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“The purpose of art is not the release of a momentary ejection of adrenaline but rather the gradual, lifelong construction of a state of wonder and serenity.”

- Glenn Gould

October 2018

Gould and His Beloved Chair

Why did Glenn Gould always use the tiny chair when he was performing or recording?

The most enduring symbol of Gould’s eccentricity began life as a high-backed, wooden folding chair that was part of a table-and-chairs set intended for card playing, manufactured in the 1930s in London, Ontario. (Details about this set were first reported by the Toronto-based musician and writer Colin Eatock: Gould’s chair became unusually low because of modifications made to it by his father (with help from a friend) in 1953, including sawing a few inches off the legs and creating little contraptions that allowed each leg to be adjusted individually.

The result placed Gould about fourteen inches (36 cm) off the ground, so low that his knees were higher than his buttocks, but he wanted to sit this low because his piano style and his preferred repertoire (mostly contrapuntal, much of it from the eighteenth century) demanded a technique that benefitted from an intimate approach to the keyboard. He also wanted a chair that had the “give” he needed, front-to-back and diagonally, to accommodate his movements while he played; that had a seat that sloped forward (“I have to sit on the edge”); and that had a backrest at a greater than ninety-degree angle to accommodate the “leisurely angle” at which he liked to sit. No conventional piano bench met his needs, but the chair his father modified did.

He used this chair for the rest of his life, for practice sessions, rehearsals, concerts, and recordings. He carried and shipped it around as required, and by the later 1950s it was already seriously worn. Oiling and tinkering with it became part of his pre-performance ritual, though it still squeaked in his concerts and recordings. The seat’s padding oozed gradually out of its green leatherette cover, which itself fell apart—you can almost date Gould’s photographs and films by the condition of the seat. Eventually he was sitting on a bare frame, with one wooden support running front-to-back along his crotch. Yet he was never heard to complain about the chair, and admitted a substitute only when, say, it was temporarily lost or damaged in transit.

Over the years, Gould, his manager, and Columbia Records made good-faith efforts to find a new, sturdier wood or metal chair. His friend Lorne Tulk, in an outtake from the 2009 documentary Genius Within: The Inner Life of Glenn Gould (, displays one such alternative chair modified by Gould’s father, and says that Gould carried both chairs around for a time. But there is no evidence that he ever seriously used any but his original one, for no substitute was ever quite right in the end (no pun intended). There was surely an element of superstition at work here: the chair became a talisman, a Linus-blanket, for Gould, who routinely drew on familiar objects and habits and rituals in order to stave off anxiety.

Incidentally, in 2007, the Italian furniture maker Cazzaro began selling a replica of the famous chair, designed by René Bouchara and endorsed by Gould’s estate, at a price of 990 euros. These are no longer being sold, though one of them is housed in the Foundation’s office.

The original chair is now housed (along with Gould’s beloved Steinway piano, CD 318) at the National Arts Centre, in Ottawa. No, they won’t let you sit on it.

Practice Makes Perfect

What was Glenn Gould’s practice method/routine?

Gould practiced a lot as a child; indeed, his parents could punish him for an infraction by locking his piano. But he practiced less than most virtuosos in adolescence and during his concert years, and after 1964 needed even less time at the piano. His technique evidently required very little maintenance, and he could not understand why most of colleagues practiced so much. He went days, even weeks, without playing, and claimed that the “best playing I do is when I haven’t touched the instrument for a month” (though he became insecure if he was away from it too long). In his last interview, in 1982, he said that he did not know Brahms’s Op. 10 ballades before preparing to record them that year. His two months’ preparation consisted of studying the score for six weeks and getting his interpretation right, then practicing in the two weeks before the recording sessions, usually no more than an hour a day. His interviewer responded, “Do you realize that this sounds quite unbelievable?” Yet, Gould’s private notepads confirm that his pianistic schedule was unusually light. From the mid-seventies, he was practicing, when at all, as little as half an hour a day, usually about one hour, never more than two; he devoted the same or more time to studying scores, reading, writing, dictating, editing recordings, even attending to his mail. And he never played scales or other exercises; he practiced only pieces.

You'll Have to Use Your Imagination

Do you know if Gould ever played or recorded the closing Badinerie of Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 2 in B Minor?

Piano arrangements of this popular movement do exist, but Gould never played any of them or made one of his own. Listening to such an arrangement does, however, make one yearn to hear what Gould might have done with this fun piece. 

September 2018

Gould and the Question of Fake Recordings

Q: Are there any recordings being circulated as Glenn Gould performances which are not authentic?

We have never been seriously plagued by fake Gould recordings, though a few wrongly attributed ones have circulated, probably as a result of innocent error rather than fraud.

In 1983, the year after his death, Vox’s Turnabout label released two LPs under the title The Young Glenn Gould. The first volume comprised the studio recordings of Berg, Shostakovich, Taneyev, and Prokofiev that made up his first commercial album, originally released by Hallmark in 1953. The second volume included a performance of Bach’s Italian Concerto by Alberto Guerrero, Gould’s piano teacher, plus four pieces by Mozart for piano four hands purportedly recorded privately by Gould and Guerrero in 1947. But, as John Beckwith convincingly argued in the fall 1996 issue of the Foundation’s magazine and in his 2006 biography In Search of Alberto Guerrero, the Mozart recordings in fact feature two other Toronto pianists: Guerrero’s wife, Myrtle, and Robert Finch. And according to both Beckwith and Michael Schulman, who wrote the liner notes for the Turnabout release and replied to Beckwith’s article in the spring 1997 issue of the magazine, Myrtle Guerrero herself eventually confirmed that Turnabout had made a mistake.

Alas, the spurious Mozart recordings have circulated widely over the years, on LP, CD, and YouTube, most prominently in Glenn Gould: His First Recordings (1947-1953), a CD released in 2001 by the respectable American label VAI Audio. Ernest Gilbert’s liner notes for that release even assert that the performance of the Italian Concerto “is the first aural record of Gould playing the music of Bach,” though Schulman’s original notes already identified Guerrero as the performer. (The source was probably a CBC Radio broadcast from 1952.) The VAI Audio release is still available, and in fact is listed among the “Best Selling CDs” on the company’s website (

(Actually, there is at least one genuine private recording of Gould and Guerrero together, in Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1, with Guerrero playing a reduction of the orchestral part on a second piano. But this has never been released.)

More recently, another misattributed Gould recording surfaced, of the Allegrettomovement of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, in Liszt’s transcription. It was posted on YouTube in 2015, with no source indicated, by someone identified as Above the Mists ( As of September 2018, this video had been viewed almost 380,000 times and had elicited some breathless comments: “Three giants together: Ludwig + Franz + Glenn. Feeling so tiny, insignificant and GRATEFUL!”; “... it’s magic, pure magic, the way he plays this ...”; “The attention to detail Gould gives to this piece is top-notch”; “Glenn Gould, you can take pride in this!”

But the recording is bogus.

First of all, there is no evidence that Gould ever recorded this piece. He did record the Beethoven-Liszt Symphony No. 5 and the first movement of No. 6 for Columbia, and he performed the complete No. 6 on CBC Radio, but he then gave up his plan to record all of the Beethoven-Liszt symphonies. While there are still some Gould recordings (from various sources) that have never been released, they are well documented. There is effectively no chance that something as significant as a seamlessly edited recording of a Beethoven-symphony movement is entirely undocumented yet somehow available to a private YouTube channel.

Moreover, nothing about this recording sounds remotely like Gould—not the playing, or the piano’s tone, or the recorded sound. And there is no humming or singing in the background. (Of how many Gould recordings can that be said? Zero?) That this obviously misattributed recording has been accepted by many Gould fans certainly testifies to the power of suggestion.

Gould and Focal Dystonia

Q: Did Glenn Gould suffer from focal dystonia?  What are the details, and how did he cope with the condition, if he had it?

The notion that Gould might have lived with focal dystonia (occupational cramp) was first proposed by the neurologist Frank R. Wilson, in his article “Glenn Gould’s Hand,” published in Medical Problems of the Instrumentalist Musician, ed. Raoul Tubiana and Peter C. Amadio (London: Martin Dunitz Ltd, 2000), pp. 379-97. Wilson, who is also the author of Tone Deaf and All Thumbs?: An Invitation to Music-Making (1986) and The Hand: How Its Use Shapes the Brain, Language, and Human Culture (1998), was at the time medical director of the Health Program for Performing Artists at the University of California, San Francisco. (The program was founded in 1985 by Peter F. Ostwald, a psychiatrist, violinist, and writer whose biography Glenn Gould: The Ecstasy and Tragedy of Genius was published in 1997, the year after his death.)

In “Glenn Gould’s Hand,” Wilson defended the startling thesis “that in biomechanical terms Gould may have been almost completely unsuited for a career at the piano”—meaning that the innate structure of his hands put him biomechanically at risk for a repetitive-strain disorder like focal dystonia, the condition that derailed the careers of the American pianists Leon Fleisher and Gary Graffman. Wilson found evidence in Gould’s private writings, photos, and filmed performances of physical traits common to performers with focal dystonia, and suggested that his musical predilections might have been allied to the physiology of his hands.

The implication of Wilson’s analysis was that if Gould had, say, performed works like the Brahms D-minor concerto and Scriabin’s Fifth Sonata in concert a hundred times a year he might have ended up debilitated by focal dystonia. Moreover, Wilson suggested that focal dystonia explains that curious period, in 1977-78, when Gould reported problems with his hands, retreated from recording and broadcasting, and undertook private experiments at the keyboard in an effort to restore his technique, experiments he documented at length in a diary.

And yet, in the late 1970s Gould was recording at most a couple of times per month and practicing very little—hardly overusing his hands. Focal dystonia, moreover, once established, normally worsens as one continues playing, but there is no evidence that Gould’s problem worsened through the year documented in his diary, or thereafter. For this reason, Wilson’s conclusion seems weak—that if Gould did have focal dystonia “his subsequent return to the recording studio would represent an unprecedented example of a musician’s recovery (or partial recovery) from that disorder through retraining.”

(Ostwald, incidentally, never proposed a diagnosis of focal dystonia himself, and suggested a primarily psychological reason for Gould’s hand problems in 1977-78, namely a delayed reaction to the death of his mother in 1975—an explanation that also seems contrived.)

“Glenn Gould’s Hand” can be read at Wilson’s personal website:

Details Only a Passport Could Reveal

Q: How tall was Glenn Gould?

According to his 1957 passport, which can be viewed through a Google Images search, Gould stood 5′ 11″ (180 cm).

Also, just for the record: He had light-brown hair and blue eyes, and in his younger days usually weighed 150 to 180 pounds (68 to 82 kg). And he was left-handed.

Gould Passport

August 2018

Glenn Gould and the Voyager Golden Record

Q: Did Glenn Gould know that one of his recordings would be included on the Golden Record of the Voyager space probes? Do we know how he felt about it? Was he involved in the selection of the track?

I would be very surprised to learn that Gould knew nothing about the two Voyager space probes launched by NASA in 1977, or about the Golden Record affixed to them, which included, among its 27 samples of Earth’s music, his own recording of the Prelude and Fugue No. 1 in C Major from Book 2 of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier. Yet, his papers in the Library and Archives Canada, in Ottawa, are silent on the subject: no evidence of any contact with NASA or the Golden Record project’s executive director, Carl Sagan; no evidence that he was involved in selecting his track; no evidence that his label, CBS Records, contacted him about it; no evidence that he owned or read Sagan’s book about the project, Murmurs of Earth (1978). The Gould literature, too, is silent on the subject, as is NASA’s Voyager website ( Unless information is to be found in The Voyager Record: A Transmission (2016), by Anthony Michael Morena, which I have not seen, we may never know what Gould knew about Voyager.

Why was his particular recording of the prelude and fugue selected for the Golden Record? It surely helped that one of the project’s music advisers, the artist and writer Jon Lomberg, had worked for the CBC and was evidently familiar with Gould’s work. Indeed, Lomberg’s original suggestions for the record included two recordings by Gould: a different Bach fugue (Book 1, C minor) and the first of Schoenberg’s Six Little Piano Pieces, Op. 19. And it was CBS Records that ended up putting together all the audio tracks for the Golden Record and (copyright law apparently extending beyond the solar system) securing the necessary releases—though only after Gould’s track had been selected. Perhaps no special explanation is necessary, since by 1977 Gould had long been one of the world’s most celebrated Bach performers.

Gould and Kurt Vonnegut

Q: Did Glenn Gould have any direct contact with Kurt Vonnegut during the production of Slaughterhouse-Five?

Gould’s papers in the Library and Archives Canada, in Ottawa, include much material relating to his work on the soundtrack for the film Slaughterhouse-Five (1972): his copies of Vonnegut’s novel and the screenplay, sketches and scores and other documents relating to his musical arrangements, correspondence (including with the director, George Roy Hill, whom he also met in person), contracts and other business records, promotional material, reviews and other press clippings, the text of his later review of the film for CBC Radio, audio and video tapes. But there is no evidence of any direct contact with Vonnegut. Otto Friedrich, in Glenn Gould: A Life and Variations (1989), quotes Vonnegut’s reply to a query, which includes no suggestion that he had any contact with Gould.

Glenn and the Glory (???) of the Human Voice

Q: What were Glenn Gould’s views about opera, art song, and other vocal music?

Gould divided vocal music, like all other music, into sheep and goats. Not surprisingly, he admired vocal music that he was able to justify according to his usual musical priorities—works like Gibbons’ anthems, Bach’s sacred music, Mendelssohn’s oratorio St. Paul, Bruckner’s E-minor Mass, the operas of Wagner and Strauss, the songs and other vocal works of Strauss, Mahler, Schoenberg, Berg, Hindemith, Krenek. (There were some surprises, though, among the sheep: He considered West Side Story a masterpiece, for instance, and shortly before he died he declared that his favourite opera was Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel. And then there’s that whole Petula-Clark-and-Barbra-Streisand thing …) It appears that he largely ignored German Romantic lieder and most modern art-song repertories, expressed no interest in opera or vocal chamber music of the Baroque era, liked Mozart’s operas no better than the rest of his music, and was squeamish about the sensuousness and melodiousness and violent emotions of Italian opera. The music of Verdi and Puccini, he said, made him “intensely uncomfortable”—a revealing choice of words.

Gould had a musical idealist’s disdain for the whole theatrical side of opera, too. “I’m not terribly fond of opera, and I don’t go to the opera house very much,” he said, in a 1959 profile. “And when I do, I’m more interested in the actual music I hear than in what I see on the stage—in fact, quite often, when I do go to opera, I shut my eyes and just listen.” Often he barely knew the words or plot of the operatic music he listened to. In a diary entry from 1980, he admitted, after listening to Tannhäuser on the radio, that “I’d never even known what it was about (I’m ashamed to say)”—a surprising gap for a self-described Wagnerite.

The Piano Transcriptions

Q: Gould seems to have had a habit of spontaneously performing piano transcriptions of various orchestral and operatic works. Did he formally prepare and write out these transcriptions, or was he able to create them on the spot? Do any of these survive in written form? Do we know all the pieces of music he performed in this way (or some of them)?

Gould played a great deal of orchestral and operatic (and other non-piano) music at the keyboard, occasionally publicly. Among his radio and television appearances, for instance, he can be heard playing excerpts from Schubert’s Fifth Symphony, Bruckner’s String Quintet, works by several Russian Romantics, Sibelius’s Fifth Symphony, Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony No. 2, and Strauss’s Elektra, Capriccio, Metamorphosen, and Four Last Songs. In these cases, whether his source was the full score or a published piano reduction or vocal score is unknown, but presumably the former: He was certainly capable of making on-the-spot piano reductions of such repertoire, even while sightreading.

Only a few times did he polish and write out an arrangement. One of these was his rendering of the improvisational Prelude to Handel’s Suite for Harpsichord in A Major, as performed in his 1972 recording. This has never been commercially published, though his complete manuscript was printed in facsimile in the Spring 1996 issue of the Foundation’s magazine. He also wrote out the three Wagner transcriptions he recorded in 1973, and excellent editions of these were published by Schott in 2003.

Over the years, many Gould fans have asked about his transcription of Ravel’s La Valse, which he performed in 1975 in the second program (“The Flight from Order: 1910-1920”) of his CBC television series Music in Our Times. For this occasion, he did not make his own, wholly original transcription; rather, he re-arranged Ravel’s solo-piano transcription from 1920. In his spoken introduction to the performance (published in the Spring 2005 issue of the Foundation’s magazine), he referred to the result as “my transcription of Ravel’s transcription of La Valse.”

He wrote about this matter in a letter dated December 6, 1974, and published in Glenn Gould: Selected Letters:

I found Ravel’s own contribution downright unusable for at least half its length; as you perhaps know, he simply wrote out the harmonic foundation of the piece on two conventional staves and added, as a kind of optional extra in very small print and on a third stave, most of the colouristic elements which give the piece its flavour; much of the time, indeed, there is simply no way in which one can incorporate the third-stave elements and simultaneously be obedient to the material on the primary staves. Consequently, I cleared away as much of the lower-stave underbrush as possible and incorporated as much of the third-stave material as I could—admittedly making a few discreet alterations in Monsieur Maurice’s voice-leading as I went along.

That third stave includes orchestral details like chromatic scales in the woodwinds and strings, pedal points in the bass, string tremolos, and harp arpeggios. Ravel obviously did not intend this material to be played in the piano reduction, even as an “optional extra,” for, as Gould acknowledged, it is literally impossible to do so as the published transcription stands; more likely, Ravel intended merely to guide and help orient the pianist. But Gould’s aim was to work in precisely those “colouristic elements” that Ravel felt obliged to leave out.

However, he did not write out his transcription from scratch. Instead, he took a copy of Ravel’s transcription and annotated it copiously, crossing out some notes, adding others, and indicating how to redistribute the three staves’ worth of material for two hands—for instance, circling and bracketing groups of notes and labeling them “lh” and “rh.” (This score survives among his papers in the Library and Archives Canada, in Ottawa, and excerpts from it were published in facsimile in the Fall 2002 issue of the Foundation’s magazine.) Gould evidently put together the final transcription in his head, not on paper, though it would certainly be possible to create a publishable score by transcribing his performance from the original CBC recording and consulting the annotated score. And the Ravel transcription certainly qualifies as one of the most musically interesting (and most requested) bits of Gouldiana still to be published.

July 2018

A Man of the North?

Q:  We hear a lot about Gould and the Idea of North because he is so closely associated in the minds of many people with the Northern part of Ontario, but I’m wondering what places in Ontario were meaningful to him. Where did he visit?  How far North did he go?  Where were the famous pictures of him walking in the snow taken, and of him walking with his dog on film, and conducting by a waterfall?  Did he spend much time outside Toronto?

For Gould, the North really was more idea than reality. He admitted that, despite his lifelong love of the Canadian North, his longing to see it, and his frequent talk on the subject, he never actually visited anywhere more northerly than Churchill, Manitoba, to which he traveled by train, aboard the “Muskeg Express,” in June of 1965. Churchill, on the southwestern shore of Hudson Bay, is almost two thousand kilometres north of Toronto, and above the tree line, yet at latitude 58°N is still hundreds of kilometres south of the Arctic Circle. At the time, however, it was the farthest north one could travel by train. (This was the trip that, two years later, inspired The Idea of North.)

Otherwise, Gould’s ventures northward extended not even to northern Ontario but only to the Great Lakes: Manitoulin Island, for instance, in Lake Huron, and various towns on Highway 17 (part of the Trans-Canada Highway) as it runs along the north shore of Lake Superior—Marathon, Terrace Bay, and especially Wawa, all around latitude 48°N. (He admired the “Group of Seven woebegoneness” of the rugged countryside in this region.) The sequence in which he conducts by a waterfall was filmed at Magpie High Falls, near Wawa, and appears in the television documentary Variations on Glenn Gould, which aired in 1969 in the CBC series Telescope.

Those other two famous images of Gould are of even less northerly provenance. The photo of him walking in the snow comes from a series taken by Don Hunstein in Caledon, just northwest of Toronto, in January of 1970. One photo from this session graced Gould’s 1970 Columbia Masterworks album of three Beethoven sonatas, and he came to think of it as his favourite picture of himself. The sequence in which he walks his dog Banquo in the woods was filmed somewhere around his family’s cottage on Lake Simcoe, near Uptergrove, Ontario, for the 1959 National Film Board documentary Glenn Gould: Off the Record.

Though definitely a homebody, Gould did get out of Toronto quite often. For much of his life, the family cottage was a place of frequent refuge, and though he was no longer using the cottage by the 1970s he still tried to get out of the city for an extended period at least once or twice a year, mostly on driving trips within Ontario. (Work, too, sometimes took him out of town—to New York, Newfoundland, Manitoba.) In the last few years of his life, he also became fond of certain remote islands off Georgia and the Carolinas, along the southern Atlantic coast of the United States. From time to time, in the last twenty years of his life, he expressed an interest in buying property in one of the rural settings he found attractive: Bonavista Bay, Newfoundland; Bras d’Or Lake in Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia; Grand Manan Island, in the Bay of Fundy off New Brunswick; the Carolinas. But he never did.

And then there was that one holiday in the Bahamas in April of 1956, which evidently supplied enough Idea of South to last him a lifetime.

Terrors of the Schoolyard

Q:  In Glenn Gould's Toronto, Gould talks about his childhood and mentions the "terrors of the schoolyard." Was he bullied at school, either as a young child or in adolescence?

Gould was indeed bullied somewhat in the early grades, at Williamson Road Public School, though less so at his high school, Malvern Collegiate Institute.

His unusual intellectual and artistic gifts were apparent early on, and his schoolmates always knew he was special, which did not help him to fit in. He was known to go home from Williamson Road in tears, and a 1956 Toronto Daily Star profile reported (presumably on his authority) that he had been “tormented” by bullies. Gould himself said, that same year, “Because I wouldn’t fight back, the neighbourhood kids used to delight in beating me up. But it’s an exaggeration to say they beat me up every day. It was only every other day.” This sounds like a tall tale, of course, though with a kernel of truth.

Gould told his friend John Roberts that a bully once followed him home from school and even took a swing at him. “And Glenn just went for him,” Roberts wrote. “And hit him so hard that this kid wondered what had struck him. Then Glenn grabbed him by the lapels and shook him and said, ‘If you ever come near me again, I will kill you.’ And this kid was absolutely scared out of his mind, and the thing which also frightened Glenn was that he realized that it was true.” The effect of such an incident on a child of Gould’s sensitivity is easy to imagine. His emotional trials at school led to physical symptoms (headaches, stomach cramps) that, in turn, led to considerable absenteeism.

By the time he entered Malvern, at the age of thirteen, he already had a reputation as a local celebrity in the making, and among his classmates he was the subject of much talk, rumour, and speculation. Malvern was the sort of school in which the arts were viewed as sissy stuff, yet here was Gould with a penchant for conducting and singing to himself as he walked. Other children were not above laughing at him behind his back, though he seems not to have been bullied the way he had been at Williamson Road. His childhood neighbour and friend Robert Fulford recalled that Gould was not despised at Malvern for being an oddity, because his gifts were “prodigious and mysterious” enough to inspire a kind of awe.

He still did not fit in, of course, but then he never wanted to fit in, never sought to be a “normal” teenager. Even as a kid, he willingly sacrificed collegial fraternity on the altar of his art.

Meet Kevin Bazzana

Kevin Bazzana is a Canadian writer with degrees in music history from the University of Victoria, Stanford University, and the University of California, Berkeley.

Since the mid-1980s, he has written prolifically about Glenn Gould and has worked on many Gould-related projects: CD and CD-ROM releases, radio broadcasts, conferences, websites. He is the author of Glenn Gould: The Performer in the Work (1997) and Wondrous Strange: The Life and Art of Glenn Gould (2003); edited the Foundation’s journal, GlennGould (1995-2008); and consulted on the documentary film Genius Within: The Inner Life of Glenn Gould (2009).

He is also the author of Lost Genius: The Story of a Forgotten Musical Maverick(2007), about the Hungarian-American pianist and composer Ervin Nyiregyházi. He has won the Toronto Book Award, has twice won the ASCAP Nicolas Slonimsky Award for Musical Biography, and was shortlisted for the 2008 Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-Fiction. He has written for the Toronto and Montreal symphony orchestras, for record companies, and for encyclopedias and other scholarly publications.

A resident of Brentwood Bay, British Columbia, he is a classical-music columnist for the Times Colonist in nearby Victoria and teaches music courses through the University of Victoria.