Watch a 27-Year-Old Glenn Gould Play Bach & Put His Musical Genius on Display (1959)

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Watch Glenn Gould Per­form His Last Great Stu­dio Record­ing of Bach’s Gold­berg Vari­a­tions (1981)

Glenn Gould Explains the Genius of Johann Sebas­t­ian Bach (1962)

Glenn Gould Offers a Strik­ing­ly Uncon­ven­tion­al Inter­pre­ta­tion of 1806 Beethoven Com­po­si­tion

The Art of Fugue: Gould Plays Bach

Glenn Gould Gives Us a Tour of Toron­to, His Beloved Home­town (1979)

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.

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