This is a fascinating book about a fascinating musician. The author assembled thousands of facts about the life of Glenn Gould and interviewed about everybody who knew him personally, including surviving members of his family. The result is a cogent recital, beginning with Gould’s early childhood and ending with his death after several disabling strokes, a few days after his 50th birthday on Oct. 4, 1982.
Within the span of its 16 chapters, “A Life and Variations” progresses from a chronological account of Gould’s brilliant career as a virtuoso pianist in America and in Europe, to his sudden decision to withdraw from the concert stage and devote himself exclusively to recording. In this, he seems to echo his fellow Canadian Marshall McLuhan’s famous motto, “The medium is the message.” Gould left a legacy of meticulous renditions made painstakingly accurate through the technology of studio recording and later of television.
The author, Otto Friedrich, admits that he is not a professional musicologist. It is just as well that he isn’t, for this self-exclusion from the not always exciting company of certified bearers of the title Herr Prof. Doktor enables him to wander freely in the world of music lovers without an assumed prejudice. He explains Gould’s decision to withdraw from the concert stage by his despair in being damned not for his idiosyncratic interpretations of the Classics, but for his eccentricities in stage behavior, which are described in full detail.
From his young days, Gould was painfully sensitive to his real or imaginary ills. It has been said that he insured his hands for $100,000 with Lloyd’s of London. He wore warm mittens even during the summer; once he disappeared just before his concert and was found soaking his hands in scathing hot water in the restroom. He always used his own very low chair when playing, adjusted so that his eyes could be level with the keyboard. He would cross his legs during the orchestral introduction to a concerto, and, most annoyingly of all to some guardians of tradition, he would hum or even sing the tunes as he played.
The coup de grace came when, at age 31, he left the stage forever, stung, as the author surmises, by a mocking review in the Chicago paper that described him in devastating terms after his local concert: “His appearance is careless, and somehow disheveled. His clothes don’t fit, his hair needs cutting and grooming. He appears to have his trouser pockets stuffed with grapefruits.” Another critic described Gould as “music’s most successful hipster.” “Seating himself at the Ouija board on a sawed-off rickety relic of a chair that was held together with wires, the distinguished recitalist sang and stomped and conducted. . . .”
Bach was Gould’s God. There are two separate chapters that discuss Gould’s performance of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, the first placed early, during the account of Gould’s concertizing career, and the second later on in the narrative when Gould had become richly entrenched in perfecting his art in the recording studio. And indeed, Gould’s mature recording of the Goldberg Variations is a sublime example of his pianistic art, mathematically precise in its articulation, poetic in its slow variations, immensely moving in its formal conception.
Included in the book is an extensive discography compiled by Nancy Cunning, listing records made from 1951 to 1982. One sees that after Bach, Gould’s favorites were the late sonatas of Beethoven. Inevitably, there were some works of Haydn and Mozart. On the other side of the musical firmament was Schoenberg, whose music Gould prized for the classical purity of his technique of composing in 12 tones related only to one another. He also favored the piano sonatas of Alexander Scriabin, Paul Hindemith and Ernst Krenek.
Oddly enough, Gould avoided the Romantic school; not a single work of Chopin or Schumann is found among his recordings. The only exception Gould makes for Romantic composers was the music of Brahms; he once said that the Brahms Intermezzi were the “sexiest” musical works he had ever heard.
There are many vignettes in Friedrich’s absorbing account of Gould’s life. The second part of the book tells of Gould’s intellectual activities apart from music, devoted to geography, to Canada, to history and other matters, with an account of his appearances on television programs of educational nature designed by himself.
Friedrich infuses his story with the vast correspondence between Gould and his friends and acquaintances, for although Gould was a man preferring solitude, he was also a voluble correspondent, filling his letters with his ambitious plans. He was a dreamer. He fantasized about traveling to the Canadian North, which is most easily done by air. But nothing in the world would induce Gould to entrust himself to the uncertain fuselage of an airplane. So he never went to the Arctic. As an imaginative alternative, he proposed a series of radio programs under the title “The Idea of North.” As participants, he invited a nurse, a former government surveyor and some adventurous travelers. The series was quite successful.
One of the most valuable sections of this biography is the appendix that contains, in addition to the extensive discography, complete programs of Gould’s public concerts between 1945 and 1964, and a list of radio and television programs (also compiled by Nancy Cunning), in which Gould appeared as symphonic conductor and commentator on a variety of subjects. There is further a list of Gould’s published writings.
For those interested in the story of a remarkable musician, a fantasist bearing a bundle of inhibitions, “A Life and Variations” proves to be a most satisfying account of this enigmatic personality.