Books

Play it again, Glenn

A biography reinterprets Gould’s life

John Bemrose July 28 1997
Books

Play it again, Glenn

A biography reinterprets Gould’s life

John Bemrose July 28 1997

Play it again, Glenn

A biography reinterprets Gould’s life

JOHN BEMROSE

Books

It was in 1957 that a young American psychiatrist named Peter Ostwald first met Canadian pianist Glenn Gould. The previous year, Gould, 24, had been catapulted to international fame with the launch of his recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations. Now, the musician had come to San Francisco to give one of those public performances that were becoming increasingly tortuous for him. Ostwald, 29, attended the concert and was deeply moved by Gould: by his strange, simian hunch over the keys, and by the uncanny clarity and fluid grace of his playing. Afterward, Ostwald—a violinist himself, with many connections in the music world—went backstage and introduced himself. That meeting was the beginning of a 20-year friendship that would ultimately result in Ostwald’s appreciative and perceptive Glenn Gould: The Ecstasy and Tragedy of Genius. Though not the first biography of Gould, it is certainly the most inclusive and psychologically sensitive look at Canada’s greatest classical performer.

GLENN GOULD: THE ECSTASY AND TRAGEDY OF GENIUS

Peter Ostwald

By the time Gould died in 1982, at the tragically young age of 50, he had become a cult figure—an eccentric genius who had given up public performances and lived reclusively in his native Toronto. But at that first meeting, Ostwald—who died of cancer in 1996 shortly after completing his book—met a Gould whose neuroses had not yet closed him off from new, face-to-face contacts. At a restaurant, and later, with some of Ostwald’s musician friends, the compulsively talkative pianist held forth for several hours, often with brilliance and charm, on subjects from Mozart to his own (mostly imaginary) health problems. When an exhausted Ostwald finally drove Gould back to his hotel, he had to literally elbow him from the car to bring the monologue to an end.

Ostwald speculates that Gould’s extreme narcissism may have been the result of Asperger disease, a kind of autism that sometimes afflicts gifted personalities. But he also lays a heavy stress on the shaping role of Gould’s mother, Flora. The wife of Bert Gould, a successful Toronto furrier, Flora was an extraordinarily ambitious woman who was determined even before Gould’s birth in 1932 that her child was going to be a musician. A fine pianist and singer herself, she played classical music to him when he was still in her womb, and gave him his first keyboard lessons as soon as he was able to sit up. “He was encouraged to strike the ‘right’ notes,” Ostwald reports, “and if he hit a ‘wrong’ one, his mother grimaced, her body became tense, and words of disapproval crossed her lips.”

And so Gould’s sense of well-being became conditional on the approval of an unrelenting perfectionist. Ostwald does not specifically say so, but it would seem that Flora’s extreme control of her son helped make him enormously insecure, turning him into a control freak himself. That was why, in later life, his preferred mode of communication was the telephone, which allowed him to deliver his monologues when and how he wished (typically, he phoned his friends in the middle of the night, with never a concern about whether he was inconveniencing them). His mania for control was also behind his controversial 1964 decision to give up public performances. Ostwald thinks Gould projected his mother’s disapproval onto his audiences. It was much easier to play in a studio—where technicians could intersplice various takes and so produce a “perfect” version of a piece.

Ostwald also shows that there was deep rage in Gould—probably another result of Flora’s invasiveness—which he himself was terrified of, and learned to divert or repress. Yet Gould loved his mother, too. She remained his closest confidante until her death in 1975, an event that Ostwald suggests was the greatest loss of his life. Gould himself lived only seven years longer—a period of increasing stress as his poor diet, chronic lack of exercise and hypochondriacal pill-popping edged him closer to his fatal stroke.

Ostwald necessarily describes much that is known about Gould, including his lengthy affair in the late 1960s with a woman identified only as the wife of a well-known American composer, pianist and conductor. But he also offers much that is fresh and fascinating, including Gould’s uneasy relationship with the various producers and technicians associated with his prolific recording career— and with his years of making radio documentaries about Canada’s North for CBC. More controversially, Ostwald conveys a sense of the unevenness of Gould’s achievement: his greatness when playing Bach, and his frequent superficiality when interpreting other composers, most notably Beethoven.

JOHN BEMROSE

In many ways, the picture of Gould evoked by the book is a pitiable one: he was paranoid, lonely and hellishly driven. But Ostwald believes there was another, compensatory, side to Gould’s experience, hinted at in the films of the pianist crooning blissfully to himself at the keyboard. Lost in his playing, Gould went beyond issues of control and neurotic dependency, and entered, it seems, the mysterious freedom of ecstasy.