A young Glenn Gould hunches over a piano and fidgets constantly on stage. He appears to be nervous, and wary of the crowd. The audience immediately passes judgment on him, assuming the worst. However, within moments of his performance, they are left mesmerized.
That was the begining of Gould’s career as a talented, but eccentric pianist. One of the most renowned classical musicians of the 20th century, Gould is deservedly part of Penguin’s Extraordinary Canadians collection. Author Mark Kingwell, who is also a philosopher, writes 21 takes on Gould’s life, inspired by the 21 times it took to record the opening melody in his 1955 version of Bach’s Goldberg Variations.
The novel characterizes Gould as a philosopher of music, an eccentric artist with a prodigious memory and the ability to captivate his audience. Kingwell quotes everyone from Aristotle, Oscar Wilde, Pablo Picasso and poet Paul ValÃ©ry in his attempt to decipher Gould’s characteristics. He was an artist who “not only played music, [but] played with it”.
Gould was born in 1932, the only child of Russell Herbert “Bert” Gould, and Florence Emma Gould. His parents were musically inclined, both playing instruments and singing in their church. Gould began showing signs of musical talent at the age of three, when his father noticed that he would hum rather than cry, and flex his fingers almost as if playing a scale. He composed his fist song at the age of five.
Gould’s first performances were a success. The critics were respectful, but they noted that Gould would constantly fidget on stage. Sensitive to the cold, Gould usually performed in a flap coat, overcoat, muffler and gloves, and concluded his concerts with a signature bow.
The audience usually gave Gould warm receptions because his musical style was so refreshingly new. “[Gould] wanted to interpret a given piece so that it felt to the listener as if he were making it up at the moment,” and the audiences ate it up.
As Gould’s fame increased, and he went on to play concerts across the globe. His frail health and dislike of competition drove Gould to limit his concert performances.
One might say he became a failure, but this biography suggests his failure is another aspect of his genius. “He was stranded on a beachhead of his own thinking between past and future,” wrote Kingwell. Gould stunned the public by abandoning his stage performance in 1964, and then died suddenly at the age of 50.
Although fascinating, the novel is almost as philosophical as it is biographical, which at times, distracts from Gould’s amazing achievements. Also, much of the musical jargon is confusing for those unfamiliar with specific terms. You might require a dictionary or reference book while reading it.
Regardless, Gould’s story is amazing in its own right, so it is worth digging through the Aristotelian references to get to the heart of the story.