night phone calls and quitting the concert circuit at the height of his career.

It’s the 80th anniversary of his birth, and Gould continues to provoke fascination, with tribute albums, books, DVDs, an app and even a Glenn Gould conference at the University of Toronto. All this raises bigger questions of Gould’s impact on the music industry – and how artists’ legacies are promoted – or maybe even exploited – after they’re gone.

In this podcast we ask what Gould represents to a music business hungry for the larger than life personalities and increasingly changed by the technology that he foreshadowed. We also consider the results of our listener poll on Glenn Gould. Joining us are three guests:

  • Colin Eatock, author of the new book Remembering Glenn Gould. He also writes about music for Toronto's Globe and Mail.
  • Brian Levine, executive director of the Glenn Gould Foundation.
  • David Patrick Stearns, classical music critic of the Philadelphia Inquirer and a writer for WQXR’s Operavore blog.

Weigh in: What do you think is Gould's biggest legacy? What is your favorite Gould recording? Leave your comments below.


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Comments [11]

Jonathan from North America

Glenn Gould was said to never lie. His final interview was given to Juilliard professor and author David Dubal. Listen to David Dubal on knowing Glenn Gould and Gould's final interview here:

Oct. 22 2012 12:04 PM
Counce Hancock from CT

For a different aspect of Gould's influence on our culture, read Thomas Bernhard's novel "The Loser" (not Gould in this case). If you have not treated yourself to Bernhard, this is a good way to get hooked.

Sep. 28 2012 10:44 AM
HYH from New York

Lenny from Santa Fe -- great comment/comparison to Thelonious Monk! Quite right.

Sep. 26 2012 01:22 PM
Silversalty from Brahms parlor

Apparently WNYC had something on the Berstein/Gould/Brahms/Schonberg/NYTimes dustup on the 50th anniversary of the performance.

The original NYTimes review article is archived and requires payment to view.

The Schonberg review is written in the form of a letter to one "Ossip." Sara Fishko describes Ossip as a "childhood friend" of Schonberg, though another source suggests that Ossip was one Ossip Gabrilowitsch who often played the Brahms piece, though he had died about 25 years before the review article was written.

Talk about a pot calling a kettle black. Did Gould ever write open letters complaining to Mozart?

Searching for this info led me to this -

Notice how Gould's hand is quickly removed.

Sep. 26 2012 01:21 PM

@RodolfoL and @Brett, our guests talk about the Brahms Concerto story further in the podcast. Quite a fascinating moment in Gould's career!

Sep. 26 2012 11:36 AM
RodolfoL from New York

Great Brett, great! Many thanks. Great story actually considering the stature of the musicians and the critic involved (and the newspaper, too.)

Sep. 26 2012 09:55 AM
Brett Allen-Bayes from Australia

For Rodolfo L from New York

The critic involved was Harold Schoenberg on the now infamous occasion when Gould and Bernstein had their differences of opinion regarding the Brahms D minor concerto in 1962. The comment can be found his damning revue of concert for the Times wherein he suggests that perhaps the reason Gould plays the work so slowly is because his technique isn't so good. This comes out of the mouths of fictitious characters he creates within the review. This tempest in a teacup has been very widely quoted though many have felt that Schoenberg went too far with this comment for it does somewhat move from criticism to personal insult. Mind you, Gould wasn't the only one about whom Schoenberg wrote so negatively. For example, Bernstein copped it throughout much of his tenure with the NYPO.

Sep. 25 2012 07:27 PM
Lenny from Santa Fe, MN

As for me, I love Glen Gould's spirit and how he plays Bach....
I just prefer it, that's all. As for criticism of his technique and and his eccentricities and all that stuff. Why bother? Another pianist, Thelonious Monk in the jazz world was criticized very much in the same ways as Gould has been. Monk is now celebrated as an undisputed master of the keyboard and composition. I love them both and feel lucky that they are what they are. My life is richer.

Sep. 25 2012 04:59 PM
RodolfoL from New York

I have read somewhere that a critic from The New York Times once wrote that Gould was a pianist with no good technique. Do you or someone knows the story or have more details about this?

Sep. 25 2012 03:42 PM
Silversalty from Brooklyn


I'm reminded of a classical musician that I met that when I mentioned Gould said that Gould was a "hero" of his. Gould did things his way. Sometimes they were spectacular. Sometimes merely spectacle. Of course he had such fantastic talent that allowed him to go his own way and still survive. I think Canada plays a role in that too in that he was and always would have been accepted there, which is probably not the case here (USA) or most other places.

Follow your spirit, muse, heart. Not a bad legacy.

I thought I read somewhere that Gould's favorite composer was Orlando Gibbons. (A comment that fits better in the other post today about Gould claiming Richard Strauss was his favorite.) That reminds me of some of my favorite Gould pieces, which are rarely broadcast and have a more 'romantic' quality than one would usually associate with Gould.

From the CD "A Consort of Musicke .."

William Byrd's "A Voluntary" and "Sellinger's Round."

"A Voluntary" is beautiful and full of life. "Sellinger's Round" is frilly (trilly?) and whimsical.

Also, from the Liszt transcriptions of Beethoven's symphonies:

- from the Silver Jubilee Album:
Beethoven's 6th, 1st movement ('Pastoral' - I. Allegro ma non troppo).

- from a CD of the full 5th Symphony:
Beethoven's 5th, 2nd movement (II. Andante con moto).

Sep. 25 2012 12:54 PM
HYH from New York

To me, there is no denying the genius and influence of Glenn Gould. He opened the world to the deeper, broader and prolific magnificence of JS Bach. His eccentricities aside (or perhaps because of them), Gould's artistry and the depth of his commitment to the music came through at all times. Personal preferences are exactly that and I certainly respect those who do not share my enthusiasm for Mr. Gould. The beauty of art! But, I do feel strongly that his continued renowne is warranted. I have his recording of Beethoven's 1st pno cto and Bach F minor cto from when I was a child that I still listen to with joy. And, of course, I have both Goldberg recordings, the latter of which is in my regular listening rotation.

Sep. 25 2012 12:48 PM

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WQXR looks deeper into the issues affecting the classical music landscape. 

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