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Growing up Gould

by Robert Fulford

"Sit up, Glenn. Sit up straight, please." Florence Gould had a talent for exasperation and she was a much exasperated, much put-upon woman. She was proud of her twelve-year-old son, her only child, but her pride was mixed with vexation. He wouldn't accept the rules of posture, for one thing, and he wouldn't exercise outdoors when she wanted him to. He looked sickly, and she worried constantly about his diet. He was likely to catch cold, or so she thought, if he became overheated or tired. He didn't always keep a civil tongue, and his opinions were often outrageous as well as clever. He could explain, without being asked, just why Caruso – on the evidence of a few scratchy recordings – was never much of a singer. He seemed to know, from birth, almost everything about everything, particularly music, and if he didn't know it today he would probably learn it tomorrow. And he wouldn't sit up straight, like a sensible boy. In the living room, year after year, on the plush chesterfield beside the piano, he slouched so much that his body was almost horizontal.

Florence Gould was a part-time voice teacher who claimed descent from the Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg. She and her husband, Bert, an amateur violinist and a dedicated supporter of the Kiwanis music festivals, appreciated music of the better sort. To judge by their conversation, they regarded it as morally worthy and important – on a level, perhaps, with prayers and United Church sermons and fair dealing in business and not swearing. They weren't prepared, however, for the arrival in their midst of Glenn Gould: it was rather like having a mountain range appear suddenly in the back yard. At three, sitting on his mother's lap before the piano, Glenn demonstrated that he had perfect pitch; at five he was able to play simple tunes she taught him and even make up a few of his own. Soon a proper piano teacher had to be called in, and by the age of eleven Glenn was in the hands of Alberto Guerrero, an avuncular Chilean in his fifties who had had a concert career in Latin America before the First World War and was now a teacher at the Conservatory of Music in Toronto. Guerrero remained Glenn's teacher for nine years, until the master happily acknowledged that he had no more to teach the pupil. By the time Guerrero died, in 1959, he had seen Gould become one of the greatest virtuosi in the world.

Florence and Bert Gould were determined that their son should have "a normal childhood" – as if anything in the life of a genius could ever be normal. In their household the phrase "child prodigy" was spoken as a dark curse, if at all. So long as they could, they would protect their son from premature exposure to the world of professional music. Mozart's unhappy life was cited as a cautionary tale. Concert managers would not be allowed to exploit this young talent; Glenn would not be dragged before audiences as a curiosity, like so many poor boys and girls. Glenn's talent, and his health too, had to be protected even from Glenn himself. His parents decided that he must not be allowed to practise too much, and in consultation with his teacher a limit was set – no more than four hours a day. This rule required strict enforcement: if left alone, presumably, the boy would have ruined his health by sitting at the piano all day and all night.

Bert Gould's prosperity as a furrier meant that money from concert appearances was never a serious temptation. Without noticeable strain the family was able to spend about $3 000 a year, in 1940s currency, on Glenn's musical education. His talent was developed in the privacy available only to the modestly well-to do. Nevertheless, musical Toronto soon learned about him. He was never one of those artists of legend who go unappreciated in their native towns. People who mattered – right up to Sir Ernest MacMillan, conductor of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra – understood from the beginning that they had something exceptional on their hands. And slowly, carefully, Glenn was allowed to appear in public. From 1942 to 1949 he studied organ as well as piano, and it was as an organist that he made his début (school concerts and Kiwanis festivals aside) in a Casavant Society concert at Eaton Auditorium on December 12, 1945, the year he was thirteen. Everyone who heard him was enormously impressed. A child who can handle a giant pipe organ at all is a rarity; a child who can do it with "astonishing technique" and "interpretive intuition" (as the Toronto Evening Telegram said) is a miracle.

That day I sat beside Glenn on the organ bench, turning pages of his score. In grade three Glenn and I had been placed side by side in our class at Williamson Road Public School in the Beach district of Toronto; soon we realized, in comparing addresses, that my family was about to move into the house next to his on Southwood Drive, just behind the schoolyard. (This made it possible for me to take part, a couple of years later, in perhaps the first of Glenn Gould's many experiments in sound reproduction technology – the stretching between our houses of two tin cans on a thread and the attempt to communicate thereby.) From that point until our early twenties we were friends, and during much of childhood and adolescence we were each other's best friend. In the 1950s we drifted apart, toward different interests, different passions. But knowing him that long was a unique experience. Glenn's soaring talent, his limitless ambition, his rich humour, his marvellous quick understanding of everything and everyone – these constituted my first meeting with genius. His death in October, after a stroke, left me turning the pages of memory.

"Normal" or not, his childhood was dominated by music. By the last years of public school he was coming to class part-time so that he could spend much of the day at the Conservatory, with his teacher, or by himself at the piano. In high school he was more often absent than present, and was sometimes tutored in private by one of the teachers.

If his genius was a surprise to his parents it was even more of a surprise to his contemporaries at Malvern Collegiate, the high school we attended. Few of the students there could even have named an eminent pianist of the day, yet somehow most of us understood that Glenn was to be such a person. Of course we lacked the knowledge to distinguish between the best young pianist in the east end of Toronto and the best young pianist in the world, but something about Glenn made us certain he would be a great man.

His fellow students certainly found him peculiar: he could sometimes be seen conducting an invisible orchestra as he walked home from school, both arms flailing in the wind as he hummed the parts – "pa-puh, pa-puh, duh-pa." They seldom made fun of him, however: they tended to view him with wary respect. His mother badly wanted him to have "normal" (i.e., non-musical) friends, and in retrospect I imagine that our friendship owed something to her encouragement. Whatever her desires, he took part in none of the usual pastimes of boys; I cannot remember a moment when he was not an outsider. He never to my knowledge told dirty jokes or speculated about the sexuality of girls. He played no sports, and if anyone threw a baseball or football to him – either out of ignorance or to tease him – he pulled his hands back and turned away, letting the ball fall to the ground. His long, slender hands were for more important things, and he protected them carefully.

His musical tastes were fastidious from the beginning, and by his late teens he had staked out what was to be the ground of his taste during the first flowering of his career. He liked the eighteenth century and the twentieth but had little time for the nineteenth and no patience at all for anything that carried the name "romantic."

His fastidiousness did not extend to his schoolwork. His handwriting was atrocious, to the dismay of our public school teachers, and I can remember when he and I ruefully agreed that either one or the other of us would always place last in penmanship. In some subjects, though, he was amazingly quick. Like most good musicians, he was immediately at home in mathematics. In grade ten geometry he gobbled up the textbook, rushing nimbly through the whole year's work by October, pausing occasionally to explain something to me. He liked literature but disliked memory work, which was then a part of the teaching of English. When a poem was assigned to us to memorize he sometimes set it to music and we sat side by side on the piano bench, singing it incompetently till we had mastered the words.

Gould seemed never to doubt his value as a musician, and early in adolescence his imagination was soaring toward that distant world he would soon occupy so triumphantly. In his mind the great musicians of Europe and North America were already his peers, even if they hadn't yet heard of him. When he was nineteen or twenty, still unknown outside Canada, he played for me a record of a Bach partita by one of the greatest Bach interpreters of the age and then played his own version. He explained to me why his was superior, and in my ignorance I felt as if I understood him. Then as later, he was a natural lecturer who knew his audience; he was rehearsing, unknowingly, for those brilliant interviews and articles in which he would prove himself one of the most articulate musical performers of the century, but he was also moving emotionally toward an acceptance of his destiny. A few years later he returned from a concert in Berlin and read to my wife and me a quotation from one of the leading German critics. The critic had said that Gould was the best pianist who had appeared in Berlin since Busoni, and of course Gould had immediately looked up the date of Busoni's death. It turned out to be 1924, and Glenn giggled in delight. Even German culture had accepted him, and on the terms on which he wanted to be accepted. Later he changed those terms – he would do no more concerts, he would make records of astounding originality – but still he was accepted.

There were always critics who found Gould's interpretations (of Beethoven, for example) eccentric, but I doubt that he took them seriously. His view of critics as a class was apparently set by the more or less amateurish scribblers who wrote for the Toronto papers in his youth. He loved to tell the story of the elderly lady who wrote reviews for a Toronto daily and, while expressing admiration of his talent, asked him not to play Mozart: she said he played it so softly that her hearing aid wouldn't pick it up. Later, in New York, he met the critic of The New Yorker – a man of small musical reputation – and reported with a wild gaiety that the man had actually condescended to him. At times he seemed to love the spectacle of the music world – the gossip, the backbiting, the outrageously inflated egos – almost as much as he loved the music itself. He even took a harmless pleasure from contemplating the jealousy that his talent naturally aroused in his contemporaries.

In the early 1950s, before he made his Town Hall début in New York at the age of twenty-two, Glenn and I were partners in a pocket-sized company called New Music Associates. We put on three concerts at the Royal Conservatory, at each of which Glenn was the major attraction. One was devoted to Arnold Schoenberg's work, another to the works of Schoenberg and his pupils Alban Berg and Anton von Webern, and a third to Bach, Glenn explaining that really Bach was essentially a modern musician and therefore could be sponsored by New Music Associates. I sold the tickets, arranged for the publicity and the printing, and lined up friends to act as ushers; Glenn looked after the music. The concerts were well attended, the music well received (at one of the concerts Maureen Forrester made her Toronto début), but we abandoned the company. Glenn had performed the Goldberg Variations for the first time in public at the Bach concert, and they soon became the beginning of his success as a recording artist. By the mid-1950s he no longer yearned for the musical life, or tried to promote it; triumphantly, he embodied it.

Source: Saturday Night
Toronto, New Leaf Publications [etc.]. -- v. ill. (some col.) 29 cm., -- Vol. 97, no. 12 (December 1982). -- ISSN 0036-4975 -- P. 3-5
© Robert Fulford. Reproduced with the permission of Robert Fulford, the Estate of Glenn Gould and Glenn Gould Limited.

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