Author Peter Goddard
Author Peter Goddard

Peter Goddard Delivers 'The Great Gould'

Award winning arts and entertainment writer and musician Peter Goddard is back on book shelves with The Great Gould, a slim, exhaustively researched 161-page biography that in places offers a quietly personal account of the eccentric Canadian pianist.


Holding a Master’s degree in music from the U of T, Goddard could have chosen to provide a fresh accounting of the man’s recorded works. Instead, he offers a wider canvas of Gould as documentarian, broadcaster, musician, a man of ideas and innovation, and an explanation as to why he chose to make his recording debut with the Goldberg Variations. There's even a slim reference to Gould having being something of a lady’s man.

With over 80 books already published about Gould by various authors and academics, including a graphic novel, Goddard's own edition covers a lot of ground referencing earlier published works about Glenn Herbert Gould, son of Florence and Bert (Robert) Gold.

His mother was a distant relative of Norwegian composer and pianist Edvard Grieg, and his father a music instructor at what was then known as the Toronto Conservatory of Music (later taking on the designation of ‘Royal’).

His childhood in the Beaches district of Toronto was uneventful, although his musical abilities were spotted early. He started playing piano at age three and performed his first recital at age 13. The family was to change its name to Gould during the war years in the 1940s, and their son at various times was to spell his Christian name with one, two and three n’s.

Goddard has done his homework and cites various authors own thoughts and details about the Canadian icon. He has also combed the National Archives, the CBC archives, had access to the Gould Estate’s substantial collection of materials and interviewed an extensive list of people who had contact with Gould during his short life.

He died at age 50 after suffering a massive stroke on September 27 and died from its complications on October 4, 1982,. Over the course of his career he performed 200 concerts between 1937 and 1964 when a quit the public stage, and left a legacy of over 60 recordings for what is now known as CBS Masterworks/Sony Classical.

Goddard infuses the narrative with his meetings with Gould, at the CBC where the author worked and Gould recorded documentaries and radio shows in his early years, and later interviewing him on several occasions as part of his beat as a music journalist.

Like Goddard, I am curious to see how Gould buffs will accept his informal life and times story about the man. Praised or not, there can be no discounting the value it holds in having solidly researched sources. In places, the research can overwhelm the casual reader, but The Great Gould’s great saving grace is when Goddard pushes aside his voluminous notes and writes from the heart.

It is in these passages that the colour of the man appears and make no mistake, the author is intrigued by the extraordinariness of the man whose interests reached far beyond the keyboard.

“As far as we know,” Goddard writes on page 94, “(Elvis) Presley’s and Gould’s paths never crossed. A media-mediated symbiotic relationship existed between the two of them, however, which extended beyond their dependencies on pills, mothers, and domineering personal managers, their night-crawling work habits, and their inner circles of hard-core loyal friends. Like Gould, Presley had the hermit’s need for sanctuary in the studio, where his genius, every bit the equal of the pianist’s, harnessed the full potential of playbacks and editing to sharpen and refine even the most thrown-off sounding ‘uh-huh.’”

He continues: “The degree their sexuality was groomed for media consumption was another shared attribute.”

Elsewhere he writes, “With early jazz, Earl Hines and Art Tatum displayed technical and emotional range rivalled by only a few of the greatest classical soloists of the day.

“Gould seemed a part of all this, part of all piano playing, not just classical piano playing; his blistering attack was pure jazz in its intensity, his stage presence pure theatre.”

There are also a few amusing stories and anecdotes, such as one about a cash-strapped Leonard Cohen interviewing Gould early in the poet’s career, and some fascinating notions about the pianist shared by Canadian composer, writer and pianist John Beckwith who knows the author and knew the subject.

The story Goddard spins is very much rooted in his Canadianness, referencing Cohen, Beckwith, R. Murray Schafer, Walter Homburger, Robert Fulford, Marshall McLuhan, Gordon Lightfoot, Chilly Gonzales, legendary broadcaster and one-time CBC Radio Drama head Andrew Allan, and international luminaries that include Leonard Bernstein, Rudolf Serkin, Andrew Kuzdin, and Harold C. Schonberg.

Amusing at times, expansive, exhaustive and not stingy in its use of photographs, The Great Gould has its release in a year in which Gould would have celebrated his 85th birthday and Canada celebrates its 150th birthday.

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