Originally published on Torontoist on March 26, 2009.
Pianist Glenn Gould receives watch from Mayor Nathan Phillips in the Council Chambers, Old City Hall, 1956. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 3071.
Pianist Glenn Gould’s career was riding high in early 1956. His recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations was released in January and soon became the top-selling classical album in Columbia Records’ catalogue. A sold-out recital at Massey Hall on April 16 was a triumph, with critics and the audience applauding loudly. As the Telegram’s George Kidd noted in his review of the performance the following day, “It would seem that no longer is Mr. Gould a pianist with considerable promise. He is a mature genius in interpretation, technique, and musical excitement.”
As a salute to his talent, the city decided to present Gould with an engraved watch to honour the achievements of the twenty-three-year-old musician. Gould received his watch from Mayor Nathan Phillips during a Board of Control meeting two days after his performance.
Pianist Glenn Gould receives watch from Mayor Nathan Phillips in the Council Chambers, Old City Hall, 1956. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 3069.
The Toronto Star, who took responsibility for inspiring city officials to honour Gould through an article in its Star Weekly magazine, paid tribute to the recipient’s eccentricities in an April 20 editorial:
Is man, the individual, on the way out? If you think he is and that his place is being taken by a dull automaton named “mass man” who is conditioned to absolute conformity, consider for a moment Glenn Gould, the 23-year-old Toronto pianist whom critics call a genius.
Even on the hottest day in the summer this young man may be seen wearing an overcoat, galoshes, a wool beret and two pairs of gloves. He swallows handfuls of vitamin tablets and other pills and bathes his hands in warm water before playing. At the piano he slumps over until his hair tangles with the keys. He sings and hums while playing the most intricate Bach and Beethoven compositions, or stamps his feet in time to the music.
In an age where even artists are supposed to be “normal” and as ordinary as the man on the street, Glenn Gould triumphantly affirms that man’s spirit remains free. Long may he flourish and may he never conform!
Conform he never did. The city later made a lasting tribute to Gould by naming a park at Avenue Road and St. Clair Avenue after him.
Here’s half-an-hour of Glenn Gould discussing J.S. Bach.