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The Ultimate Soloist

A Portrait of Glenn Gould

by Angela Addison


Friendship with genius can never be easy. It is perhaps the most fragile of human relationships. In Glenn Gould I had a friend who was elusive, enigmatic, private and solitary. I also had a friend who was loyal, generous, courteous, fun, and of course, stunningly brilliant. Above all Glenn was a perfectionist who possessed that rarest of human gifts: grace. By grace I mean quite simply a state of being divinely inspired and of being regenerated by the tensile inner strength which that inspiration provides.

This is not a biography of Glenn Gould's life. I follow no chronological order of events. Rather, I have attempted to draw a portrait, or a series of portraits of a Canadian who was strongly Northern in spirit. This was a large spirit, large as the land that shaped it. The themes that characterize it are closely interwoven with Northern images, Northern rhythms, which appropriately, run contrapuntally with Glenn's life and individuality.

On a certain level, in mythic terms, the North is to Canadians what the West is to Americans. As is evident in his documentary, "The Idea of North", Glenn was greatly influenced by the Northern Imagination. At the same time there were traits of Glenn's own personality which mirrored, in a fascinating sense, Northern Ideas. This magnetic pull to things Northern was apparent in Glenn's thoughts and in his behaviour. The North remains a strong source to be tapped on many levels. The coming together of a vast, mysterious space of timeless energy in metaphorical terms with one of the great dynamic minds of our age has always intrigued me. I have tried to illustrate this strange but natural interaction by relating shared experiences and remembered conversations.

On another, and perhaps less profound level, I have tried to anticipate and avoid the twin charges of idolatry and bearing false witness. It has been my concern to reveal Glenn's minor and often amusing flaws of character, in short his foibles, in order to contemplate the whole nature of the man. Also, I have taken my own tendency towards the impressionistic view firmly in hand, an effort which I am certain Glenn would himself enthusiastically applaud.

If I have succeeded in my aim, the reader may feel a little closer to the legendary figure, the visionary artist and the very human person that was Glenn Gould.

He led an extraordinary journey.
Glenn Gould about J.S. Bach.

Why, in a country so young, does hope come to us from desert spaces and the marvellous silence!
Gabrielle Roy: Children Of My Heart.

Uptergrove: The Other Shore

During the Fifties and Sixties it was noted that whenever Glenn Gould was asked where he was from he would almost inevitably reply, 'Uptergrove,' often spelling out the name for those who understandably thought he must be saying, 'Uppergrove.' If, as sometimes occurred, Glenn was reminded that it was a generally accepted fact that he came from Toronto, he rarely contradicted. After all, he had been born in Toronto, like it or not, and Glenn, always courteous, disliked punctilious disagreement about what he considered to be minor matters. What was definitely not minor, what was of major, even of essential concern to Glenn, was his sense of being secluded, free to make his own choices and decisions and, above all, completely at ease at Uptergrove itself.

It was part of Glenn Gould's artistic awareness to consciously promote and regenerate his emotional and mental energies. In his early twenties, he evidently recognized not only the need to do so, but also the means at his disposal. Possessing none of that tendency to fragment even unwillingly into other existences which has plagued so many with sensitive temperaments, Glenn was able to concentrate all his considerable powers on his work, allowing the quiet ebb and flow of rural life at Uptergrove to nourish his questing spirit.

Uptergrove was, and still for the most part remains, a small community north of Toronto, not so very north, a hundred miles or so, offering wooded walks, swimming, boating and fishing among its simple pleasures. Glenn liked to boast that his greatest achievement was to persuade his father to give up fishing. A serious boast. For Glenn Gould, like Albert Schweitzer before him, possessed a reverence for life that extended to bothersome insects, cold-blooded fish and even to reptiles, those most difficult of God's creatures to love. The people who belonged at Uptergrove tended to be plain-spoken, hard working, abstemious and caring. They were catered to by a country store of the vanishing kind which provided everything from postage stamps to gumboots thus tiding inhabitants over those periods of time when they felt disinclined to make the five mile journey into the nearest town of substance, Orillia. With its healing, undemanding ambience, Uptergrove at the head of Lake Simcoe, offered sanctuary and sanity. There, strained nerves could be soothed and temporarily clouded spirits revived. Indeed, as a child, Uptergrove provided Glenn with his first, and with the notable exceptions of the radio and the recording studios, his most valuable experience of that removed, cocoon-like state of being that was absolutely necessary to him and which he later tried to adapt in varying circumstances into a life that had become fraught with public demands and professional conditions.

Toronto, of course, was a required base for Glenn. He needed to meet the challenge of the growing city, to test his skills at its musical market places. Yet Toronto, while it stimulated, could grant nothing comparable to the restorative powers of Uptergrove. In fact Glenn regarded the city of his birth with an ambivalent mixture of awe and irritation which he could never successfully reconcile. He did, however, produce a sort of wry descriptive jargon which he mastered and transmitted with ironic brilliance in articles and public addresses for the benefit of fellow Torontonians and others. Admiring Toronto, but failing as he said, 'to grasp it', in the end he did just that, projecting from the television screen a myriad of images suggesting a nearly great city taking itself a little too seriously.

In Glenn's earliest years the Gould family used the cottage at Uptergrove for leisurely summer occupations and for sequestered weekend escapes. Glenn liked particularly the winter weekends when, rescued from a school schedule which he could 'never quite control' (always an intolerable situation for him), he would burrow into the warmth of the cottage and play his favoured Chickering piano for as long as he liked. Donning boots, mittens, scarves and appropriate hat, he could emerge when he felt like it and saunter into the troughs of snow, stick in hand, a loved dog by his side. If he needed company of a different kind, there were the thoughts that were never out of his head. During the two hour drive back to Toronto on Sunday afternoons, it was the family's habit to listen to the Philharmonic on the radio. Glenn watched the white fields radiate from his moving line of vision and commented later, 'Beethoven never sounded so good!'

In the summer of 1945, Father Joseph H. O'Neill was posted as an assistant to the Church of Guardian Angels in Orillia. Glenn was twelve years old, nearly thirteen. During his stay there, Father O'Neill arranged for a group of teen-aged altar boys from Toronto to have camping privileges on a vacant lot next to the Gould property. Father O'Neill recalled Glenn as 'a rather reserved kind of person', but nevertheless he persevered with his notion of having a weiner roast with suitable musical accompaniment and Glenn agreed to perform on the rather unforgiving instrument provided by the church. The music Glenn insisted upon playing did little to promote jolly or even friendly feelings and Father O'Neill somewhat laconically notes, 'it was a tough job keeping restless young people quiet during a recital of this kind,' adding that the campers did not really have a very high opinion of Glenn.'

It is difficult not to suspect some understatement in Father O'Neill's assessment of the situation. That a boy of twelve, however brilliant, should be allowed to dictate what sort of music might be appropriate at an occasion of revelry (the weiner roast being the natural parent to the ubiquitous barbecue of today), must seem presumptuous, even arrogant, and as a childhood incident taken out of context, Glenn's behaviour indicates not only an unsociable spirit, but also a disinclination to be identified with his peers.

Yet observed through Glenn's eyes, in the context of the Uptergrove world, a predictable pattern emerges. Neighbours of the Gould family have affirmed that Glenn was a 'solitary child with strong opinions'. The strong opinions would certainly explain his unorthodox choice of music (i.e. Bach for a weiner roast), and the subsequent restlessness of his audience. No doubt Glenn regarded the occasion first as a performance and only secondarily as a party. Already he understood a great deal about the former, almost nothing of the latter.

Of greater consequence perhaps was the realization that Glenn's private retreat, indeed his personal privacy itself was being invaded. A continuing threat in Glenn's life, this pressing need for privacy came to demand the sometimes drastic measures taken in order to keep it intact. From his early childhood it is then quite possible to trace the development of two of the dominant leitmotifs in the life and thought of Glenn Gould. The first step towards monasticism. The first tentative Idea of North.


The implications of the word are legion. It falls on the ear with a peculiar hushed finality not unlike a gentle yet persuasive thud. It has shape and weight but not colour. It conveys images of vastness, emptiness, silence, power and withdrawal. For some, unfortunately, it is synonymous with loneliness.

For Glenn Gould, solitude was a necessity. Insisting that one must be solitary in order to create, he was, nevertheless, quick to point out that being solitary was not to be confused with being lonely. If Uptergrove provided Glenn with solitude, it also gave him opportunities to be with people he liked and respected. The fact that most of these were neither professionals nor artists made them more approachable, attractive even, to Glenn. Certain musicians have occasionally complained about the impossibility of having a give and take conversation with Glenn. One suspects that the particular conversations recalled were in reality discussions of a serious and precisely musical sort, guaranteed to bring out the dogmatic in Glenn's nature. At Uptergrove, however, Glenn could and did converse genially and at length about natural phenomena, world affairs, books and current movies. Colleen Milligan, who grew up in the house next to the Gould cottage, remembers going for long rambles with Glenn when she was a child. To Colleen, Glenn seemed the ideal companion. He had an enormous knowledge of the scientific life of the woods and without being patronizing, he was able to lead her to make her own fascinating discoveries. He was, she muses, often silent, but it was a natural silence, without strain or artifice and therefore comforting for a child living in a world made noisy by adults.

Dogs always accompanied them, sticks and balls were thrown to be fetched back and thrown again, and Glenn, in his thirties, would sometimes stop to play a childhood game such as statues with the little girl. Without doubt, casual, undemanding, spontaneous relationships of this sort were renewal experiences for Glenn. Indeed spontaneity itself gradually became a necessary antidote to the steadily mounting pressures in Glenn's life. Before he was twenty he was able to identify and locate this desirable and very human quality within himself, most obviously and accessibly in his great natural rapport with children and animals. Based upon an immediate and recognizable trust, this rapport never deserted him and was frequently abetted by Glenn's strong inclination to tinker with mechanical apparatus, a genial pastime inherited from his genial father. Few things offered the young than the working out of a home-made recording system with all its perplexing tangle of wires and speakers, or the setting up of an unsophisticated camera for the purpose of taking unusual and imaginative prints.

Whenever Doris Milligan was unable to locate her three children, instinct urged her directly to Glenn's cottage where as often as not they could be found amidst clutter and chaos, faces rapt with fascination as Glenn first recorded each individual voice, then dramatized a playback with satisfying, sometimes exciting predictions about their possible future activities and occupations.

Equally provocative were the recordings which included three, sometimes four separate voices which Glenn predictably arranged in the contrapuntal mode. When the children asked to hear their mother's voice on the machine, Glenn obliged, enlightening and even astonishing the family by declaring that Doris would have made an outstanding radio commentator. How proud were the Milligan children to possess a mother of such talent! Throughout his life Glenn was able to enter a child's world as easily as walking from one room to another. There existed apparent but no significant age barriers and for a time he could himself feel ageless. The children delighted in his inventiveness and his sense of fun and as adults, almost without exception, they thought of Glenn first as a friend and only in conscious remembering, as a great man and a famous musician.

Another and quite different aspect of Glenn's character manifested itself during these years. At eighteen, perhaps earlier, he began to suffer severely from bouts of sleeplessness. Later he became an incurable insomniac, a fact that greatly altered his way of life. At Uptergrove the sound of Glenn's Chickering could often be heard late into the summer night. Doris Milligan recalls with pleasure the sensation of drifting off to sleep, her bedroom window which faced the Gould cottage, opened wide to gather in the comforting sounds of variations on familiar hymn tunes. These tunes, deeply satisfying in themselves, remained always for Glenn a rich source of spiritual and moral consolation.

Uptergrove could not of course provide Glenn with total protection from the realities of his life nor could it completely fulfill the needs of his almost explosive genius. On the contrary, it was a necessary condition of Glenn's genius that it be tried, criticized, sometimes convicted, often almost hysterically applauded on the concert stages of Europe and North America. Controversies arose. They were not, could not be settled at Uptergrove. It became increasingly clear that they could not be settled in any particular place. Only in Glenn's own work and thought could they ever hope to be resolved. Yet, after each concert tour, after every recording session, Glenn returned to Uptergrove. The family, with generosity and perspicacity gave Glenn his seclusion and his opportunity to regenerate his energies by giving him the cottage.

I had met Glenn in 1948, but it was not until 1953 that I was invited to Uptergrove. The day of the visit was pleasantly lazy and autumnal and I think I offered to pack a picnic lunch. Whether I did or not, Glenn certainly declared that there were, as he put it, 'supplies' at the cottage and we might do as we pleased when we got there. On this optimistic note, full of somewhat carefree assumptions we went off and as Glenn was driving very fast and with typical insouciance, we arrived well before noon. After a quick look at the almost incredible disarray in the living room which, while obviously clean and comfortable, was littered with objects apparently abandoned wherever they had been put down, we agreed upon a temporary retreat and took a walk before lunch. The sun warmed us and I recall being both touched and amused as Glenn pointed out favoured places with a somewhat proprietary air. Returning to the cottage, Glenn waved me with great confidence in the general direction of the kitchen and immediately lost himself at the Chickering, oblivious of time, food, mess and all the other practicalities that confronted me with a mounting sense of discomfort. The shy, sweet notes of Schubert pursued me into the kitchen where I searched in vain for some primitive necessities - cheese, bread, milk - almost anything would do for our improvised picnic. There was tea, an abundance of tea. Anything more substantial eluded me. Glenn was now playing Chopin, a sop, for me, as he disliked the composer's work at that time, and I walked back into the living room where I sat listening emotionally until he finished. Even then I thought that I must have failed to find those particular cupboards where 'supplies' were kept and that all would be well as soon as Glenn showed me where they were. I don't know which of us was more devastated by the certain knowledge that there simply were no 'supplies' to be had, but I remember the tone of surprise and undirected accusation in Glenn's voice as he said: 'but I'm starved!' Too stunned to retort I started for the car with the sensible intention of driving to Orillia to get some food. Glenn pelted after me looking hopelessly distraught. With his pre-eminent sensitivity he mistakenly concluded that I had taken umbrage and was about to storm back to Toronto, leaving him a prey to the severe hunger pangs which Uptergrove could not, in its present impoverished state, alleviate. When he realized that he had mistaken my motive, he began typically to laugh. He seemed to regard the whole episode as an enormous joke, a joke I was beyond sharing, and I was finally roused to something close to real anger. Yet one could never remain angry with Glenn for long, for at twenty-one he was not only completely genuine, but utterly disarming as well, without any realization of what powerful weapons these could be, nor the slightest notion that he himself possessed them to a fine degree. When we did return to Uptergrove it was to a sumptuous picnic of a high tea kind. Nothing was wanting. Glenn, having fastened his eyes on a small delicatessen shop in Orillia bought almost its entire stock without thought to how much it cost him or how much we could eat. We stayed at Uptergrove until after it became dark, content and replete. Glenn played the piano and drank too much tea and I recall how reluctant we were to leave.

Uptergrove then was the place where Glenn could be most privately and most simply, himself. There he became as uninhibited as it was possible for him to be. Nowhere else was he absolutely certain of being respected and accepted, not for what he did, not for the public persona, but for what he was. He was complex and many faceted - that was accepted. He was different, some might say eccentric - that was accepted. His musical genius which necessarily set him apart was, if not fully understood, accepted and even appreciated.

In 1959 Glenn made a documentary film for CBC in which he describes a recurring dream, a nightmare that disturbed him frequently and profoundly as a boy and a young man. In this dream he wakes up on an autumn morning to find Uptergrove and all its inhabitants vanished. There is not a sign of life anywhere, only naked rocks and dead leaves blowing. He feels mortally stricken and is unable for some time to shake off the effects of the dream. Perhaps because the dream only rarely visited him as an adult, Glenn, who enjoyed discussing it with friends, tended to interpret its meaning quite simply. It meant he once told me, the end of his summer hiatus at Uptergrove and a return to the hated regimen of school life and imposed musical study. It occurs to me now, that Glenn's understanding of this pattern in imagery, valid as far as it goes, leaves out the sense of total desolation that the loss of Uptergrove with all its inhabitants, all its innate security, might well have had upon him. Moreover, it seems likely that the death of every animate thing, the blight of the entire dream landscape might signify the possible loss of creativity, of imagination even, i.e., the death of the artist himself.

For Glenn, the Uptergrove world was separated from the great world outside. Metaphorically it represented The Other Shore and in a very real and special sense it became a personal touchstone to which he could return again and again, certain in his belief that he was immeasurably enriched by its existence.

Reprinted with the author's permission from the Bulletin of The Glenn Gould Society, 10, Volume 5, Number 2, October 1988.

Source: Bulletin van the Glenn Gould Society
Groningen [Netherlands] : The Society, [1984]- -- v. : ill. ; 21 cm. -- Vol. 5, no. 2 (October 1988). -- ISSN 0839-4628. -- P. 34-45
© Angela Addison. Reproduced with the permission of Angela Addison, the Estate of Glenn Gould and Glenn Gould Limited.

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