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The Mesmerizing Genius of Glenn Gould - Compass Classroom Blog

The Mesmerizing Genius of Glenn Gould

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Before you reading this article, you first need to watch this 4 minute clip:

That is what Glenn Gould's music does to people. Of all the pianists of the 20th-century, he is undoubtedly the most genius, the most controversial, the most quirky, and, in my humble opinion, the most absolutely mesmerizing.

Born in Toronto, he mastered the piano during his elementary years with a unique style of playing that would be his hallmark the rest of this life. He went on to become one of the most famous performers in the 1950's and early 60's, only suddenly to stop public performances in 1964 and dedicate the rest of his life to studio recordings. He died unexpectedly of a stroke in 1982 at the age of 50. Gould was a curious legend in his own day, and his status has not diminished with time.

What made him so unique? From a technical standpoint, he was one of the greatest pianists who ever lived, ranking in ability with Franz Liszt and Ferrucio Busoni. (Ironically enough, Gould couldn't stand the music of Liszt and I don't think ever recorded any of it other than Liszt's transcriptions of Beethoven's 5th and 6th symphonies.) Musicians who played with him said he simply never missed a note.  He had the ability to remember every piece of music he ever saw, and his genius enabled him to absorb a musical piece completely, synthesize it, then perform it as an almost completely new piece.

This often made folks frustrated when he didn't play pieces "like they were supposed to be played." And I will admit, it's not necessarily best to learn every piece from Gould - but I find this process and the results a very important contribution to the world of music appreciation. He considered himself something of a composer, and in this, he was right. He transformed music into something not quite what it was before it touched him. The results are, in a word, amazing:

Gould simply loses himself in the music. Did you notice his humming and moving of his mouth? It was one of his quirks - his mother taught him to sing to the music, and he often did so sub-consciously. He would conduct the music from the piano seat, capturing all its internal rhythms and motions that are often lost in other performances. He could play insanely fast and yet with perfect precision and accuracy.  You always hear every note.

His favorite composer was J.S. Bach, and he recorded almost all of his keyboard works. In 1955, Columbia Studios made a first recording of Glenn Gould playing Bach's Goldberg Variations: 1 aria + 30 variations + 1 aria (repeated). As one of his friends put it, it was as if the music was a clock that he took completely apart, then re-assembled in his own way using all the pieces, but not quite in the same way it was put together before. Curiously enough, he returned in 1981 to record it again - but in a completely different way. In a very real sense, these two performances are the bookends to his life - he died the next year.

If you'd like to know more about Gould himself, I recommend watching the recent Canadian documentary Genius Within - The Inner Life of Glenn Gould or you can read about him on Wikipedia.

Then there is a curious film 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould - all short films from 30 seconds to a few minutes each; the first clip was from that film.

Here is a film of his 1981 studio recording of the Goldberg Variations, with a brief documentary before the performance.

Finally, a few more intriguing performances.  All of his recordings are available on Amazon.com.


(Gould transcribed this Ravel orchestral piece himself)

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