May 17th, 2022
The Musical Genius of Glenn Gould

Q2. What Canadian award is considered an international symbol of creative excellence? (P33)

The Musical Genius of Glenn Gould

Celebrating one of our own great musicians of the 20th century

By Beth Parker

Glenn Gould (1932-1982), pianist, composer, musician, performer, conductor and recording artist, is hailed internationally as one of the great musicians of the 20th century. When you consider that musicians such as Beethoven, Brahms and Liszt were among the great musicians of the 18th century, it puts in perspective the extraordinary talent of our own, Toronto-born and Beaches-raised, Glenn Gould.

Growing up in the Beaches

Glenn Gould's childhood house was 32 Southwood Drive. This is where Gould lived with his father, Herbert (Bert), a furrier and amateur violinist and his mother, Florence. Today the house bears a plaque indicating its heritage and is designated an historical site. His distinguished neighbour next door was Canadian author, Robert Fulford.

From an early age, those around Gould could tell he had musical talent and interests unlike anyone else. Like many kids however, Gould had several pets named after famous composers. His goldfish were Bach, Beethoven, Chopin and Haydn, and his bird, Mozart. He also had dogs, rabbits, turtles and a non-deodorized skunk!

By the time he was 3, it was apparent that Gould was one of the few people born with perfect pitch. Perfect pitch is the ability to identify tones in your head without externally having to hear them on an instrument like a piano. About 1 in 10,000 people have perfect pitch, although many lose it over time if it is not developed at a young age. By the age of five, Gould was composing his own music. He made modest public performance at church events, schools and even his own home in August of 1938. His first concert, however, took place at the former Eaton Auditorium when he was 13 where he played pieces on the organ and the piano.

Going to School

There were no special "arts" schools for Gould to attend, like we have today. Gould went to Williamson Road Public School up to grade eight. It was a short walk from his house, half a block down the hill, a right turn, and another half block. According to Geoffrey Payzant, Gould's biographer, Gould wasn't that fond of school, describing the experience this way:

'I found going to school a most unhappy experience and got along miserably with most of my teachers and all my fellow students.'

Gould also attended Malvern Collegiate from 1945 to 1951, but he didn't matriculate. By the time he was part way through high school, Gould was already becoming known as an exceptional musician and on a special program of musical studies through the Royal Conservatory of Music.

Music Education of a Child Prodigy

Glenn Gould's music education also took place in Toronto. At first his mother taught him piano, but his first formal teacher was Chilean-born pianist and conductor Alberto Guerrero. Guerrero was part of the Toronto Conservatory of Music (renamed later the Royal Conservatory of Music or RCM). Gould steadily worked his way through the grades and exams at the RCM, winning medals for his achievements.

A Legend is Born

At 15, Gould had his professional debut as a concert pianist, playing with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. He became firmly established internationally when he recorded his signature piece: Bach's Goldberg Variations when he was 23.

Now a celebrity performer, Gould toured Europe, the United States, Israel and the USSR, playing at the great concert halls. His performance in Moscow in May 1957, for example, made him the first North American pianist and the first Canadian musician to appear in the Soviet Union after the Second World War.

Gould, however, found that performing was extremely stressful. He stopped giving public concerts two years later in 1964 and reinvented his career as a recording artist with CBS Records, now Sony Classical. He later also worked on documentaries and as a conductor.

Toronto's Own

On October 4, 1982 just days after his 50th birthday, Gould died of a massive stroke. His legend as a true musical master is undisputed. His work has influenced every performer since because of the illuminating manner in which he interpreted the music of a variety of composers, in particular, of Bach. In January 1997, the Professional School section at RCM was renamed the Glenn Gould Professional School of Music after its most famous student. The Glenn Gould Foundation was established September 19, 1983, as a collective effort by Gould's friends and colleagues to memorialize a great artist and make sure that his extraordinary contributions to our culture would never be forgotten.

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