The Dogs of Pianist Glenn Gould
In the key of woof: pianist and animal lover extraordinaire
From the very beginning, Glenn Gould was different. Separate, unique, a child prodigy unlike any other, he began piano lessons with his mother at age three, having already demonstrated perfect pitch. Signs of his musical faculties surfaced even earlier. "When Glenn was three days old his fingers never stopped moving," recalled his father, Bert. "His arms would be swinging back and forth, his fingers going … and the doctor said, ‘That boy is going to be either a physician or a pianist.'"
As the world soon learned, it would be deprived of a virtuoso surgeon. But it would gain a superlative artist. By the age of 23, Glenn Gould had established himself as a rare and unparalleled pianist within the rarefied world of virtuoso pianists. This brilliant, proud-to-be-Canadian artist, indisputably one of our greatest musical minds, loved Bach, Beethoven, Byrd, Berg, Brahms and Barbra Streisand. He also loved a collie named Banquo, the last of a succession of canine companions that included Buddy, a spaniel, and Sir Nickolson of Garelocheed (more commonly known as Nicky), a handsome English Setter.
Glenn Gould was born into the comfortable middle-class Toronto home of a musical, churchgoing family on September 25, 1932, with Buddy already present in the household to welcome him. A good-natured only child with a steadfast opposition to animal cruelty, his consummate dedication to music from such an early age inevitably set him apart from his schoolmates. The precocious intellect and adult pursuits of prodigies frequently subject them to loneliness and isolation, and to these conditions Glenn Gould was no stranger. "By the time I was six," he once confessed with his customary sparkle of irony, "I made an important discovery, that I get along much better with animals than humans." All animals, but especially dogs, sheltered the burgeoning young genius whose repudiation of a "normal" childhood made him all the more vulnerable to the taunts of schoolyard bullies.
Not surprisingly, his best childhood friends were his pets, including the occasional wayward skunk captured at the family cottage on Lake Simcoe and a gathering of cows serenaded by young Glenn's impromptu vocal renditions of Mahler. His father recounted one tale with obvious delight: "He liked to sing to the cows. As a child at the cottage … he'd strike off on a bicycle. … So I'd take the car and maybe find him five miles away on the side of the road. And one day I came along and he was singing to a bunch of cows. They were all lined up inside the fence." Glenn later joked: "It was an extraordinarily touching occasion. … I really felt that a very special bond had been established. Certainly I've never encountered so attentive an audience before." Other interspecies adventures were duly reported in "The Daily Woof – The Animals Paper Etided [sic] by Glenn Gould," a single lead-pencilled issue of which survives in the archives of the National Library of Canada.
By the age of 12, Gould's preference for animal companionship found further artistic expression in the composition of a libretto in which the dominance of the human race was supplanted by an empire of animals. "In Act I," he recalled, "the entire human population was to be wiped out and in Act II they were to be replaced by a superior breed of frogs." (These for whom he had even composed a few bars of a chorus in the key of E major, despite an admitted "casting problem.")
Jessie Grieg, Glenn's cousin and closest confidante, believed: "His happiness came from his pets … They just loved and adored him, and he them. He loved to take the dog out to exercise him and he would start running in a circle and Nicky would follow behind him and run after him, and then he would work Nicky up to such a frantic pace that Nicky would become [over]excited." Some forty years on, the memory of what once happened still elicited laughter from Jessie. "One day he grabbed Glenn by the seat of the pants and pulled the whole rear end out of his pants, and Glenn fled into the house in just absolute horror."
Such embarrassing behavioural infractions notwithstanding, animals were the ideal audience, offering approval without applause (a vexing practice Gould once half-jokingly proposed to ban from his concerts), neither criticizing his unorthodox musical choices nor voicing objection to the performance mannerisms that some critics could not abide. In other words, dogs were unconditionally devotional, reliably nonjudgmental, and exhibited superior musical taste.
All of Gould's dogs were special to him: faithful, noblemannered Nick was a much loved and constant companion throughout his childhood and adolescence. Eventually, his collie Banquo assumed that role. Gould's long-time friend John P. L. Roberts explained: "Well, Glenn certainly identified with animals. I remember once we were driving down from Manitoulin Island, [and] we were playing a guessing game: ‘If you were a dog what sort of dog would you be?' And my sister was visiting from England, and she said immediately … ‘Glenn, you would be a collie dog.' And he turned around and looked at her and said: ‘You are my friend for life, because that's exactly what I am-a collie dog. Woof, woof!'" From his celebrated 1957 concert tour in the Soviet Union, he even penned a postcard to "Mr. Banquo Gould" at 32 Southwood Drive, Toronto:
Thought you might like to know about the dogs here. One sees very few indeed. Most of them were killed in the war and since then it seems to be considered very bourgeois to keep a pet. The most prevalent variety is a sort of unclipped poodle-a few mongrels and no collies whatsoever. You would have the field all to yourself if you were here. You would have been able to break up a cat fight outside my window this morning. Clean up your dish like a good dog. GG
Just two years later while on a walk with his father, the spirited collie dashed in front of a car and was killed. "He never had any pets later in his life," said Gould's close friend and assistant, Ray Roberts. "However, he ‘encouraged' me to adopt a dog from the local pound, which we kept for 15 years. The irony of this was that the dog and Glenn never got along!"
The intense aversion to cruelty that made Gould a virulent anti-hunter and anti-fisherman (frustrated locals glared at him over their limp fishing lines as he habitually sped his motorboat around Lake Simcoe to scare away the day's catch) also compelled him to refuse to work on the soundtrack of the movie The Wars until he was satisfied that no horses had been hurt during the production. For fellow animal lovers, these and other stories (about, for example, stray dogs he rescued from the streets around the old CBC broadcasting studios in downtown Toronto) stand in counterpoint to Gould's rather unfairly rendered reputation as an eccentric.
Famously reclusive, Glenn Gould's withdrawal from the concert platform and his self confessed solitary nature were genuine, but should not be overstated. He was a cerebral, idiosyncratic loner, yet also a gifted communicator and in his own way an outgoing, fun loving human being whose warmth and humour attracted a worldwide circle of friends albeit one that he conducted with the dexterity of a maestro through the distancing technology of the telephone.
Gould's equally famous hypochondria and avoidance of people with the slightest symptoms of a flu or cold had no parallel in his contact with animals. "He was such a contradiction," says June Faulkner, location manager of the 1979 TV special "Cities: Glenn Gould's Toronto." "Once he came to my house, rolled around on the floor with my Border Collie who coughed, wheezed and snuffled. Glenn loved it! But I gave a tiny sneeze and he was out the front door like a shot and bolted into his car, which had a telephone. He sat there in front of my house and we conducted our business by telephone." John McGreevy, director of the acclaimed series, confirmed good humouredly that whenever his friend came to visit, he would barely acknowledge the human guests before moving on to cavort with the dogs for the remainder of the evening.
One need not be a dog to be a Glenn Gould devotee. Few listeners or observers of his performances can resist his tow. It draws you into a place that both transcends and merges with the interior realms of the music, producing a paradoxical condition of detachment and communion. In this sublime "state of wonder and serenity," as he called it, his expressions mirror his ecstasy-"a reaching toward God," as John Roberts put it and I see something comparable, a similar purity of spirit, in the photos of Glenn Gould as a child with his arm draped around a beloved dog. Beaming from that radiant boyish face is an unadulterated, openhearted, munificent joy. With animals, as with his music, Glenn Gould was free to be his uncensored self.
The last dated letter in the National Library's Gould collection is a response to a request for permission to use his music. He wrote: "I'd be delighted to have you make use of the Bach C Major Prelude and Fugue in your film. As it happens, animal welfare is one of the great passions of my life, and if you'd asked to use my entire recorded output in support of such a cause, I couldn't possibly have refused."
Toward the end of his life, he talked often about his dream to buy land on Manitoulin Island on northern Lake Huron where he could establish an animal sanctuary. According to Ray Roberts, it was Gould's idea of an "ideal existence. … The ‘Puppy Farm' was his vision of a place where all lost, stray and sick animals would be welcome."
It was not to be. Two days after his fiftieth birthday in 1982, Glenn Gould suffered a massive stroke and slipped into a coma. He died a week later on October 4, the saint's day of Francis of Assisi, patron of animals and animal welfare societies. Gould had bequeathed his considerable estate in equal portions to the Salvation Army and the Toronto Humane Society.
I asked Amy White, Director of Communications for the Humane Society, how important the Glenn Gould endowment was for them and what it continues to mean for the organization. "Thanks to the bequest in Glenn Gould's will, we have been able to do a lot for animals. We continue to receive royalties and we rely heavily on this ongoing funding. It enables us to help more than 12,000 animals a year." The Toronto Humane Society cares for all types of animal and, contrary to popular belief, does not euthanize the unfortunates who remain unadopted. "Without the continuing help of Glenn Gould's generous gift, it would be very difficult for us."
In the years since Glenn Gould's death, the ever-increasing popularity of his 80-plus recordings have ensured him iconic status. With the triple-CD re-release of his two landmark versions of Bach's Goldberg Variations reaching number one on the classical charts last year, Gould's musical legacy not only endures, but continues to benefit animals through his lifelong commitment to their well-being. He would, I think, be gratified to know that each time one of his recordings is sold, another dog is sheltered. ■
For the past three years Birgitte Jørgensen has been possessed by a compulsion to write an interpretive book about Glenn Gould, which she hopes to complete before his centennial in 2032. She lives in Toronto with her husband and their adored Maltese-born Labrador, Batai, whose tail-wagging meter affirms his preference for Gould over all other pianists.
To learn more about Glenn Gould, see www.glenngould.com or visit the Glenn Gould Foundation at www.glenngould.ca. Founded in 1995 and with members in 36 countries, Friends of Glenn Gould is a society for people who share an interest in Gould's visionary ideas and artistic accomplishments and who wish to further the world's exploration of them.