A Fiction about Glenn Gould: Part I

The new film, Genius Within: The Inner life of Glenn Gould by Michèle Hozer and Peter Raymont, contains a sequence about the extraordinary impact Glenn Gould had on the musical scene in Moscow and Leningrad in 1957 when he was twenty five. The following story, which has never been published, deals with an imaginary consequence of it.

It was not every day that I received a phone call from the Soviet ambassador.

“You mentioned the other day,” he opened the conversation, sounding like a bass singing Boris Godunov slightly off key, “that you know Glenn Gould. You may remember we met at the French embassy.”

“Of course I remember.”

In the spring of 1961 I found it useful, for a number of reasons not relevant to this story, to get myself invited to events on the diplomatic cocktail circle in Ottawa.

“I hope you don’t think it is an imposition,” the ambassador continued, “if I ask for your help. A lady arrived a couple of days ago from Moscow who wishes to meet Glenn Gould. This is in fact the only purpose of her trip, to meet Glenn Gould. Her name is Tatyana Yaminskaya. The name may ring a bell.”

“Is she by any chance related to Dmitri Yaminsky?”

“The mother.”

I had a vision of the Ukrainian peasant face of Mrs. Krushchev

I can’t carry a tune but I happen to know quite a lot about music. Dmitri Yaminsky is a superb young Soviet pianist, a couple of years younger than Glenn and often compared with him, well known for his recording of the Glazunov concerto, which is hardly ever played in the West. Glenn mentioned meeting Dmitri just before the end of his two-week tour in the USSR four years ago, in 1957, a tour, I might add, which has become a legend. It was the first time a pianist from North America performed in the USSR since the death of Stalin four years earlier. It was a magical occasion.

“Tatyana Yaminskaya,” the ambassador went on, “is now on her way to Toronto where she will be staying at the Windsor Arms Hotel. The lady would not have received permission to make this trip if she wasn’t the widow of a senior official and is very well connected in the highest circles.”

“May I ask…”

The ambassador did not let me finish the question. “The lady came here in a state of acute consternation. Apparently soon after Glenn Gould’s tour Dmitri had a nervous collapse. There was fear of suicide. But he recovered, with some help from the doctors, and started playing again, though not with the same energy and brilliance. But now he has had another collapse. His mother is desperate. She will grasp at any straw. One of his psychiatrists suggested a phone call from Glenn Gould, or perhaps a personal letter, might be invaluable to help him become himself again.”

“I see,” I said, without much enthusiasm. “This seems rather unlikely, don’t you think?”

“I am not a psychiatrist,” the ambassador said gruffly. “By the way, the lady used to be an English teacher. Language will not be a problem.”

“Good.” I tried to sound positive. “Of course I will do all I can.”

“That will be a great service, also to your country. You may remember that your government was heavily involved in organizing Glenn Gould’s tour in 1957.”

I was grateful to the Soviet ambassador for reminding me of my obligations as a Canadian patriot.

The next day, after breakfast, I called the hotel. Tatyana Yaminskaya had arrived the evening before but was unavailable. So I left a message at the desk. After an hour she called. I suggested I visit her in the afternoon.

“I don’t suppose you could come right away?”

Her English was indeed amazing.

“If you prefer.”

I was immensely relieved to discover that Tatyana was the precise opposite of Mrs. Krushchev. She had sparkling blue eyes, a wonderful complexion and a warm, winning smile, and wore an elegant dark blue dress and three rows of pearls. She looked like a movie star in a French film playing a grand duchess at the turn of the century.

Tatyana took me to the Courtyard Café, the large, tree-shaded patio in the back where a few guests were having a late breakfast. She ordered tea.

“It is very good of you to assist me in my painful task,” she said, “I appreciate it very much. No doubt you have better things to do.”

I told her I was pleased to make this my priority but Glenn was a notoriously difficult man and I was by no means sure that I could arrange a meeting. At the moment he was at his cottage on Lake Simcoe, anyway.

“Oh,” she said, frowning heavily. “How terrible. The ambassador told me he was in Toronto.”

“I am sorry,” was all I could say.

“This is a heavy, heavy blow. I cannot stay longer than five days.”

“I am quite prepared to drive you to his cottage there. But I can assure you he will not receive you.”

I explained to her that Glenn is a fanatic about his privacy. He insists on being left alone with his dog. He will see nobody.

“How far is it?”

“It would take us less than three hours, depending on the traffic.”

“I would not want to waste your time,” she said, “unless we had his agreement to receive me beforehand. I understand my ambassador has told you why I have come. My son could be a younger brother of your friend. Also a child prodigy. A genius, everybody says. But these are words I avoid because they are so imprecise. I prefer to say that Dmitri is exceptionally gifted and exceptionally sensitive and, alas, fragile. I don’t know anything about Canadian literature, but Dmitri’s head is full of Dostoevsky. I hope your Canadian authors are more cheerful.”

“I would think they probably are,” I smiled.

“You must think that I am on – I just learned this idiom – ‘on a wild goose chase.’ I don’t blame you. You weren’t in Moscow and Leningrad when Glenn Gould appeared, like the first musician to land on Mars. The standards for the best piano playing in the USSR had been set by Sviatoslav Richter, Emil Gilels, Radu Lupu and by my son. But we had never heard and seen a phenomenon like Glenn Gould, so original, so captivating, so intensely serious, so deep, so ecstatic, so radical. Dmitri came closest.”

“You were unprepared?” I asked. “You had not heard his recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations?”

“No. We are less isolated than we used to be but we still live in another world. Not only was his Bach a revelation but the moderns on his programs were entirely new to us, people like Schönberg who had been taboo. We had only read about them, but that was all. Especially the young people, musicians like Dmitri. For them all this was earth-shaking. My son was thrown off balance, totally. With horrible consequences. I was frightened to death. He said what was the point of struggling on, in a world which had produced Glenn Gould, in some obscure place on the other side of the planet no one had ever heard about? He would never be able to reach such heights. And then I found the draft of a suicide note on his desk – waiter, some more tea, please.”

I said nothing because there was nothing I could say. The one admittedly irreverent thought I had I could hardly reveal, namely, did I really need this? Why didn’t I kill this project in the bud the moment I heard about it and tell the ambassador, ‘Sorry, Your Excellency, I don’t think I can help. I don’t know Glenn Gould well enough.’ Which was entirely true. Hardly anybody did. The new English idiom Tatyana had just learned – ‘wild goose chase’ – seemed to me entirely appropriate to describe her mission.

“If I phone him, he won’t answer,” I said. “He never answers. He wants to be left alone. He may not phone me for weeks, and then only in the middle of the night, in the small hours, at two or three o’clock in the morning. And keep me on the phone for an hour when all I want is go back to sleep.”

The waiter brought a new teapot.

I wanted to repeat to her what I had already told the ambassador, namely that, even if in the end we did get through to him and he complied with her request, I could not imagine anything Glenn could convey to her son would change her son’s mind. But fortunately I stopped myself. Who was I to say this? I didn’t know Dmitri. Obviously she thought otherwise or she wouldn’t be here.

“Do you know of anybody who visits him?,” she asked. “Under the circumstances, could that not be our best approach? We might just go along and hope for the best.”

“That’s an excellent idea,” I exclaimed. “Why didn’t I think of it? It’s certainly worth trying. You have to give me a little time.” I was getting excited. “Let me see what I can do. I will go home and do some phoning and get back to you in an hour. At the minimum I am sure you can probably meet them. It’s better than nothing. Something may occur to you while they talk which might help you.”

“I don’t see how. What I need is Glenn Gould himself. But I suppose you are right. One never knows.”

I went to my place and phoned his agent, Hans Rosenbaum, his oldest friend, Stuart Macdonald, and Mrs. Gould. I told them that the mother of Dmitri Yaminisky was in town, that she was beautiful and hoped to see Glenn. She had heard him in Moscow and had little time. Were they intending to go up to Lake Simcoe during the next day or two and could they be persuaded to take her and me along? None of them said yes, but they all wanted to meet this beautiful Russian lady. Very few visitors from the Soviet Union had arrived in Toronto in recent years.

We went to see Glenn’s manager, Hans Rosenbaum, firs, in his basement office at home, just north of St. Clair Avenue West. Hans was in his early thirties, handsome, not tall, well groomed, just two or three years older than Glenn who was thirty this year. They were good friends. Hans was a refugee from Nazi Germany and Glenn his first client. He had taken him on immediately after hearing his first Bach recital at the Royal Conservatory and since then struck gold.

“I’ve heard your son’s recording of the Glazunov concerto,” Hans said to Tanyana after we had taken our seats. “It’s superb. I hope he’ll soon be able to play in the West.”

“So do I,” she sighed. “Things are gradually loosening up but Dmitri is passing through a difficult phase.”

“Oh, I’m used to ‘difficult phases,’” Hans laughed. “It seems you can’t be a great pianist without going through a ‘difficult phase’ once in a while. Just ask Horovitz’s agent!”

“Perhaps you can tell us a little about Glenn’s troubles, Hans,” I said. “That is bound to help Mrs. Yaminskaya see her son in a new perspective.”

“Glenn has serious health problems, both real and imagined. He is terrified of germs. He will not shake hands with anybody and cannot abide anybody touching him. No room is ever warm enough for him. Even at the height of summer he wears an overcoat and a woolen scarf, and at least one pair of gloves. He has to soak his hands in warm water for twenty minutes before he touches the piano. He is an insomniac. He suffers from stomach cramps, severe head aches, frequently recurring colds. He has the terrible habit of cancelling concerts at the last moment. Flying is an ordeal. Most hotels are. He cannot abide air-conditioning. Surely Dmitri isn’t as bad as that!”

Tatyana inspected her fingernails.

“Yes – and no,” she said.

Hans was not sure what she meant so he went on.

Glenn is never satisfied unless he plays alone and nobody listens. His performances in public always leave him frustrated, dissatisfied, unhappy. He can’t bear it if anybody he knows is in the concert audience. How about Dmitri? Does he behave like that?”

“Before he heard Glenn Gould,” Tatyana replied, “he wasn’t too bad. Moody and often depressed, yes, up and down, but it was bearable. But four years ago, after hearing Glenn Gould, he broke down and cancelled his entire season. He refused to go near the piano again. We have very good doctors. They prescribed all kinds of treatments. But he never fully recovered. That is why it was suggested that perhaps a word from Glenn Gould…”

“Hm. I see.”

Clearly, Hans was at least as skeptical as I was.

“I asked you on the phone,” I said to him, “whether you are intending to drive up to Lake Simcoe during the next day or two.”

“I might. I will let you know.”

To be continued tomorrow.

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2 responses to “A Fiction about Glenn Gould: Part I

  1. Indeed a fascinating story. I can’t wait for the sequel. Reminds me of the Frankfurter Zeitung “Fortsetzung Folgt.” You will have to divulge your sources. RK

  2. Thank you, sir, for your comment. I am quite prepared to divulge my sources. I am still close to a number of friends of his. I knew Glenn slightly myself – I interviewed him once for a film I made – and he has been very much a part of my life. I even went to his funeral.