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Striking Gould In D.C.

50 Years Ago, a Grand Pianist Caught Washington's Ear

By Tim Page
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 2, 2005; Page N01

Fifty years ago this afternoon, a 22-year- old Canadian pianist named Glenn Gould walked out onto the stage of the Phillips Collection and played his first American recital.

Gould, already famous in his native land for brilliance, originality and what some considered eccentricity, did not disappoint in Washington. Instead of the usual debut fare (some flashy Liszt or Rachmaninoff, perhaps, with one of the more popular Beethoven sonatas thrown in for gravitas), Gould opened his program with music by the obscure English renaissance composer Orlando Gibbons, then moved on to the even more obscure Dutch Renaissance composer Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck. True, he played a sonata by Beethoven (Op. 109) but also one by the Austrian modernist Alban Berg, as well as Anton Webern's eternally elusive "Variations" and a handful of pieces by Johann Sebastian Bach.

Then as now, the capital area tended to empty out around the New Year, and it is doubtful that many people attended Gould's recital on the wet, warm second day of 1955. The world was its typical messy self that Sunday: Anybody who skimmed the front page of The Washington Post would have learned that the United States and the Soviet Union were even angrier than usual with each other; that the national death toll from holiday traffic accidents was expected to top that of the previous year, with more than 500 fatalities recorded since Christmas Eve; that a teenager from Bethesda, depressed by failing grades, had shot himself with the same rifle that had once won him trophies for marksmanship.

But Gould came as good news, at least as far as The Post's chief music critic, Paul Hume, was concerned. "January 2 is early for predictions, but it is unlikely that the year 1955 will bring us a finer piano recital than that played yesterday afternoon in the Phillips Gallery," he wrote in an article printed on Page 10 of the next day's paper. "We shall be lucky if it brings others of equal beauty and significance.

"Glenn Gould of Toronto, Canada, and barely into his twenties, was the pianist. Few pianists play the instrument so beautifully, so lovingly, so musicianly in manner, and with such regard for its real nature and its enormous literature," Hume continued. "Glenn Gould is a pianist with rare gifts for the world. It must not long delay hearing and according him the honor and audience he deserves. We know of no pianist anything like him of any age."

With the exception of his celebrated pan of singing first daughter Margaret Truman (which elicited a threatening letter from the White House), this is probably the most famous review Hume ever wrote. And rightly so, for Gould's debut stands out as one of the highest peaks in the history of Washington musical life -- an unheralded Sunday afternoon concert in a small venue that helped set a magnificent career into play.

A little more than a week later, Gould repeated the program in New York, a city he detested. Still, it was in Manhattan that the sultans of the music industry ran their trade, and it was there that Gould was promptly signed to what proved a lifetime recording contract with Columbia Masterworks (which later morphed into CBS Masterworks and later still into Sony Classical). His first disc was devoted to Bach's "Goldberg" Variations; when it was released in early 1956, it made Gould world-famous -- and world-famous he remains.

I cannot write about Gould with anything resembling objectivity. He was a close friend during the last two years of his life, and since his death -- on Oct. 4, 1982, at the age of 50, following a stroke -- I have edited his writings for publication, provided the text for one of several volumes devoted to Gould photographs and memorabilia, written liner notes for reissues of his recordings, and published more articles on him than I can count. Any sentence I write today about Gould -- including this one -- feels like self-plagiarism.

Still, such an anniversary demands fresh recognition. To this day, visitors to Washington from all over the world stop in at the Phillips Collection to see the tiny stage on which Gould played. The Phillips is marking the occasion with a private concert this evening featuring pianist Emanuel Ax, with spoken tributes by both Leonard Slatkin, music director of the National Symphony Orchestra, and Michael Kimmelman, a thoughtful and impassioned amateur pianist who doubles as chief art critic for the New York Times. Meanwhile, today at 1 the AFI Silver Theatre in Silver Spring will be showing three films about Gould, followed by a question-and-answer session, which I will moderate. (Information: 301-495-6720.)

Gould liked to say he was "in the world but not of it." Today -- more than two decades after his death -- he remains ubiquitous. His recordings and videos continue to sell steadily; his life, performances and philosophies have been examined in at least a dozen volumes; he has been the subject of a bizarre novel (Thomas Bernhard's "The Loser") and a full-length film (the arch, arty but charismatic "Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould"). The Internet is filled with sites devoted to Gould, ranging from official repositories (such as the Glenn Gould Collection at the National Library of Canada) to idiosyncratic -- and often deeply touching -- private homages. And now there is finally a good, thorough, elegantly written, occasionally skeptical but eternally sympathetic biography -- Kevin Bazzana's "Wondrous Strange: The Life and Art of Glenn Gould" (Oxford University Press).

Wondrous strange -- apt words indeed to describe Glenn Gould. He was born Sept. 25, 1932, in Toronto, the son of a furrier and his piano teacher wife, and it was obvious from the beginning that he was greatly gifted. He demonstrated perfect pitch when he was 3, was playing in public before he turned 6 and graduated from the Toronto Conservatory "with highest honors" at the age of 12. While still a teenager, he made regular appearances on the CBC and established himself as one of the leading Canadian musicians of his time.

The initial "Goldberg" recording heralded a new approach to Bach -- one that combined the starkly defined contrapuntal voicings so easily delineated on the harpsichord with the tonal color and dynamic calibration available from the modern piano. Never before had this composer's music been played with such fierce and incisive virtuosity. Yet there was always something more than mere showiness in Gould's playing. No matter how one chooses to define that elusive extra dimension -- as spiritual seeking, brainy intensity, expressive urgency, nervous energy or some combination of all these and more -- it was ever-present in his best performances, which could have been by no other artist.

Gould was suddenly a star of the first magnitude, with a best-selling record, a bulging calendar of prestigious appearances stretching years into the future, a magnificent 26-room home on the outskirts of Toronto, and fans who pursued him with the sort of fervor that would later greet the Beatles. In 1957 he became the first Canadian artist to perform in the Soviet Union (he played to rapturous acclaim in Moscow and what was then Leningrad) before heading westward again to make his debut with the Berlin Philharmonic under Herbert von Karajan, the so-called "general music director of Europe" who was then at the height of his influence. By any standards, Gould had arrived.

It was, he would later recall, the worst time of his life, for he felt imprisoned by fame. From the beginning, Gould had disliked live performances, accepting them only as a grim but necessary byproduct of musicmaking. Now, with his sudden celebrity, he was in a position to discover that he also hated touring, hated airplane travel, hated post-concert receptions with their requisite unstructured chitchat, hated the extramusical hysteria that accompanied him everywhere. "At concerts, I feel demeaned," he complained, "like a vaudevillian."

And indeed, the public had been conditioned to expect a "show" from Glenn Gould. He had a penchant for singing -- or groaning -- as he played. He favored a very low seating, traveling with his own folding chair that set him about eye level with the keyboard. He wore heavy coats throughout the summer -- "I have an absolute horror of catching cold," he explained -- and would sometimes perform in fingerless gloves. And he clearly had no interest in traditional stage decorum; his body shuddered and contorted at the keyboard while his expressive face, suffering and ecstatic, seemed to mirror feelings too deep to verbalize.

In 1964, at the age of 31, Gould withdrew from the concert stage to spend the rest of his life leading a quiet and largely reclusive existence in Toronto. He turned down spectacular sums from hungry presenters (reportedly up to $1 million for a quick and uncomplicated tour of some major American cities), instead devoting all of his professional energies to recordings, radio and film. Simply put, Gould had become convinced that the recorded media were the future of music; he even went so far as to predict that concerts would die out by the year 2000.

It didn't happen that way, of course. Still, Gould was onto something: For better or worse, the media have indeed replaced live performance as the central musical fact of our collective listening experience. Most of us come to know songs, sonatas, symphonies and operas through radio or disc long before we ever hear them presented at the Kennedy Center. I was crazy about Hans Pfitzner's opera "Palestrina" for 23 years before it finally received an American performance in 1996, and I am reluctantly resigned to the fact that I will probably never see it again, although hardly a month goes by when the Deutsche Grammophon recording doesn't find its way into my CD player. And when PBS broadcast Richard Strauss's "Elektra" in 1981, it is estimated that more men, women and children saw and heard it that single night than the sum total of everybody who had attended a live performance of it since the opera's premiere in 1909.

In any event, it isn't Gould's prognostications that have won him immortality. Rather we cherish the best of his recordings -- the Brahms intermezzos and Piano Concerto No. 1, the disc devoted to music by Orlando Gibbons and William Byrd, the best of his Beethoven albums (he was happiest in the early sonatas) and, above all, his performances of the music of J.S. Bach. Toward the end of his life, he re-recorded the "Goldberg" Variations; his later performance is as wise and serene as the first was brash and ebullient, and devotees still argue over which one is better. As it happened, the later album marked the closing of a circle: Gould died the week it was released.

Gould fancied himself an austere Northern puritan. I never saw him that way. On the contrary, words like "sweet," "funny," "anxious" and "guileless" seem more appropriate to describe his personality. At times he called to mind the world's oldest 6-year-old as he talked happily, obliviously, on and on into the night about any subject that crossed his mind -- this composer, that recording, his favorite television programs (he loved "The Mary Tyler Moore Show"), the stock market (he played actively and lucratively), his love for animals, which he generally preferred to people.

His sex life seems to have been virtually nonexistent; his friendships were kept up mainly through the telephone (how he would have delighted in the Internet!); he worked by night and slept by day. It has been suggested that Gould may have had a touch of autism -- he was profoundly uncomfortable with most physical contact and demanded, throughout his life, the psychological safety of unbroken routines whenever possible. But we live in an era that has placed too much emphasis on diagnosis. Perhaps Gould's first biographer, Geoffrey Paysant, came closer to the truth when he called Gould an "exceedingly superior person, friendly and considerate. He is not really an eccentric, nor is he egocentric. Glenn Gould is a person who has found out how he wants to live his life and is doing precisely that."

And it is that person -- with his "exceedingly superior" artistry -- that we celebrate today.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company