This week sees the 30th anniversary of the death (or ‘untimely death’, as death is now invariably known) of Glenn Gould. The fame of most classical musicians tends to wither when they die, but Gould’s seems to grow and grow: his grave is the most visited in Canada, he has appeared on The Simpsons, and not long ago in its apparently straight-faced list of The 100 Most Important Canadians in History, Maclean’s magazine ranked him the No. 1 artist in the world. Such posthumous blossoming makes him rather closer to a rock star, which is, in all but the most literal sense, what he was. In fact, he makes most of today’s rock stars look doggedly conventional. He hated Mozart, sunshine and Italian opera, and loved tomato ketchup, overcast skies and Petula Clark. He was a rabid hypochondriac, taking a briefcase of pills, a bottle of disinfectant and a blood-pressure kit with him wherever he went: he once hung up the phone when he heard his friend sneeze on the other end of the line.
When he still performed in public — he grew to hate audiences, describing them as ‘a force for evil’ — Gould refused to wear the customary white tie and tails, preferring to appear in scruffy clothes and mismatched socks, his shoes held together by rubber bands. He would then play his piano from his special low chair, sitting just 14 inches from the ground, so that his knees were a good deal higher than his buttocks. Thirty years on, his fame has increased but for some reason his influence hasn’t. Classical musicians remain studiously starchy. One might have expected Gould’s influence to have liberated them, but far from it: the pious aura of the Sunday school still hangs over classical concerts. We should be grateful, though, that, in at least one area his influence has been so negligible.