Wondrous Strange: The Life and Art of Glenn Gould

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Overview

When Mikhail Baryshnikov defected to Toronto in 1974, he admitted that he knew only three things about Canada: It had great hockey teams, a lot of wheatfields, and Glenn Gould. In Wondrous Strange, Kevin Bazzana vividly recaptures the life of Glenn Gould, one of the most celebrated pianists of our time. Drawing on twenty years of intensive research, including unrestricted access to Gould's private papers and interviews with scores of friends and colleagues, many of them never interviewed before, Bazzana sheds new light on such topics as Gould's family history, his secretive sexual life, and the mysterious problems that afflicted his hands in his later years. The author places Gould's distinctive traits -- his eccentric interpretations, his garish onstage demeanor, his resistance to convention -- against the backdrop of his religious, upper middle-class Canadian childhood, illuminating the influence of Gould's mother as well as the lasting impact of the only piano teacher Gould ever had. Bazzana offers a fresh appreciation of Gould's concert career -- his high-profile but illness-plagued international tours, his adventurous work for Canadian music festivals, his musical and legal problems with Steinway & Sons. In 1964, Gould made the extraordinary decision to perform only for records, radio, television, and film, a turning point that the author examines with unprecedented thoroughness (discussing, for example, his far-seeing interest in new recording technology). Here, too, are Gould's interests away from the piano, from his ambitious but failed effort to be a composer to his innovative brand of "contrapuntal radio." Richly illustrated with rare photographs, Wondrous Strange is a superbly written account of one of the most memorable and accomplished musicians of our time.
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Editorial Reviews

The Washington Post
Wondrous Strange: The Life and Art of Glenn Gould is obviously a must for any fan of this great pianist, but it is more than that: Kevin Bazzana deserves all praise for producing a study worthy of its subject -- expertly paced, admiring yet sensible, touched with wit and intensely readable. — Michael Dirda
The New Yorker
Opinion on the eccentric Canadian pianist Glenn Gould is polarized between idolatry and detestation. Bazzana’s portrait—the most balanced yet—ingeniously provides contexts for Gould’s behavior, situating his hermeticism in the dour Anglo world of mid-century Toronto. A keen deflater of myths, Bazzana shows that Gould, often assumed to be asexual or gay, had a number of quasi-girlfriends, though his need for solitude always came first. Similarly, although it’s true that he sued Steinway, alleging injury from an employee’s effusive greeting, among friends handshakes were common. Still, those for whom the eccentricities are half the fun will find endless delight in the meticulous accounts of Gould’s diet, hypochondria, and near-suicidal driving. “It’s true that I’ve driven through a number of red lights on occasion,” he once said, “but on the other hand, I’ve stopped at a lot of green ones but never gotten credit for it.”
Publishers Weekly
More than two decades after his death at the age of 50, Glenn Gould remains one of the most famous (and in some circles controversial) pianists of the 20th century. Bazzana, who previously wrote a musicological study of Gould's technique, broadens his focus to encompass the performer's brief life in an engaging biography that will captivate classical music lovers and casual listeners alike. Nimble analysis explores the influences of various composers on Gould's playing style while avoiding technical jargon. More importantly Bazzana portrays Gould as a vivid, engaging personality no mean feat considering his subject withdrew from the concert stage in 1964 and spent the following 18 years addressing the public only through studio recordings and other electronic media. Bazzana confronts all the major clich s that have built up around Gould's history and then makes a persuasive argument against considering them as an indication of mental illness, suggesting that eccentricities like refusing to shake hands and sitting in a custom-designed piano chair were for the most part no more unusual than the habits adopted by any dedicated artist. He also provides ample evidence that the most widely spread stories obscure how resolutely normal Gould was (and, one repeatedly discovers, utterly and charmingly Canadian). For those who already love Gould's performances with all his extraneous noises, this biography provides welcome and equal insight into his life and music, while anyone new to the subject may not even want to wait until finishing the book to run out and buy their first CD. (May) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
As famous as pianist Glenn Gould was during his all-too-short lifetime, the growth of his posthumous reputation is unabated. One of the most gifted and controversial pianists of the past century, Gould had one of the most original minds as well. That, coupled with his famous eccentricities and neuroses, made him a lightning rod for critical commentary, both adulatory and scathing, almost from the time of his first public performance as a precocious six-year-old. Over the past 20 years, musicologist Bazzana has mined several hitherto unknown archival sources and conducted scores of interviews with Gould's friends and associates. He sets the stage with an excellent opening chapter on life and society in Toronto between the wars. He then proceeds chronologically, with significant attention paid to Gould's own compositions and his experiments in recording technology, once his career as a performer began to wane. The penultimate chapter, "A Portrait of the Artist," deals in a very fair-minded way with Gould's outsized personality. Throughout, the author's tone is sympathetic but by no means uncritical, and his prose is lively, witty, and often quite elegant. This comprehensive, richly detailed, and hugely entertaining account will replace earlier biographies by Otto Friedrich and Peter F. Ostwald. Highly recommended.-Larry Lipkis, Moravian Coll., Bethlehem, PA Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
From the Publisher

"Obviously a must for any fan of this great pianist, but it is more than that: Kevin Bazzana deserves all praise for producing a study worthy of its subject--expertly paced, admiring yet sensible, touched with wit and intensely readable."--Washington Post Book World "Gripping.... This book is a model of what a thoughtful assessment of a major artist and his work can be: coherent, complete, fair, and above all readable."--The Washington Times "Marvelously readable.... Bazzana removes the mystification, clarifying not only Gould's drive and musical taste, but also what came to be regarded as his eccentricities." --Toronto Star "It's difficult to imagine anyone doing a better job of writing the life story of Glenn Gould than Kevin Bazzana has done in Wondrous Strange.... This superlative biography covers all the important, and many of the trivial, aspects of the Canadian pianist's relatively brief life, drawing a definitive picture of an unusual musician. --Chicago Tribune

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780195174403
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press
  • Publication date: 4/15/2004
  • Pages: 558
  • Sales rank: 1,061,365
  • Product dimensions: 9.30 (w) x 6.50 (h) x 1.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Kevin Bazzana, Ph. D., is a freelance writer, editor, and lecturer. He is the author of Glenn Gould: The Performer in the Work, a study of Gould as pianist and interpreter.

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Read an Excerpt

When Gould entered the Toronto Conservatory, his schooling – and everything else in his life – already took a back seat to music. As early as January 1943, the Conservatory was in contact with his school to ask for special consideration in accommodating his musical studies. Bert eventually made arrangements with Malvern’s principal and the board of education for the boy to attend school only in the morning and to devote the afternoon to music, either taking lessons or practising at home, and to work with tutors in the evening to catch up on the schoolwork he missed. He maintained this split schedule to the end of high school, and later remembered the “enormous goodwill and generosity of the staff” at Malvern, where, he knew, some regarded him as a nuisance. Though he was often absent in high school, he never dropped out; he was enrolled and studying to the spring of 1951 – that is, to the end of Grade 13, then the final year of high school in Ontario. He did not, however, complete the requirements for formal graduation, because, he later told a friend, he refused to take P.E. In fact, Gould spent more time in high school than most. Though he skipped Grade 3, he did not finish Grade 13 until he was almost nineteen. He took six school years to complete Grades 9 through 13 – which is to say he required two years to finish one of those grades (probably Grade 11, in which year his professional career began).

At the conservatory, his progress was swifter and more exceptional. On June 15, 1945, at the age of twelve, he passed, with the highest marks of any candidate, his examination in piano for the ATCM diploma (Associate, Toronto Conservatoryof Music). He passed his written theory exams a year later, and was awarded the Associate diploma, with highest honours, at a ceremony on October 28, 1946. Thus it is not literally correct, as is always reported, that Gould became an Associate at the age of twelve, but we can at least say that the conservatory considered him, at twelve, to have reached professional standing as a pianist – which is impressive enough. On November 29, 1945, in a conservatory recital, he played the first movement of Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto, with Guerrero accompanying, and he played the movement again, on May 8, 1946, at one of the conservatory’s Annual Closing Concerts in Massey Hall, this time with the Conservatory Symphony Orchestra, conducted by the principal, Ettore Mazzoleni – his first performance with an orchestra. He “had to keep the conductor waiting while he fumbled with a bothersome button on his doublebreasted coat,” Fulford reported in the 9-D Bugle, but the local critics were mostly impressed. One pronounced him a genius and compared his singing tone to that of de Pachmann; another noted a narrow dynamic range and phrasing that was “a little choppy” – all of which sounds like the pianist we know.

Gould first appeared in a music competition as a five-year-old, on August 30, 1938, at the CNE (he won no prizes); otherwise, his experience in competitions was limited to appearances in the first three annual Kiwanis Music Festivals. Events of this kind, involving thousands of children, had been fixtures on the English-Canadian music scene from the beginning of the twentieth century, and many people perceived them as a healthy force for cultural betterment (they encouraged young people to play “the right kind of music in the right way,” Ernest MacMillan said). The model, once again, was imported. “The music festival is a peculiarly British institution,” Geoffrey Payzant wrote in 1960; “in our time only the British could make a virtue out of music-­making in public under the conditions of an athletic contest. Love of competition and the fair-­play tradition are components of the image we all have of the typical Briton.” As in the annual Dominion Drama Festival, most of the adjudicators were imported from England, and their condescension was sometimes palpable. (As Payzant wrote, “There is one detestable type of British adjudicator that has become a stock figure in this country” – namely, the colonialist who “arrives with the intention of being a light unto the Gentiles.”) The goal of such events was reinforcement not just of British ideals of music, but of British manners and values. Deportment was a priority. In the 1966 article “We Who Are About to Be Disqualified Salute You!” Gould parodied the “superannuated British academicians” he had encountered at the festivals, with their “aura of charity and good fellowship”: “I say, that’s jolly good, Number 67 – smashing spirit and all that. Have to dock you just a point for getting tangled at the double bars, though. Four times through the old exposition is a bit of a good thing, what?”
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Table of Contents

Postlude (in the form of a Prelude): A Posthumous Life 1
Pt. 1 Beach Boy: The Prodigy, 1932-47 15
Pt. 2 National Treasure: The Young Professional, 1947-54 83
Pt. 3 Vaudevillian: On Tour, 1955-64 145
Pt. 4 Renaissance Man: A Higher Calling, 1964-75 231
Pt. 5 A Portrait of the Artist 315
Pt. 6 The Last Puritan: In Transition, 1975-82 405
Notes on Sources 491
Acknowledgements 507
Index 509
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First Chapter

When Gould entered the Toronto Conservatory, his schooling – and everything else in his life – already took a back seat to music. As early as January 1943, the Conservatory was in contact with his school to ask for special consideration in accommodating his musical studies. Bert eventually made arrangements with Malvern's principal and the board of education for the boy to attend school only in the morning and to devote the afternoon to music, either taking lessons or practising at home, and to work with tutors in the evening to catch up on the schoolwork he missed. He maintained this split schedule to the end of high school, and later remembered the "enormous goodwill and generosity of the staff" at Malvern, where, he knew, some regarded him as a nuisance. Though he was often absent in high school, he never dropped out; he was enrolled and studying to the spring of 1951 – that is, to the end of Grade 13, then the final year of high school in Ontario. He did not, however, complete the requirements for formal graduation, because, he later told a friend, he refused to take P.E. In fact, Gould spent more time in high school than most. Though he skipped Grade 3, he did not finish Grade 13 until he was almost nineteen. He took six school years to complete Grades 9 through 13 – which is to say he required two years to finish one of those grades (probably Grade 11, in which year his professional career began).

At the conservatory, his progress was swifter and more exceptional. On June 15, 1945, at the age of twelve, he passed, with the highest marks of any candidate, his examination in piano for the ATCM diploma (Associate, Toronto Conservatory of Music). Hepassed his written theory exams a year later, and was awarded the Associate diploma, with highest honours, at a ceremony on October 28, 1946. Thus it is not literally correct, as is always reported, that Gould became an Associate at the age of twelve, but we can at least say that the conservatory considered him, at twelve, to have reached professional standing as a pianist – which is impressive enough. On November 29, 1945, in a conservatory recital, he played the first movement of Beethoven's Fourth Piano Concerto, with Guerrero accompanying, and he played the movement again, on May 8, 1946, at one of the conservatory's Annual Closing Concerts in Massey Hall, this time with the Conservatory Symphony Orchestra, conducted by the principal, Ettore Mazzoleni – his first performance with an orchestra. He "had to keep the conductor waiting while he fumbled with a bothersome button on his doublebreasted coat," Fulford reported in the 9-D Bugle, but the local critics were mostly impressed. One pronounced him a genius and compared his singing tone to that of de Pachmann; another noted a narrow dynamic range and phrasing that was "a little choppy" – all of which sounds like the pianist we know.

Gould first appeared in a music competition as a five-year-old, on August 30, 1938, at the CNE (he won no prizes); otherwise, his experience in competitions was limited to appearances in the first three annual Kiwanis Music Festivals. Events of this kind, involving thousands of children, had been fixtures on the English-Canadian music scene from the beginning of the twentieth century, and many people perceived them as a healthy force for cultural betterment (they encouraged young people to play "the right kind of music in the right way," Ernest MacMillan said). The model, once again, was imported. "The music festival is a peculiarly British institution," Geoffrey Payzant wrote in 1960; "in our time only the British could make a virtue out of music-­making in public under the conditions of an athletic contest. Love of competition and the fair-­play tradition are components of the image we all have of the typical Briton." As in the annual Dominion Drama Festival, most of the adjudicators were imported from England, and their condescension was sometimes palpable. (As Payzant wrote, "There is one detestable type of British adjudicator that has become a stock figure in this country" – namely, the colonialist who "arrives with the intention of being a light unto the Gentiles.") The goal of such events was reinforcement not just of British ideals of music, but of British manners and values. Deportment was a priority. In the 1966 article "We Who Are About to Be Disqualified Salute You!" Gould parodied the "superannuated British academicians" he had encountered at the festivals, with their "aura of charity and good fellowship": "I say, that's jolly good, Number 67 – smashing spirit and all that. Have to dock you just a point for getting tangled at the double bars, though. Four times through the old exposition is a bit of a good thing, what?"

Copyright© 2003 by Kevin Bazzana
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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 27, 2004

    AN ENIGMATIC GENIUS

    Born in 1932 in Toronto, Ontario, Glenn Gould is surely one of the most enigmatic and celebrated musicians of our time. According to biographer Kevin Bazzana, it's almost as if Gould's gifts were too many for one man to pursue. Bazzana has spent some two decades studying his elusive subject. Given free rein to explore Gould's papers and granted interviews by any number of the artist's friends and colleagues who were once reluctant to speak, the author is able to shed light on many questions that have piqued the interest of Gould fans. We are privy to much of his family history (the original family name was Gold), and the health problems that plagued him. Precocious? Yes, indeed. Readers learn that at the estimable age of 3 his talents were obvious. Perfect pitch was but one of them. As a child he was publicly performing on both piano and organ. His musical education was completed in Canada, and although known throughout Canada he did not make his American debut until 1955. His programs were unorthodox and his behavior on stage often very odd. To say Gould was an iconoclast is an understatement, but such a talented one. He was also an industrious writer, and later in life began conducting. It was in 1964 that Gould deserted the concert stage to perform solely for records, radio, television, and film. His last recording was made in 1982, the year that he died. Like some before him Gould's fame has grown since his death. Today many visit Toronto, paying their respects to a man who is arguably one of the greatest contemporary musicians.

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