Glenn Gould died young, in 1982 at the age of 50, but the Canadian classical pianist made great contributions to the world of music in his short life. He did it in part by starting young — so young, in fact, that he first felt the vibrations of music played for him while still in the womb by his mother. She’d decided even then to raise a successful musician, and her plan surely worked better than she could ever have expected. Young Glenn had perfect pitch, learned to read notes before he learned to read words, entered Toronto’s Royal Conservatory of Music at age ten, and grew into the very archetypal image of a musical genius: eccentric and often difficult, but possessed of almost otherworldly skill and distinctiveness.
Those qualities came out nowhere more clearly than in Gould’s relationship with the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, whom he described as “beyond a doubt the greatest architect of sound who ever lived.” Even listeners only casually acquainted with Gould’s work will know his recordings of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, the first of which, recorded in 1955, shot him to stardom and became one of the best-selling classical albums of all time.
Four years after that, the National Film Board of Canada documentary Off the Record, just above, captured his playing on film in the clips at the top of the post. “When Gould is not on tour or recording,” he spends most of his time at his retreat, a cottage on the Shore of Lake Simcoe 90 miles north of Toronto. Here he works on the piano he favors above all others for practicing: a 70-year-old Chickering with a resonant, harpsichord quality recalling the instruments of the time of Bach.”
There, in that cottage in the small community of Uptergrove, we see the 27-year-old Gould play Bach’s Partita No. 2, vocalizing along with the distinctive mix of forcefulness and delicacy issuing from the instrument that he never chose, but mastered to a degree few had before or have since. “His ambition,” the narrator says, “is to make enough money by the time he is 35 to retire from the concert stage and devote himself to composing.” In fact Gould put live performance behind him just five years later in order to pursue with more focus his own kind of pianistic perfection, which he continued to do for the rest of his life.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.