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The Secret Life of Glenn Gould
A Genius In Love
By Michael Clarkson
ECW PRESS Copyright © 2010 Michael Clarkson
All rights reserved.
The first woman in Glenn Gould's life was Florence Emma Greig. They called her Flora or Florrie and she was born on Halloween, in 1891, in Mount Forest, Ontario. She boasted deep Scottish roots, supposedly descended from a Scottish tribe, the MacGregors, a warlike clan of the eighteenth century. Flora was a distant cousin of Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg, and of William Lyon Mackenzie, the first mayor of Toronto and leader of the Upper Canada Rebellion in 1837.
Flora's family eventually moved to Uxbridge, Ontario, where she would meet her husband Russell Herbert "Bert" Gold, who had mostly English ancestors and some Scottish. Bert was nine years younger than Flora when they married on her birthday in 1925 in the new United Church of Canada. The Greigs were Presbyterian and the Golds Methodist before the United Church absorbed Canadians of both denominations. The couple moved to a middle-class house at 32 Southwood Drive in Toronto's Beach district, where her only child, Glenn Herbert Gold, was born on September 25, 1932, during the Great Depression, when she was nearly forty-one. The baby came after several miscarriages and, according to his father, was "the answer to a prayer." Flora hoped little Glenn would one day become a concert pianist, as her own dreams to become a concert pianist did not materialize; in fact, she had a theory that an unborn child's brain could be influenced by his mother's environment. Before Glenn was born, she filled her days and nights with music, playing piano and organ, singing and listening to the phonograph and the radio. These days, some scientists believe this technique actually works.
The family changed its name to Gould in 1939 when Glenn was seven, reportedly because they did not want to be mistaken as Jewish in the contentious wartime climate. Flora and Bert were hardworking, upright and decent people of high morals, but they did not show their emotions and at times could even be prudish and cold. They looked older than their ages and could have passed for Glenn's grandparents. In the eyes of those who knew them, the Goulds gave Glenn a world-class education in music and a less-than-primary education in life. They exposed him to the premier musicians and teachers, but did not instruct him in the fundamentals of personal feelings and social skills, neglecting to acclimatize him to the things that would become fearful monsters later in his life — germs, crowds, confrontations, other people's opinions and romance. As devout Christians, Flora and Bert made Glenn's second home the church, where he made his public debut playing hymns on the organ. As an adult, he recalled services "with evening light filtered through stained glass windows, ending with ministers who conducted their benedictions with the phrase, 'Lord, give us the peace that the earth cannot give.'" His debut was apt, for early in parenthood, the Goulds had begun to worship a secondary deity — Master Glenn. When his mother realized he had perfect pitch and could command a piano while his friends were out whacking each other with hockey sticks, she began to believe he was a special gift to the world, perhaps even the reincarnation of a composer — and she told him so. In doing so, some people believe, she may have laid the groundwork for his subsequent self-worship.
From the beginning, Glenn was much closer to his mother than his father. Into adolescence he called her Mama. Physically, Flora was frail and unattractive, sometimes anxious and perhaps a hypochondriac, whereas Glenn was generally healthy, but a little fragile with poor posture. Robert Fulford, who lived next door to the Gould family, was one of Glenn's best friends in their youth. He recalls Gould being healthy, but that his mother was too doting — "perhaps planting the seeds of hypochondria that colored his adult life." When other children wore T-shirts, she bundled him up in sweaters; when they drank Kool-Aid, Glenn was given cod liver oil on a silver spoon; when others went gleefully to the midway at the Canadian National Exhibition, Flora kept her son home and away from all those free-floating germs. She even frowned upon things like sports and sleigh rides. The skinny Gould was not macho and avoided hockey and baseball; this may have been one reason why he had a cool relationship with his father, who was more sporting, an outdoorsman who built the family's summer cottage on Lake Simcoe. Not only did Glenn not know one end of a hammer from the other, he was a pacifist and did not like his father's fur business; his strong will eventually convinced his father to stop fishing.
Gould found school "a most unhappy experience." He said, "I got along miserably with most of my teachers and all of my fellow students. I suppose the fact that after school I didn't go out to play hockey and could only play the piano gave me a feeling that music was a thing apart ... representing a sort of means to isolation." It is possible that young Glenn never became accustomed to other children and social structure because he was allowed to take so much time off school. In second grade at Williamson Road School, he was absent forty-two days with supposed illnesses, which some biographers have traced to his mother's over-protectiveness and to the boy's anxiety when separated from her. This situation would continue into adolescence when, according to Gould's cousin Jessie Greig, "he demanded love and affection from both his parents and happily received it at his mother's knee, where after long hours of [piano] practice, he would lay his head and demand pats as one would give a dog." Greig, who was six years older than Gould and watched him grow up, added that "these pats were a reward for a day well spent and a fulfillment of his great need for love and acceptance."
As an only child, Glenn did not have to share things and was spoiled, even by his own account. His mother was always there for him, even when he didn't need her, and this may have caused some friction, competition and jealousy between his parents. At about age twelve, Gould told Fulford that at the family cottage, he would sleep with his mother one night and his father would sleep with her the next — "this arrangement having been worked out some years before," Fulford said. Both Flora and Bert were amateur musicians and singers who enjoyed performing at church, Bert playing violin, and Flora the piano and the organ. From the time Glenn was four years old until eleven, he had his mother as his music and piano teacher. She was described as a nurturing teacher, but she was strict and did not allow Glenn to play wrong notes or to add his personal touch to passages. As young as three, Gould showed remarkable skill: while sitting on his mother's lap he had perfect pitch. By five, he could play songs she had taught him and could even create some of his own. He boldly announced, "I'm going to become a concert pianist." Later, he would become known for his precision at the keyboard. He likely had his mother to thank for that, and yet, as Flora spent four to six hours a day with her son at the piano, his work strangely was never good enough for her. The Goulds could afford to spend money on Glenn's training because Bert's furrier business was lucrative, and so they enrolled Glenn at age eleven with revered teacher Alberto Guerrero, a former concert pianist. At thirteen, Gould made his debut on the organ during a concert in Toronto and received sparkling reviews.
Through his adolescence, Glenn deeply loved his mother, and they would exchange innocent Valentine's Day cards until he was at least twelve, but they were both strong personalities and sometimes came to loggerheads. During an argument with her, Glenn got angry and worried that he might cause her bodily harm, but he held back and became ashamed of the emotions he had felt. "The experience caused him to retreat into serious introspection and, when he emerged, he swore to himself that he would never let that inner rage reveal itself again," said Andrew Kazdin, Gould's record producer in New York in the 1960s and 1970s. "He was determined that he would live his life practicing self-control." Indeed, even as a child, Gould rarely cried — if he fell in the schoolyard, he would hum to himself to block the pain. Like other boys, he was gangly and awkward in his early teens, but eventually grew into his big ears; he took longer, however, growing in other ways.
A loner with few friends, at age thirteen Gould had a number of pets — a budgie named Mozart, four goldfish, Chopin, Haydn, Bach and Beethoven, and an English setter, Nicky — and he also brought home stray pets. "By the time I was six," he later said, "I'd already made an important discovery: that I get along much better with animals than with humans."
On a secondary level, young Gould had a number of grandparents, aunts, uncles and nannies in and out of his life. "He said he grew up amongst very elderly people, uncles and aunts and grandparents, as well as his parents, and that it affected him," said Father Owen Carroll, a Catholic priest and teacher, who was Gould's friend for many years after they met in 1955. "They were Protestant and Presbyterian. He said that, because of that, he didn't really know young people." And yet, black-and-white pictures from the cottage, which have been widely circulated through books and magazines, could have been fashioned by Norman Rockwell, showing young Glenn full of summer smiles, sometimes in suit and tie, with floppy-eared dogs and unidentified boys at his side. Perhaps it was what his parents wanted others to see, or what he wanted others to see — the beginning of image making. What the photos do not show are the introvert, the artsy geek roughed up by bullies.
As a teenager at Malvern Collegiate Institute, Gould was often absent, spending much time studying music at the Royal Conservatory of Music and being tutored at home by a teacher. Gould said he disliked high school, partly because he did not want to be forced into being social. Dr. Helen Mesaros — a psychiatrist who published a book in 2008, Bravo Fortissimo Glenn Gould: The Mind of a Canadian Virtuoso — believes Gould skipped his youth and became repressed socially and sexually while putting most of his time and energy into his classical music. He spurned jazz and popular music, possibly partly because they represented the public airing of emotions and the lyrics often talked of everyday life. Into his teens, he did not date girls or attend sock-hop dances. "The loss of the opportunity to dance, play and sing popular music, to engage in youthful fashion and other teenage behavior left him with unfinished business from this stage of development," she said. Mesaros added that Gould may have been threatened by the emergence of his instinctual drives for romance and instead "resorted to an ascetic lifestyle with a heavy emphasis on his intellectual and creative pursuits." She believes that he never had a serious romantic relationship during his life, except with the piano. (Of course, in her research, Mesaros was not privy to the findings of this book — that Gould began courting women fairly seriously, albeit secretly, when he was about twenty.)
In adulthood, Gould would refer to his childhood as happy. In the two-storey, middle-class home on Southwood Drive, among the maple trees swaying with breezes from Lake Ontario, the young Gould lived in relative solitude and could be free to create without the stifling opinions of peer pressure. At the cottage near Uptergrove, Ontario, a ninety-minute drive north of Toronto, Gould loved walking the countryside with dogs and playing piano until all hours of the night. He admitted he grew up a little puritan in his thinking. In the 1930s and 1940s, Toronto was much smaller and less cosmopolitan than it is today and, with a strong British flavor and peaceful, private people, it became known as Toronto the Good. Gould despised loud colors, especially red, which he deemed aggressive, and loved black-and-white movies. It's possible that Gould got an idealistic view of life, women, animals, nature and music from his mother. It seems to be a myth, however, and one not discouraged by Glenn himself, that he did not have other influences on his life and music apart from his mother and German composers. For instance, Guerrero, who taught Gould for nine years, obviously had a big sway on his style; Gould became known for sitting in a low chair, hunchbacked, and playing with "flatter" fingers than most other pianists — traits that Guerrero taught to all his students. Guerrero encouraged such a low stance at the keyboard that Gould's father fashioned a special, low-slung chair he would take with him all his life wherever he performed or recorded.
In another Guerrero student, Malcolm Troup, Gould perhaps saw a reflection of what he would become. Ever since they studied together at Malvern Collegiate Institute and the conservatory, Gould had admired Troup, who was two-and-a-half years his senior. Born in Toronto of English parents, Troup began composing at age nine. Gould often talked incessantly about Troup, according to another student in their Guerrero class, Ray Dudley. "Troup was a kind of character ... and I think he had a tremendous influence on [Gould]," Dudley said. "[Troup] was radical in everything he did — in the way he dressed, the way he spoke, even the way he wrote. He'd write long, involved essays on some esoteric subject and then read them to the class. Well, I think Glenn would just sit there, fascinated. And Troup usually came into class with holes in his socks or wearing clothes that were rather dirty looking. He was always trying to create a sensation with his appearance." At one time, Dudley and Gould were close and would play pianos together at Gould's cottage.
As a virtuoso pianist, Troup also resembled Gould before Gould resembled Gould. At age seventeen, Troup made his concert debut with the CBC Toronto Orchestra playing Rubinstein's Concerto in D. Troup was at times flamboyant and theatrical, as well as talented. Sometimes dressed to the hilt, he always performed with his own style, with a tendency to lean forward at the keyboard, caressing it as he played Franz Liszt music. And he was controversial — on a live CBC-TV show in the 1950s, Troup had the audacity to use the word "masturbatory" on the air. "He said something like, 'Society is too concerned with masturbatory toys in place of the real thing,'" according to filmmaker Warren Collins, a friend of Gould and Troup. "Malcolm liked to shock and to startle." Gould's admiration for Troup apparently lasted through the years; in 1973, Gould wrote a letter to the University of Manitoba, recommending that Troup be appointed the school's music director.
If music was king in Gould's upbringing and through his teenage years, sex and romantic intimacy were paupers. As in many other British-style homes of the era, matters of the bedroom were rarely discussed by the Goulds and it was likely up to young Glenn to find out about relationships with women all by himself. "He is a confirmed bachelor at thirteen," Fulford wrote in the Malvern newsletter on April 3, 1946. Later, Fulford added, "He never to my knowledge told dirty jokes or speculated about the sexuality of girls." Indeed, during Gould's first concert tour in Western Canada in 1951, the newspaper The Albertan asked if nineteen-year-old Gould was interested in girls, to which his mother Flora smiled and replied, "No, he hasn't time for them yet. And I'm glad he hasn't right now." Even though he lived at home with his parents until he was twenty-seven, that would all change.CHAPTER 2
FRANNY and GOULDIE
Glenn Gould was seventeen, still wearing the suit and tie his parents bought for him, when he met Frances Batchen at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto. He was sitting on a sofa with an acquaintance of Batchen's. "I was on an errand at the conservatory and I went up to them and started talking about a two-piano recital which I was about to do with someone else," she recalled decades later, as Frances Barrault. "I was telling them about the pieces we were going to do when the man who was with my friend began describing the music to me in detail, so intelligently, that I said to him, 'Oh, you must be Glenn Gould,' which he was."
Excerpted from The Secret Life of Glenn Gould by Michael Clarkson. Copyright © 2010 Michael Clarkson. Excerpted by permission of ECW PRESS.
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