What would Glenn Gould’s playing have sounded like if he hadn’t chomped his way through bucketloads of Valium? It’s not a question that is asked in Genius Within, a much-praised documentary about the tortured Canadian pianist that has just been released in Britain.
What would Glenn Gould’s playing have sounded like if he hadn’t chomped his way through bucketloads of Valium? It’s not a question that is asked in Genius Within, a much-praised documentary about the tortured Canadian pianist that has just been released in Britain. But perhaps it should have been. In the nine months before his death at the age of 50 in 1982, Gould consumed more than 2,000 pills of every variety. His self-medication is admittedly one of the most famous things about him, but unless you’ve tried some of the tranquillisers he took — and, as it happens, I have — it’s hard to grasp how profoundly they mess with your consciousness.
Gould was a shameless ‘doctor-shopper’, signing up to several GPs simultaneously, extracting a script from one and then phoning another to obtain a different bunch of pills without mentioning the previous prescription. One dreads to think what he would have got up to if he’d lived long enough to discover internet pharmacies. He treated his bathroom cabinet like a box of Quality Street and was also keen to try out other people’s medications — never a good sign. He took tranquillisers to control his hypochondria, but to say that they didn’t work is an understatement.
There’s footage in Genius Within of Gould singing Mahler to the elephants at Toronto Zoo, one of those tiresome zany tricks that he inflicted on Canadian television viewers after he suddenly stopped giving concerts. But more revealing of the real man is the fact that just before the filming he warned the producer that he was suffering from five of the six symptoms of ‘sub-clinical polio’ and if the sixth appeared he’d have to pull out. (It didn’t.)
Gould’s anxiety about his health was all-consuming. Kevin Bazzana’s Wondrous Strange, the best of the Gould biographies, describes someone whose terror of his own body ruined his life. The miracle is that the pills didn’t ruin his technique: the motor skills in his second recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, made just before he died, are as amazing as those he displayed in the whirlwind performance that made him world famous at the age of 23. But did the drugs poison his playing in some more subtle way?
I’ve always wondered why Glenn Gould doesn’t quite do it for me. There are a few recordings I love: the second Goldbergs, the Brahms Ballades, above all a transcription of the Prelude to Wagner’s Meistersinger in which the finger control and machine-gun trills conjure up the opening of a vast baroque partita. But then there are things I couldn’t bear to hear again, such as an Emperor Concerto with Stokowski in which Gould’s playing is so laboured that it leaves you exhausted. Anthony Tommasini, reviewing Genius Within for the New York Times, suggests that the ‘finger-tapping’ technique Gould was taught as a boy — in which each digit develops its own individual power — coupled with the low chair, deprived him of the fluency necessary for romantic concertos. Even in his supremely well-structured Bach there’s often the disconcerting hint of a manual typewriter — far more intrusive than his atonal humming, if you ask me. Uh-oh, here comes the inverted subject: tap, tap, tap. And, once you know about the pills, it’s hard to banish the suspicion that the obsessive quality of his musical argument owes something to barbiturates or benzodiazepines.
Withdrawing from concert life didn’t help, either. This is a minority view, but I find equally eccentric recordings by Olli Mustonen and (before he went totally off the rails) Ivo Pogorelich more satisfying because, even in the studio, there’s a sense of trying to win over an audience. Gould didn’t want to win anyone over. Despite his belief that he could reach people’s souls through perfectly spliced tapes, his loathing of audiences never really left him. He played not for himself but to himself. And, since he was such a desperately worried, lonely man, hearing those performances can induce an anxiety that lingers long after the recording has finished.
I was going to suggest that it might help to listen to Gould after taking some of his beloved Valium — but, actually, I’ve just tried that experiment and, no, it doesn’t help.