On October 4, 1982, the great Canadian pianist Glenn Gould died in a Toronto hospital only eight days after his fiftieth birthday. According to his ex-girlfriend, Cornelia Foss, Gould had maintained emphatically that he would die when he was fifty. Well, the day after his birthday he suffered a stroke, which by itself need not be fatal. He was taken to the hospital, where he suffered one stroke after another until he lapsed into a coma and died.
How did he know he would die at fifty?
Gould’s prescience is just one of many fascinating details about him and his life in the documentary film Genius Within: The Inner Life of Glenn Gould which was broadcast recently on PBS’ American Masters series. Last fall, when this documentary was in theaters, I missed it and despaired that maybe I’d never see it. I’ve read a great deal about Gould and a collection of Gould’s own writing, but this documentary ranged deeper and wider through his life than any biography I’d seen before. He was a real character, full of eccentricities and compelled by some inner force (his soul?) to play music, specifically the piano, from a very young age. A child prodigy. An acknowledged genius. And how did he know he’d die at fifty?
Gould, in the film, talks about the artist’s distance from people and the ordinary world, an idea he explored in his writing and radio documentaries. He was trying to figure out if it was the natural order of life on this planet, or if it was an artificial construct imposed on artists by society. As the film progresses, we see evidence that Gould himself chose to maintain a certain distance in order to pursue his music, his art. But he also had difficulties with social interaction which could have arisen from a sheltered childhood spent focused on music. Did he choose music, or did music choose him? From the documentary’s evidence, it looks like music pulled him into it at a very, very young age. Then, he simply followed it to remain true to himself and his “bliss,” as Joseph Campbell would say, that inner driving force.
Flaws? One flaw supported his brilliant musicianship but alienated him from others: his uncompromising approach to music and life. He was truly a hypochondriac. And we see a flash of his hubris in one story about him working with a composer on a new work from the composer. In rehearsal, the composer tried to tell Gould that he’d been playing the music wrong. Gould, to the composer’s face, told him that the composer didn’t know his own music, and that he, Gould, knew it better and how to play it.
The friction between composer and musician/performer is the friction between creator and re-creator. Gould had done some composing in his youth while in school, but he was essentially a re-creator, whether performing on stage or in the recording studio. Since he’d composed music himself, it’s surprising that he had so little respect for the living composer in front of him and his intent within the music. This attitude (hubris?) bubbled up in his infamous performance of the Brahms First Piano Concerto with the NY Philharmonic and Leonard Bernstein. He and Bernstein clashed over tempos, and Bernstein, in deference to Gould’s genius (Bernstein explained to the audience at the performance), he was going along with Gould’s tempos (which were not Brahms’ tempos). Gould’s explanation? He was constantly looking for a new way to see the music, a new approach, and a new performance, rather than doing it like everyone else. Never mind that every re-creator has a specific guide from the composer: the music score. In literature, a comparable situation exists between playwright and director or actor, screenwriter and director or actor, and between author and audiobook actor (but rarely between a good, competent editor and an author).
Maybe Gould’s “foreknowledge” of his death at age fifty was just another side of this attitude — that he knew his life better than the creator.
Gould tried to bridge the distance between himself as an artist and the rest of the world through friendships, in music and outside it, and relationships with women, but found that he could not sustain it. His true world, in the end, was planet Music and we are all the better for it…..