On Glenn Gould

The most famous assessment of the pianist Glenn Gould belongs to the sharp-tongued conductor, George Szell, who is reported to have mumbled after hearing Gould play, “That nut’s a genius.” Both halves of that sentence are well in evidence on the many Gould videos available on YouTube or DVD. All of Gould’s nuttiness is there: the bobbing and weaving, the singing, the famous chair that puts him so low that, in one early, film, his tailcoat drags on the floor behind him.

But also there, in spades, is Gould’s unalloyed genius, and I use that word advisedly. Gould was a complete original; one can find nobody in the history of piano playing whom he remotely resembles. In no other performer of this, or probably any other, century, was such a prodigious intellect wedded to such a gifted set of fingers.

There is plenty of knuckle-busting virtuosity on the videos: Strauss’ Burleske, Prokofiev’s Seventh Sonata, Gould’s own riotous transcription of Ravel’s La Valse. But even more impressive are the quieter moments: Gould as an ideal partner to Yehudi Menuhin and Leonard Rose or accompanying Strauss songs with the sensitivity of a great opera conductor. Then there are his incomparable performances of Bach, which to many—myself included—are as close to a religious experience as one can find in music.

Glenn Gould died in 1982, a few days after his fiftieth birthday. He had joked, with unintended accuracy, that he planned to give up the piano once he passed that milestone. Yet, I watch his videos and listen to his recordings without a hint of sadness or regret that Gould left us before his time. The pure spiritual ecstasy Gould sought, perhaps like the person through whom it passes, can, by definition, only exist in this world for a brief time.

Gould once wrote of Richard Strauss as “an example of a man who makes richer his own time by not being of it, who speaks for all generations by being of none.” He might just as well have been describing himself.


KWMU commentary 1993, revised 2019

Sunday Concert: Music In The USSR, January 14th, 1962. Dmitri Shostakovich, Quintet for Piano and Strings in G minor op. 57.