The Variations of Glenn Gould
A Look at the Life and Career of a Brilliant Pianist
Listen as Scott Simon talks with Washington Post music critic Tim Page about Glenn Gould.
Sept. 21, 2002 -- In 1955, a young Canadian sat down in front of a battered piano in a New York recording studio and created a masterpiece.
Glenn Gould was just 22 and not well known outside his own country. But his performance of Bach's "Goldberg Variations" made him a star, and then a legend.
In 1981, he decided to record another version of the "Goldberg Variations." The second recording was radically different, and was released just a few weeks before Gould died of a stroke at age 50.
A new album including both versions of the Variations has just been released. It also contains a lengthy interview of Gould by Washington Post music writer Tim Page. But as Page tells Scott Simon for Weekend Edition Saturday, the interview was "more like a radio play," complete with rather dramatic dialogue between the two. It lasts nearly an hour.
In it, Gould roundly disparages his earlier version of the Variations, which has been heralded as a classic since its release. When he gave it a listen just before the 1981 sessions, he "did not recognize or identify with the spirit of the person" who made it, he says. It contained "things that pass for expressive fervor in your average conservatory, I guess."
Gould much preferred his starker, sparer 1981 version. Page says the later recording, "while it still has the same level of exalted pianism in it, is the product of much thinking about the music and also a lot more life…it has a certain sadness and sense of reflectiveness… an autumnal quality." Nobody knew Gould was in ill health during the 1981 recording sessions.
It is now thought that he was afflicted with Asperger's syndrome -- a condition related to autism.
Asperger's can make people unusually sensitive to their environment, which could explain Gould's penchant for wearing heavy coats and scarves in the middle of July. And it might explain his constant humming when he played -- something he tried to combat, but which he couldn't help. Engineers were left to try to remove the humming from his recordings.
Whatever the diagnosis, Gould was a man of contradictions. His behavior could sometimes be off-putting, but he was well-spoken, genteel and highly intelligent.
"Almost anything you could say about Glenn Gould you could say the opposite and have it be somewhat true," says Page.
The official Glenn Gould Web site.
A wealth of information on the "Goldberg Variations."
Wired magazine examines whether Asperger's syndrome among technically brilliant eccentrics can be traced to genetics.