Glenn Gould and the Pianos He Played

Glenn Gould, born in 1932 in Toronto, was not just a pianist; he was a phenomenon in the world of classical music. Although Gould’s repertoire spanned from the Renaissance to the 20th century, he is best remembered for his interpretations of Johann Sebastian Bach. Equally intriguing as his musical interpretations was his deep relationship with the pianos he played. This article dives into that relationship, shedding light on the instruments that became a part of Gould’s sonic journey.

A Personal Relationship with the Instrument

The Gould Touch

When it comes to piano playing, every pianist has a unique touch and tone. Gould’s touch was particularly distinct, characterized by clarity, precision, and an ability to make intricate textures and lines transparent. Such a touch required an instrument that would respond to his specific needs.

Bench statue of Glenn Gould in front of CBC building, Toronto
Image by mtsrs (Flickr), Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license

The Quest for the Perfect Instrument

Gould was known for his meticulous nature, both in his musical interpretations and in his search for the perfect instrument. His piano choices reflected not only his musical preferences but also his physical comfort. He was often seen hunched over the keyboard, sitting very low, on a chair his father made for him when he was a child. This unique posture required a piano with a responsive action that would suit his particular approach.

The Steinway CD 318

Gould’s relationship with the Steinway CD 318 is legendary. Originally manufactured in 1945, this piano caught Gould’s attention in 1960. What made the CD 318 special was its light action, allowing the keys to be pressed with minimal effort, a feature that perfectly complemented Gould’s style.

He once stated, “This particular piano has a very distinct sound, which to my way of thinking is also the best, perhaps the only, good sound that a modern Steinway produces.”

However, this relationship was not without its challenges. Gould had the piano extensively modified by his trusted technician, Verne Edquist, to suit his preferences. These modifications included adjusting the action and voicing the hammers to produce a clearer, brighter sound.

Over the years, the Steinway CD 318 became Gould’s preferred instrument for both recordings and performances. This is the very piano on which he recorded his iconic 1981 rendition of Bach’s “Goldberg Variations”.

The Chickering Piano

Before his attachment to the Steinway CD 318, Gould had a brief yet significant relationship with a Chickering piano. This American-made piano brand was quite popular in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

In the 1950s, during a recording session for the “Goldberg Variations”, Gould chose a Chickering over a Steinway, feeling that its distinct sound was more suitable for the nuances he wanted to capture in Bach’s music. While this relationship was short-lived, it underscores Gould’s willingness to explore different instruments to achieve his sonic vision.

Yamaha and Gould’s Exploration

In the latter part of his life, Gould began exploring pianos manufactured by Yamaha. His interest in Yamaha was piqued by their consistent manufacturing standards and the uniformity of their action. While he did not form as deep a bond with Yamaha pianos as he did with the Steinway CD 318, it’s worth noting that he played and praised them, especially when he was recording works by 20th-century composers.

Sound and Technology

Gould was not just limited to the acoustic properties of the piano. He was fascinated by the possibilities that technology brought to the world of music. This included his experiments with recording techniques and even his brief exploration of the Yamaha Disklavier, an early player piano that could record and play back performances. Such was his forward-thinking approach to both instruments and the evolution of music.

The Legacy of Gould’s Pianos

The pianos Glenn Gould played became more than just instruments; they were collaborators in his musical journey. Today, his preferred Steinway CD 318 stands as a testament to this relationship, preserved at the National Library of Canada in Ottawa.

For aspiring pianists and Gould enthusiasts, these pianos provide a tangible connection to the maestro’s legacy. They serve as reminders that the bond between a musician and their instrument is deeply personal, reflecting both their artistic vision and their individual quirks.

In conclusion, Glenn Gould’s relationship with his pianos offers a profound insight into the mind of a genius. It demonstrates that the quest for perfection in art often extends beyond the notes on a page, enveloping every aspect of the artistic process, including the very tools used to bring the music to life.

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