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Rising to fame in the 1950s, Canadian pianist Glenn Gould catapulted classical music up the charts with his inventive, energetic interpretations of Bach and Beethoven and his antihero appeal. Retiring from the stage at the age of 33, Gould withdrew into his Toronto home and within himself. Now, three decades since his death, Gould’s inner life endures with as much legend as his recordings.

Every year, hundreds of tourists make the pilgrimage to an unexceptional art deco building known as the Park Lane Apartments in Toronto’s Deer Park. They come to pay homage to the late Glenn Gould, one of the world’s most famous classical pianists and composers—and a quirky and intensely private person.

Gould moved to the Park Lane Apartments in 1960 and lived there until he died in 1982 at the age of 50. Suite 902 was his first “adult” home; until age 28, the international celebrity chose to live with his parents in the Beach, a middle-class suburb of Toronto. While not architecturally significant on its own, the building—specifically his 9th-floor penthouse—was a place where Gould could fully inhabit his life as an artist without an audience.

Many regard Gould’s most significant musical accomplishment to be his 1955 recording of J.S. Bach’s The Goldberg Variations, a technically demanding piece for piano, originally written for harpsichord. The album was one of the best-selling classical albums in musical history, exciting Bach fans as well as Gould fans and converting a whole new audience to the classical music genre. In 1964, Gould decided he no longer wished to perform publicly, a position he maintained for the rest of his life. But he went on to record more than 50 albums including a second version of The Goldberg Variations, released shortly before he died. It was another commercial success.

Gould had superstar status in Canada, rivaling the fame of Leonard Cohen (who was born just two years after Gould in Depression-era Canada). Both artists attained international fame and refused to limit themselves to one medium. But while Cohen traveled the world, even living in several different countries, Gould remained close to home. He traveled to New York to record and perform until he announced he would stop performing and that he would move his recording operation to Toronto, largely because he hated flying on planes. At a time when most musical and literary artists left Canada, Gould’s lack of wanderlust is part of the reason he was considered a national hero. And he had a unique charisma: He was an introverted antihero whose inability to compromise was seen as the ultimate in integrity. He had wide sex appeal, too, despite his litany of physical ailments and an apparent disinterest in anything other than music.

Today, a small dedication to Gould is staked in front of his Deer Park apartment building, summarizing his career. The plaque leaves out his radical radio documentaries and the depth of feeling he inspired in thousands of people who bought his albums or heard him perform: Asperger’s advocates, gay men, radio enthusiasts and nationalist Canadians are some of the many groups of fans who have proudly appropriated Gould (correctly or incorrectly) as one of their own. He was the subject of a Lydia Davis short story, “Glenn Gould,” and also one of the major characters in Thomas Bernhard’s novel The Loser. He even inspired an episode of The Simpsons.

“I gather my inner resources from the outdoors,” Gould once claimed, but he was famously mole-like in his apartment, spending most of his time indoors with dark curtains drawn and a bookcase blocking his bedroom window. According to Kevin Bazzana, a notable Gould biographer who wrote the book Wondrous Strange, he kept his heat set to 80 degrees Fahrenheit and the windows stayed sealed, year-round. When he did go out, he wore a wool coat, a hat, a scarf and gloves, even in summer months. To avoid germs, he occasionally tied a handkerchief over his mouth and he refused to drink tap water. When he went swimming, he insisted on wearing long rubber gloves that extended past his elbows. He complained often of feeling chilled, due to circulatory problems. For this same reason, he customarily soaked his arms in hot water for 20 minutes before each performance. And he relied on simple fare, keeping his oven and stove near-new with the help of Ritz Crackers, bouillon and Sanka. The occasional guest could expect to be offered arrowroot biscuits and instant coffee made from tap water.

Florence Gould, who first noticed her son had perfect pitch when he was three years old, was his only piano teacher until he was 10. After that, he studied at the Toronto Conservatory of Music with Alberto Guerrero who was most responsible for Gould’s trademark finger-tapping technique. His favorite piano was a Chickering baby grand built in 1895, which became his ideal—a standard that plagued him as he encountered new pianos that failed to measure up. He noted, “It is quite unlike almost any other in the world, an extremely solicitous piano with a tactile immediacy almost like a harpsichord’s.” The Chickering later sat back-to-back with another baby grand in his living room. Throughout his career, he longed for the tactility of the Chickering, going so far as to perform surgery on other pianos to replicate it. One of Gould’s tuners in Toronto explained, “He liked a very shallow touch… The normal key travel is about 3/8 of an inch. He wanted it about half of that, but he was always always experimenting, changing his mind, and that could happen from one day to the next.”

Gould was equally particular about his seat. In 1953, his father modified a folding bridge chair for him by sawing four inches off the bottom. While typical piano benches are 20 inches off the ground, Gould’s chair was only 14 inches from the ground, which gave him an entirely different physical relationship to the piano—and terrible posture. He traveled everywhere with the chair and it sat at one of his pianos when he was home. Some photos show Gould contentedly sitting on the chair with stuffing exploding from the upholstery. When the cushion finally gave way, Gould continued to use the chair, balancing on a single wooden cross bar.

  • Words:
    Suzanne Snider
  • Photography:
    The Glenn Gould Estate

“He was attracted to perfect solitude in its extreme and saw his own compromises—watching television, for example—as weaknesses”

Apparently, he was less particular about the rest of his furniture, which was reportedly secondhand and unremarkable. Since few photographs exist, his apartment can only be reconstituted in forensic fashion, piecing it together based on those few photographs and some anecdotes. The details of Gould’s living space illuminate his living strategies: how he coped, self-soothed and performed when no one was watching. When he was stuck in Israel using a piano that would not perform well for him, his remedy was to mentally transport himself back to suite 902. He explained: “… I sat in my car in the sand dune and decided to imagine myself back in my living room… and first of all to imagine the living room, which took some doing because I’d been away from it for three months at this point, and I tried to imagine where everything was in the room, then visualize the piano, and… this sounds ridiculously yogistic, I’d never done it before in precisely these terms or anything related to it in terms of precision… but so help me it worked.”

In photos, one room in the apartment looks like an archival storage area with stacks of unprocessed materials, but these piles are the result of a default position: a failure to clean, sort or discard. A photograph of this storage room shows a Grammy used as a paperweight that is half falling off the pile it anchors. His yellow legal pads, strewn throughout the apartment and found after he died, reflect Gould’s sense of interior order. Most of the pads’ contents are obsessive lists. He tracked various functions, maintaining lists related to the stock market, the food he ate, physical symptoms and future plans.

To his fans and many of his peers, his idiosyncrasies were evidence of genius, but his approach did not endear all of his colleagues to him. For instance, there were conductors who complained about his habit of conducting with his left hand while he played with his right. He defended that mannerism in a 1974 interview in Rolling Stone, asserting that such choreography is “surely a private matter between my left hand and my right, and I cannot see why it’s of concern to anybody.” While most biographers have chalked up Gould’s maladies to hypochondria, he is known to have suffered from excruciating back pain and high blood pressure as well as an overreliance on prescription medications. His medicine cabinet included Diazepam, Fiorinal, tetracycline and various sleeping pills prescribed by multiple doctors. In defense of his reputation, Gould insisted, “This pill complex of mine has been grossly exaggerated. Why, one reporter wrote that I traveled with a suitcase full of pills. Actually, they barely fill a briefcase.”

Today, he would likely be given a diagnosis of fibromyalgia, which would explain many of his seemingly unrelated symptoms, including heightened anxiety around his health issues. He did refer to his problems with his hands as “fibrositis,” a more antiquated term with which few were familiar at the time.

Gould wasn’t a total shut-in, despite his reputation. He roved between several spaces that served as annexes to his apartment, including a recording studio he created at a local hotel, the CBC studios and his car. Biographer Kevin Bazzana called his car an “apartment on wheels.” He especially liked to go out late at night.

He explained: “I don’t much care for sunlight, and bright colors of any kind depress me. I schedule my errands for as late an hour as possible and I tend to emerge along with the bats and the raccoons at twilight.” (From The Life and Times of Glenn Gould.) A frequent late-night destination was Fran’s, a 24-hour diner near his apartment. He would sit in the same booth and order the same meal: eggs, side salad, Sanka, tomato juice and orange sherbet.

Close friends dispute Gould’s reputation as asocial or cold. They point to his enthusiastic use of the phone to make connections—sometimes luxuriating in one- or two-hour conversations. He enjoyed the phone so much that he outfitted his car with one of the first mobile models on the market.

Even with the phone, though, he maintained control: He rarely picked up if someone called him, preferring to speak when he initiated the conversation. The description of Gould in his Park Lane apartment might sound like the moping of a failed prodigy or aimless bachelor, but one could argue that he was assiduously studying radio and TV, both of which he turned his attention to after his concert life ended. And Gould was both prolific and successful during this period. While he made disparaging comments about television generally, he did have favorite shows: In the 1970s, he was a dedicated follower of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. (Gould’s own Mary Tyler Moore dubs are now part of his archive at the National Library of Canada.) He often watched television while simultaneously listening to two different radio broadcasts. His belief that “we are capable of doing many things at once” guided his approach to life, musical composition, and later, his experimental radio documentaries.

Gould chose solitude as the subject of his first radio program, The Idea of North, which was broadcast by the CBC in 1967. He was attracted to perfect solitude in its extreme and saw his own compromises—watching television, for example—as weaknesses. He saw himself as a hermit, though his withdrawal from the world was imperfect. In the act of making the documentary, he expressed his reverence for the true ascetic.

Gould failed to attain that level, himself, partly because he wasn’t self-sufficient. But he was insulted that he was never invited on the Canadian radio show Hermit’s Choice. The Idea of North was revolutionary, adopting musical principles in its composition. Gould coined the term “contrapuntal radio” to describe this new style. Contrapuntal radio took its lead from contrapuntal music in which independent melodies played at the same time. For The Idea of North, Gould interviewed five narrators about the subjects of solitude and northern Canada, weaving the voices together with ambient sound. He continued this approach with The Latecomers and The Quiet in the Land; together, these documentaries made up The Solitude Trilogy.

Glenn Gould suffered a stroke two days after his 50th birthday and died on October 4, 1982. After years of controlling his own surroundings, his final resting place—at Mount Pleasant Cemetery—is decorated weekly by tourists and local fans with items ranging from Gerbera daisies and roses to figurines and rocks. His epitaph is not set with words but with musical notes. They are fading with the passage of time, but it is fitting that they are the first three bars of The Goldberg Variations. While devotees still flock to the cemetery, it cannot match his apartment in terms of giving us a sense of this very private man. But it is the only place that fans can truly enter.

Further Reading
“Glenn Gould” from Almost No Memory by Lydia Davis
“The Virtuoso as Intellectual” from On Late Style by Edward Said
Glenn Gould: Music and Mind by Geoffrey Payzant
The Glenn Gould Reader by Tim Page
A Romance on Three Legs by Katie Hafner
Glenn Gould: A Life and Variations by Otto Friedrich
Wondrous Strange: The Life and Art of Glenn Gould by Kevin Bazzana

Architectural Historian and Heritage Consultant Hagit Hadaya

  • Words:
    Suzanne Snider
  • Photography:
    The Glenn Gould Estate
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