Did Glenn Gould’s ‘Idea of North’ include Manitoulin? Searching for traces of the celebrated pianist on the mystical isle


By Isobel Harry, This is Manitoulin April 2020

Much has been written and recorded about the late, legendary Canadian pianist of international fame, Glenn Gould (1932 – 1982) – said to be the most documented musician of the twentieth century. Everyone knows the iconic interpreter of Bach’s keyboard pieces as an “eccentric” – wearing wool gloves, coat and hat in high summer, always carrying his homemade wooden folding chair so he could sit comfortably while playing (and humming loudly), seated much lower than is customary by pianists. 

From his birth in Ottawa, his retirement from public performances at 31, until his untimely death in Toronto at age 50, we can learn all about Gould’s early life as a child prodigy, his piano theories, styles of playing, love affairs, inspirations, collaborations, health, phone habits, apartment décor, cars and love of dogs. Innumerable films and videos reveal him driving around Toronto, walking through parks, chatting in a Muskoka chair at his Lake Simcoe cottage, performing on concert stages in Moscow and Berlin and in rehearsals in New York recording studios. 

And Glenn Gould, who was also an accomplished radio documentarian, loved Canada’s North; he often drove north from his home in Toronto to Muskoka and farther afield, along Highway 17 to Wawa and Lake Superior’s shores. His radio documentary series, the ‘Solitude Trilogy,’ includes ‘The Idea of North,’ in which he explores the varied meanings of North, making clear his affinity for remote regions. 

In ‘Northern Ways to Think about Music: Glenn Gould’s Idea of North as an Aesthetic Category’ (Canadian Journal of Music, 2005), Markus Mantère acknowledges that Glenn Gould was “a ‘northern’ artist par excellence […] the North plays a pivotal role in his aesthetic thought.

But, the author adds, “Gould cared not so much about the geography, history, population or economy of the Canadian North, but rather about the symbolic and metaphorical meanings that the idea of North implied for him.” The North was “a metaphor for things Gould regarded as indispensable to his music-making: Isolation, loneliness and the ideal of artistic creation as an activity taking place outside institutions, canons and conventions of the art world.” 

Is there any evidence that Glenn Gould stopped in and drew inspiration from the Island on his northerly peregrinations? There are some tantalizing clues that Manitoulin was such a metaphor for him, representing his life after retirement.

First, there is a solid an Island connection – a cousin of Glenn’s (their mothers were sisters), now deceased, had married a woman with Sheguiandah family roots and the couple lived for many years in Little Current. They attended the pianist’s funeral service. 

A hint of Gould’s northern travels comes in the film ‘Genius Within,’ when one of the pianist’s lovers, Cornelia Foss, who left her pianist husband and their home in the US to live in Toronto near Glenn with her two children, remembers their car trips to Muskoka in the 1960s. 

Later in the film, the prominent Canadian soprano soloist Roxolana Roslak – whose voice Gould first heard on his car radio before insisting they meet and work together – declares, “He was the most glamorous person I knew.” Ms. Roslak describes a trip they took to Manitoulin Island in the 1970s: “He loved animals and one of his fantasies was to get some place up on Manitoulin and set up a puppy farm and retire there. So we took a trip just to take a look around and we came across a field and there were a bunch of cows and we just started singing a little bit to the cows.”

In ‘The Secret Life of Glenn Gould: A Genius in Love’ by Michael Clarkson, the anecdote is colourfully retold by the author: “And so it was that Miss Roslak found herself – for better or for worse – in the tipsy but exciting world of an unorthodox pianist and, shortly after, she would be alone on desolate Manitoulin Island with him, singing a Mahler duet to the Hereford cows with a fake German accent.” 

Many books and films refer to Mr. Gould’s love of animals, from childhood pets to his rescue efforts and his bequeathing of half his estate to the Toronto Humane Society upon his death. 

In ‘Wondrous Strange: The Life and Art of Glenn Gould,’ Kevin Bazzana writes: “Animals even figured in retirement plans he thought up as a child and was still entertaining at the end of his life. He often talked of leaving the city behind and retiring to some rural setting, where he’d buy property that could become a refuge for unwanted pets, or for old cows and horses and other obsolete farm animals – the ‘Glenn Gould Puppy Farm’ was one imagined incarnation of the plan.”

The plot thickens a soupçon in speaking with Kate Shapero, Gould researcher for her website, Unheard Notes: Glenn Gould Interviews (GlennGouldInterviews.com). Her father, the announcer Harry Mannis, once adopted a foundling dog Gould had brought into the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation studios on Jarvis Street in Toronto and named Foxy. And in conducting dozens of interviews of Gould’s friends and associates, Ms. Shapero says many referred to Gould as having “gone to Manitoulin a few times, looking for land in remote spots on the south shore.” As well, she says, just before he died, the pianist told one relative that his puppy farm was about to become a reality here. “It remains a mystery to this day as to whether Glenn Gould ever bought land on the Island and, if so, what happened to it,” Ms. Shapero says.

As to where, exactly, the world-weary pianist envisioned retiring, Kevin Bazzana says that Gould had a few other favorite places: Cape Breton, Newfoundland and the Bay of Fundy, but, Bazzana adds, “He was particularly fond of Manitoulin Island, which he considered an almost mystical place, as have the Indians [sic] who have long inhabited it.”

It seems fitting somehow that the artist’s presence here remains an intangible one, as though, by just passing through, singing to cows and looking at land for his dreamed-of puppy farm, Glenn Gould left something ethereal of himself, invisible but vital – wisps of his creative genius, perhaps, floating on the fresh, clean Manitoulin air.

A drive, bike or hike around the Mystical Isle, a walk on a beach or along a split rail fence, a bench by a lake (with or without Mr. Gould on the soundtrack) may summon the northern spirit and imagination of the maverick musician, and, like his, your soul will be soothed.