A neurotic at the keyboard

Glenn Gould

March 13, 1998

This is the third major biography of the Canadian pianist Glenn Gould, who died at 50 in 1982. In it, the psychiatrist Peter F. Ostwald attempts to conduct a psychiatric and psychological study of Gould's character and to account for the numerous eccentricities in his personal behaviour that have attracted almost as much attention as his transcendental pianism.

Ostwald knew Gould as a friend for 20 years and his book is illuminated by recollections of a relationship that was rarely easy. Their first meeting took place in 1957, when Gould was two years into a successful international career and already displaying the disenchantment with the concert scene that was to lead to his premature retirement in 1964. Thereafter, Gould would make only recordings, broadcasts and a series of radio programmes featuring the use of simultaneous voices ("contrapuntal radio"); a legacy that has caused him to be hailed posthumously as a prophet of the technological age.

Gould's personality was complex and often contradictory. He tended to summon up elaborate literary smokescreens for decisions that were the product of deep-seated neuroses. Ostwald seeks to locate the roots of these behavioural patterns in Gould's childhood, focusing in particular on his close relationship with his mother, although he suggests the possibility of an underlying psychiatric disorder such as Asperger disease (a form of autism associated with social withdrawal, obsessive behaviour and fear of certain physical objects, which may sometimes be allied to exceptional creative talent.) Before he was born, Gould's mother had determined that her child would be a famous musician and deliberately exposed him to musical stimuli in the womb. She set him to the piano as soon as he could sit up. The child who developed from this hothouse atmosphere was infused with a strict middle-class morality.

Intensely solitary from an early age and conditioned by his mother's fears for his health, Gould sought throughout his career to react to unfamiliar or threatening situations by recreating the trappings of his childhood environment. His favoured "piano chair" had been fashioned by his father just before Gould made his debut recording of Bach's "Goldberg" Variations in 1955; Gould continued to use it even when the seat had fallen away to leave the bare boards and his entire weight consequently rested on his perineum (which may have accounted for his constant, unfounded worries about his prostate.) Likewise, he insisted that the temperature maintained a stuffy, draught-free continuum and that his piano was regulated to an ultra-precise specification recalling his beloved Chickering instrument at the family cottage on Lake Simcoe.

Gould reacted to situations over which he had less than complete control with alarm; when recording a television interview with Yehudi Menuhin in 1966 he insisted on writing a script of preordained responses for Menuhin to declaim in feigned spontaneity.

Gould claimed to be assailed by a bewildering range of illnesses and injuries, the majority of which are accounted for by Ostwald as being psychosomatic in origin. He developed a bizarre litany of self-diagnoses on the basis of his highly limited medical knowledge ("sub-clinical polio", a "concussion" from touching a microphone stand) and made a habit of using potentially addictive sedatives such as Nembutal and Bevutal. In his relationships with physicians, Gould seems less concerned with objective diagnosis and treatment than with the confirmation of his own fears and the acquisition of further drugs. Ostwald himself was approached by Gould with a view to obtaining his complicity in this; he refused. Gould underwent brief periods of psychoanalysis in 1955 but his reticence prevented the development of a productive analytic relationship.

After his abandonment of the concert platform, Gould retreated into a self-imposed, claustrophobic exile. He became virtually nocturnal, rising at about 4pm and working through the night. His single meal of the day consisted of scrambled eggs, salad, toast and tea. In his personal relationships, Gould's distaste for physical contact led to his reliance on the telephone as a means of social intercourse. Some of his friends knew Gould only through the medium of these long monologues in the small hours. Unable to tolerate criticism or disagreement, Gould would abruptly drop from his acquaintance those who sought more than he was prepared to give and yet he would make ceaseless demands on others. His happiest relationships were with working associates who accepted their subordinacy, such as technicians Lorne Tulk and Ray Roberts. In the years following his mother's death in 1975, Gould seems to have lost his sense of direction both personally and professionally; his fatal stroke occurred when his life's work (as signalled by his re-recording of the "Goldberg" Variations) had achieved an oddly prescient sense of symmetry and completeness.

Much of the information will be familiar to readers of Otto Friedrich's authorised biography of 1989. The strength of Ostwald's treatment lies in his sympathetic and even-handed appraisal of Gould's character and actions, without reducing them to a hypothetical set of psychiatric diagnoses. As such, his study is of value not only to the musical and psychiatric communities, but also to all who endeavour to understand the phenomenon of the neurotic as artist.

John Kersey is a junior fellow, Royal College of Music.

Glenn Gould: The Ecstasy and the Tragedy of Genius

Author - Peter F. Ostwald
ISBN - 0 393 04077 1
Publisher - W. W. Norton
Price - £20.00
Pages - 368

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