Most everyone who is even tangentially around classical music knows the basics of the life of Glenn Gould: Brilliant pianist, Canadian, recluse, Bach specialist, highly eccentric, quit playing concerts at 30, only recorded after that, descended into a pill-laden hypochondria, died at 50 of a stroke.
But even piano fans know little more than that.
A documentary film that just opened at the Angelika Film Center, Genius Within: The Inner Life of Glenn Gould, directed by Michele Hozer and Peter Raymont, goes a long way towards filling out the details of his very strange life.
In typical documentary style, there are interviews with friends and colleagues, both the well-known and the relatively obscure. Big name musicians range from pianist/conductor Vladimir Ashkenazy and Jamie Laredo to Petula Clark. His scandalous affair with the wife of composer Lukas Foss is explored with Cornelia Foss herself. Her children, Christopher and Eliza, are also interviewed about the bizarre years of their childhood when their mother packed them up, left their father and moved to Toronto to move in with Gould.
She moved back some years later, and the impact of that reversal on the children is also explored. The singer Roxolana Roslak also talks candidly about her equally disreputable affair with Gould.
Video clips from various historical documentaries, personal videos, studio outtakes and recorded concerts alternate with the interviews.
These are fascinating because you can see his disintegration from boyishly handsome 23 year old, with a mop of curls dangling on his forehead, to a gaunt and haunted man looking old beyond his years. He accented his thinning hair by slicking it back and letting his sideburns grow wild bushy. He would dress in a wool overcoat, scarf and gloves even in the summer. He had few friends, and they only remained so out of shear determination. Yet, thousands attended his funeral and his recordings still sell today.
But mostly, this film is about the music and Gould’s unconventional approach to what he played.
The concert and studio clips are riveting. Gould sat on a small beat-up chair that he carried around with him to every concert. This placed him very low to the piano, with his knobby knees almost hitting the underneath of the keyboard. His long thin arms are bent and equally long fingers reach down for the keys. Watching him, you are reminded of a praying mantis as he hunches over the instrument.
His playing was so clean and perfect that it almost sounded like some mechanical device was doing the work instead of a human. He notoriously sang along and you can hear him clearly on many of his recordings. His tempi were also controversial. There is a famous clip of Leonard Bernstein speaking before a performance with Gould and the New York Philharmonic of the Brahms Concerto No. 1, disavowing what was to come. Bernstein disagreed with Gould completely, but decided to let him play it as he wished, but felt he had to say something before the performance began.
The movie runs a little long (just under two hours) and could have benefited from some more editing, but it is as good a biopic and you are likely to see about anyone who eschewed the public.
It’s a must for classical music fans, but also an excellent study of the desultory effects of obsession on a genius in any field of endeavor.