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A Personal Reminiscence of Glenn Gould

by Timothy Maloney
Director, Music Division

In his mature years, externals mattered little to Glenn Gould; clothing was of little or no concern, as long as there was enough of it to combat the effects of poor blood circulation which left him constantly cold. Glenn's furniture, as well as his clothing, looked as if it came from the Goodwill store, yet worldwide sales of his recordings made him reasonably wealthy, and he was an avid and generally successful player on the stock market. Leonard Bernstein and his wife and children would take Glenn in hand before solo performances with the New York Philharmonic, washing and cutting his hair, shining his shoes and pressing his oversize and rumpled concert garb. Without a Bernstein to take similar care of him today, were they both still alive, Gould would surely be at the top of the "worst-dressed" list now produced annually by that wicked fellow in the USA.

Like his person, both his apartment and his recording studio in Toronto were a perpetual mess, and it took a researcher hired by his estate almost a year to create enough order out of the chaos to be able to ship the 220 or so boxes of documents and artifacts to the National Library. His performances, however, were remarkable for their lucid insights and formal clarity, their clean lines and impeccable phrasing. Evidently his entire focus was increasingly interiorized to the point where he was probably unaware of just how unorthodox his appearance and lifestyle had become. There was no doubting his great artistic sensitivity and the tremendous amount of compassion he felt for those less fortunate than himself, however; he eventually left equal portions of his estate to the Toronto Humane Society and the Salvation Army.

When I had the opportunity to perform as a clarinetist on one recording with Glenn in Toronto during the summer of 1982, the first of a planned new series of recordings for CBS Masterworks featuring Glenn Gould as conductor, the overall picture I carried away in my memory was far more favourable than my first impression. Glenn arrived for the recording sessions each night at the St. Lawrence Hall on King Street (in the historic St. Lawrence Market district) in a chauffeur-driven stretch limo, and would emerge looking for all the world like the male equivalent of a bag lady, wearing layers of shapeless dark jackets, flannel shirts and pants (plural) despite the summer's heat, and carrying a large, green, plastic garbage bag containing his musical score and note pads and paraphernalia. His own physical appearance was even more unsettling: he was pasty-faced from years out of the sunlight (he was an inveterate night person), hunched and paunchy, balding and looking very much older than 49. I remember thinking, "This man does not look well at all." (How unfortunately accurate my observation was; two months later, just days after his fiftieth birthday, he died of a stroke.) But during those evening sessions in August he was full of energy, wit and humour, and captured us all with the vibrancy of his mind.

What struck me the most about my encounter with Glenn was his unfailing politeness and encouragement to the musicians. He made us all feel like partners in the endeavour rather than sidemen to his maestro; we were all on a first-name basis (he had taken the time to commit everyone's name to memory even before meeting us) and made sure to shake everyone's hand at the end of the final session, something none of us had expected, having heard the stories about his aversion to physical contact and to handshaking in particular. A propos of hands, it is worth noting that he conducted left-handed, something which is even more of a rarity than left-handed guitarists or tennis players, and without a baton, again unlike the vast majority of instrumental conductors. The project to record the chamber version of Wagner's Siegfried Idyll was successfully concluded in a matter of a few evenings early in August 1982; the tape was mastered in September, and by early October, to our collective shock and dismay, Glenn was dead. The planned second side of the album was never recorded and the projected series of recordings did not happen, but this disc was finally released in North America in January 1991 with Gould's own transcriptions for piano of various orchestral works by Richard Wagner, including Siegfried Idyll.

A word about the Siegfried Idyll is in order. Wagner wrote the work as a birthday gift for his wife, Cosima. The title refers to their son and the work incorporates themes from Wagner's opera, Siegfried, as well as the German cradle song, Schlaf, Kindschen, Schlaf (Sleep, baby, sleep). The small-orchestra version, the one we recorded with Glenn, was first performed early on Christmas morning 1870, in Wagner's home. He positioned the musicians up the staircase and along the hallway outside Cosima's bedroom, and she and her baby woke to the gentle strains of this wonderful music. The work represents Wagner at his lyrical best and is much beloved by musicians and audiences alike. To have the chance to perform it is always a treat; the opportunity to record it is perhaps a once-in-a-lifetime proposition, and to record it under the direction of as consummate an artist as Glenn Gould would be, for most musicians, completely beyond imagination.

Perhaps one anecdote from the experience will give the reader a sense of Gould's concern and compassion, as well as a sense of the interaction between Gould the conductor and his musicians. As the hour grew late each evening and we became increasingly fatigued, the tension of trying to make every "take" perfect took a toll on the musicians, and little errors in intonation or ensemble occurred despite our best efforts. These, of course, necessitated "retakes" and, eventually, extensions of the recording sessions into overtime. It was at these moments that Gould seemed to come into his own (he was a night person, after all, as well as a veteran of many recording sessions), finding ways to energize the ensemble while lightening the mood (a leaf many more experienced conductors could take from Gould's book). Late the first evening he confessed that he had not yet given any thought to a name for the ensemble for purposes of the eventual disc and, while such forgetable suggestions as "Gould's Ghouls" and the "Siegfried Idyllers" emerged from our ranks, Glenn contributed much cleverer efforts, such as the "Academy of St. Lawrence in the Market" and, in a reference to the British new-music ensemble, the Fires of London, the "Ashes of Toronto." We never did succeed in settling the question definitively but that was never the point, anyway. Those moments of levity were just what the doctor ordered to divert us momentarily and they helped us achieve a recording of which we can all be proud. It was eventually produced by Sony Classical (who took over Columbia Records in the 1980s) as Glenn Gould Conducts and Plays Wagner. The music-making was of the highest calibre and this particular experience was one of the high points of my performing career. I daresay it was for all of the musicians who took part. Glenn exercised a masterful grasp of all the details, musical and technical, which required his attention in this undertaking: from questions on microphone levels to string bowings and breaths for the wind players (Glenn's version of the work is substantially slower than any other on recording and his tempos necessitated finding new places in the musical lines to breathe), he strove constantly to reconcile his concept of the music with the requirements or limitations of the different instruments. He was animated, resourceful, inspiring and sympathique throughout. It was only after the music had ended and he was gathering his materials into his garbage bag again that one was reminded how outwardly unconventional he really was. In the hours we had worked together, all of that had been lost and forgotten as we were completely charmed and drawn into his musical world.

I cherish my memories of those evenings in 1982 when I had the pleasure to work with Glenn, and what remains in the mind's eye is more a picture of his consummate musicianship and empathy with us lesser mortals than any overwhelming impression of his eccentricity or physical decay. He was a true Canadian original and the world is infinitely richer for his having been here.

Source: National Library News. Nouvelles de la Bibliothèque nationale
Ottawa, Library and Archives Canada. -- v. ill., ports. 23-28 cm. -- Vol. 24, no. 7 (September 1992). -- ISSN 0027-9633. -- P. 2-3
© Library and Archives Canada. Reproduced with the permission of the Estate of Glenn Gould and Glenn Gould Limited.

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