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.