The greatest players break all the rules, and Glenn Gould was perhaps one of the greatest pianists of the XXIst century. With a discography that reimagined the classics of classical, and an eccentric posture which saw him dramatically draped over his instrument, he was criticised as viciously as he was invaluable to the storied profession of classical piano. Here is a brief overview of the life and career of the artist.

His mother, a singing teacher, gave him his first piano lessons when he was just three years old. During these lessons, she would sing out the notes as she taught them to him, before making him sing them back: a habit he would maintain over the course of his career, right up until his final album, The Goldberg Variations (1981). We have heard other performers’ voices, (from Rudolf Serkin to Valery Gergiev) even breathing (Casals, Vegh), on recordings, but nothing as memorable as what we hear with Gould. Despite all sorts of screening techniques invented by sound engineers, his vocalising remains practically omnipresent. But are we hearing his mother’s lullaby, or the memory of a lost childhood voice; a murmur of pleasure, or a pained groan? He hints at an answer, saying ‘I hate this singing … but this vocal elaboration is necessary for me. I play worse when I don’t sing’. Curiously, it is thanks to this constant ‘vocal elaboration’ (alongside other audio interferences, like his chair creaking) that the pianist who lived such a remote and private life managed to seem so near to us. The irony in his enormous presence on his recordings, within which he sought to disappear, is a testament to the allure that would come to define this striking character.

His second teacher, Alberto Guerrero, an ex–child prodigy, helped the eleven-year-old virtuoso perfect his technique, encouraging his unorthodox sitting position (Gould’s father would later accommodate it further by building him a chair, which became a trademark of his) that placed his elbows below the keys. This uncomfortable posture is vindicated by allowing for more precise articulation, which in turn allows for clarity in more defined layers, more independent voices, an enhanced transparency in the harmonic texture of the fugues, and a more nuanced control of the timbres in the languid sarabandes.

An extravagant, rule-breaking pianist

While his Beethoven was pervaded by Schnabel’s performances, Gould always maintained that his only influence in that domain was Rosalyn Tureck. Whilst the standards for Bach were Casals, Landowska, Fischer... Rosalyn Tureck’s style revealed to him that, contrary to popular opinion, Bach could be adapted to the piano without resorting to the pedal or to ‘outrageous’ rubato. In the preface to Inventions – an anthology of haikus that summarises virtually all counterpoint techniques – Bach specifies that they teach ‘to clearly play pieces with two or three obbligato parts … but most of all, to achieve a cantabile voice in ones playing’. So, chasing this cantabile style urged Gould to forsake the pedal, so that each one of the voices could be left as independent as possible. In a perhaps even more astonishing demand, the virtuosity and expressiveness of the right hand would have to be matched by the left.

He slowed down pieces that were already played slowly, and sped up those usually played quickly, unless he felt like doing the opposite. These extravagant challenges to the inherited wisdom are more than valid, as sheet music often does not specify tempo. His refusal to write down his fingerings on any score added to the atmosphere of freedom and inventiveness that hung in the air around him.

Shunning the pedal, the Canadian pianist favoured a ‘pointillistic’ style based on staccato – ‘the fundamental articulation of piano’ – and various other aspects of non legato. A tremendous ability to communicate his intention through his technique allowed him to achieve flawless continuity and fluidity despite this unorthodox approach. By tinkering with dynamics and gradation of intensities, staccato notes flowed from him like cascading diamonds. He would also use non-pianist devices, such as phrasing, through bow strokes or a quasi niente that, like in some of Modiano’s novels, can start off certain toccatas in minor mode.

Despite only touching the piano for a few hours per month, stating that he practised in his imagination rather than with his fingers, Gould was staggeringly controlled whilst playing at speed – one of his most obvious strengths. ‘I have a much better technique than Horowitz’, he once said. While some pianists – Claudio Arrau, for instance – plunged their hands into the keys like potters into clay to fashion extraordinary organ legatos, at one with their piano, and others like Richter erupted with melodies and earth-shaking power, Gould always maintained a lightness of touch by never letting the weight of his shoulders, arms, or wrists ever settle on his instrument. Hunched over the piano, his lips practically brushed the keys. He breathed on notes that took flight, unburdened by any gangue, and danced amongst them.

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