Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Music History Monday: In a Class by Himself

Glenn Herbert Gould (born “Gold,” 1932-1982) circa 1955
Glenn Herbert Gould (born “Gold,” 1932-1982) circa 1955

We mark the birth on September 25, 1932 – 91 years ago today – of the pianist Glenn Herbert Gold, in Toronto, Canada.  (Yes, the surname on “Glenn Gould’s” birth certificate is “Gold.”  When the young guy was seven years old his family began informally using the surname “Gould,” though Glenn himself never formally changed his name from “Gold” to “Gould.”)  He died there in Toronto on October 4, 1982, at the age of fifty.

Superlatives Cut Two Ways!

I would observe that ordinarily, when we refer to someone as being “in a class by themselves,” it is usually understood as a compliment: that someone is “one of a kind”; “unique”; “sui generis”; “without equal”; sans pareil”; and so forth.

But in fact, superlatives such as these can cut two ways, and are consequently not necessarily complimentary in their entirety.  

For example.

Tyrus Raymond “Ty” Cobb (1886-1961) in 1913
Tyrus Raymond “Ty” Cobb (1886-1961) in 1913

Tyrus Raymond “Ty” Cobb (1886-1961), the so-called “Georgia Peach” was – as I trust we all know – a baseball player during the Deadball Era (circa 1900-1920).  He was a transcendent baseball genius (as you know, I do not use the “g-word” – genius – lightly); he was truly “one of a kind”; “unique”; “sui generis”; “without equal.”  At the time of his retirement from baseball in 1928 he held over ninety major league records.  Today, 95 years later, he still holds a number of those records, including his lifetime batting average of .366 (which is the highest ever), most batting titles over a career (12), and for stealing home plate (which he did a total of 54 times).     

Cobb was also “one of a kind” for his demeanor both on and off the field.  As a player, intimidation was the name of his game, and he was a vicious – many even said “demonic” – competitor.  And while the story that he sharpened his spikes in order to injure opposing players may not be true, he was despised by most of his contemporaries for what were considered his head games, his cheap shots, and his generally unsportsmanlike play.  

Cobb sliding spikes-high into St. Louis Browns catcher Paul Krichell in 1912
Cobb sliding spikes-high into St. Louis Browns catcher Paul Krichell in 1912

Cobb was trouble wherever he went.  He was, despite the denials of apologists, a notorious racist. He assaulted a heckler named Claude Lucker in the stands at Hilltop Park in New York City, for which he was suspended.  (For our information, Hilltop Park was the nickname of a park in the Washington Heights section of Manhattan where the New York Yankees – then known as the “Highlanders” – played from 1903 to 1912.)

He got into drunken brawls in bars and in hotels and on the street, not infrequently spending the night after in a jail cell.  He once choked and beat the living daylights out of an umpire named Billy Evans after a game.  In June 1914, Cobb pleaded guilty to disturbing the peace after pulling out a revolver during an argument in a Detroit butcher shop, for which he was fined $50.  On August 13, 1912, Cobb was stabbed in the back during a street brawl before a game.  He refused to tell anyone what had happened and went on to play, going 2 for 3 with two singles and a run scored, raising his batting average to .418.

One of kind.

According to Benjamin Klein, writing in Bleacher Report in 2014:

“Ty Cobb is hands down the worst human being to ever play in Major League Baseball, and it’s not even that close. Cobb is the most hated baseball player of all time. Period.”

Ty Cobb was indeed “one of a kind”; “unique”; “sui generis”; “without equal” for reasons both very good and very bad. The same competitive ferocity that made him great also made him a most controversial player and human being!

Glenn Gould: “One of a Kind”

Glenn Gould in 1957, warming his always-cold hands and piano keys, in a photo by Yousuf Karsh
Glenn Gould in 1957, warming his always-cold hands and piano keys, in a photo by Yousuf Karsh

Which brings us to our remarkable birthday boy, Glenn Gould.  Like Tyrus Cobb, Gould was a complicated and contrary man of preternatural talent and abilities, “one of a kind”; “unique”; “sui generis”; “without equal” for reasons both very good and not so very good

Let us state for the record up front that Glenn Gould never brandished a gun in a butcher shop or routinely sucker-punched people in bars.  Nevertheless, his shamelessly bad attitude towards the music of Mozart, Chopin, Liszt, and Schumann is, to my mind, the musical equivalent of sliding – sharpened cleats high – into the face of a catcher.  

Admittedly, not one of us is perfect, and each of us carries a bit of Mr. Hyde within us; we are, after all, only human.  But Glenn Gould’s genius for piano, like Ty Cobb’s for baseball, was a function of both a good side and a frankly self-destructive side.  Our job, for the duration of this post, will be to observe the quirks, complexities, and emotional darkness that drove Glenn Gould to become the “one of a kind” that he was. 

Know that we will return to Glenn Gould in Dr. Bob Prescribes next week, on October 3.…

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