Wondrous Strange: The Life and Art of Glenn Gould
by Kevin Bazzana
Oxford University Press, 528 pp., $35.00
Among classical performers of the last half-century, only perhaps Arturo Tos- canini, Vladimir Horowitz, and Maria Callas were the subjects of as much adulation, controversy, and speculation as Glenn Gould. Even so, Gould’s popularity was different. He was part of a new era, and addressed a new audience. Coming along at a time when music conservatories and piano contests were producing increasing numbers of pianists of indistinguishable proficiency and uniform style, Gould seemed both to produce his own unique sound and also to appeal to a new audience of listeners. Claiming a taste for his playing, like the fashion for Marshall McLuhan or for semiotics, became a sign of sophistication during the 1960s and 1970s.
His fame for a while was nearly comparable to Elvis’s—a Gould recording of a Bach prelude and fugue was launched into space on Voyager in 1977 to instruct aliens about human culture, should they ever be able to decipher how to turn on the spacecraft’s phonograph. Since Gould’s death in 1982, caused by a stroke shortly after his fiftieth birthday, his prestige seems only to have grown. A 1990s reissue of his 1955 recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations sold nearly two million copies, a virtually unheard-of number for a serious classical album. That recording has since been repackaged once again and become another best seller.
Kevin Bazzana’s Wondrous Strange, following books like Geoffrey Payzant’s semi-official biography of 1978 and Otto Friedrich’s fine, authorized biography from 1989, is the best account so far of his life: lucid, balanced, intelligent, and wide-ranging. Like Gould a resident of Canada, Bazzana concentrates on Gould’s Canadian origins. He investigates Gould’s medical history (Gould was a hypochondriac whose worst fears came true). He analyzes Gould’s radio and television productions for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, in which he exper- imented with contrapuntal speech and which he took as seriously as his musical recordings. And he reviews the Gould discography in some detail.
The book joins an already vast industry. A French scholar has cataloged Gould’s physical tics and proposed a study of his eyebrow move-ments. There are poems and feature films about Gould, novels inspired by him. There are traders in Gould’s scores and memorabilia; Web sites and fan clubs; dances choreographed to his peculiar stage mannerisms and to his recorded performances; soundtracks of movies using his Goldberg recording. There is a Glenn Gould Foundation, a Glenn Gould Prize, a Glenn Gould Park, and music composed in his honor. A tourist industry in Toronto caters to pilgrims wishing to glimpse the house in which he lived as a boy, his grade school, the hotel where he holed up in later years and kept in touch with friends through long late-night–early-morning monologues on the telephone, and even the diners where, sometimes during the middle of the night, he would take his only meal of the day, by himself.
As for his playing, among recorded pianists only Horowitz, whom …