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The story of a famous pianist who liked to hang out in Wawa

Glenn Gould, reclusive and eccentric, seemed comfortable as he could ever be in Wawa

From the archives of the Sault Ste. Marie Public Library:

Where does a world-renowned concert pianist go to unwind? Wawa of Course!

The beauty of Northern Ontario enraptures many with its wide-open spaces, abundance of trees, clear pristine bodies of water, and stunning natural scenery. Glenn Gould was also drawn by its allure when he took a road trip that included the newly completed stretch of the TransCanada Highway from Sault Ste. Marie to Wawa sometime after 1960. It was a trip he would repeat many times in future years as he was inspired to compose and write by the natural beauty that surrounded him while he wandered his favourite spots such as Michipicoten Harbour, High Falls, and the shores of Lake Superior in general.

Glenn was also a fan of The Wawa Motor Inn and was a regular inhabitant of room 101 according to management.

The owner once referred to him as a “strange bird” that would sequester himself in his room all day to write.

When the actor Alan Rickman (notorious for his portrayal as Professor Snape in the Harry Potter films) was in Wawa for a movie shoot he intentionally stayed in Glenn’s favoured room and reported to the Glenn Gould Foundation (a registered charity which awards the biennial $100,000 Glenn Gould Prize) that, “I felt a very definite presence in that space – it helped me with my character, who was himself a bit of a loner.”

Glenn Gould was born Sept. 25, 1932, in the Beaches neighbourhood of Toronto, right near Lake Ontario, to a father who was a furrier and a mother who was a piano teacher. Gould was said to have perfect pitch and could read music as early as the age of 3.

His mother was his initial piano instructor but he then moved on to the Royal Conservatory of Music where he graduated at the tender age of 12 with the highest standing in Canada.

International acclaim soon followed as he recorded his first album titled Bach – Goldberg Variations in 1955 which was an enormous success.

His public appearances after this recording were in high demand all over the world. But, in many ways, Glenn was eccentric, even in his style of playing. He would sit at the piano on a custom-made chair that aligned his chin with the keys and his hands at eye level.

According to a music critic in The Soir, a Belgium newspaper, his performance style was also eccentric. The critic was quoted in a Canadian Press article from 1958 as stating the following.

It is much better to listen to Gould than to see him. His exaggerated body movements and facial contortions would not have found favour in Bach’s time. His orangutan style may please admirers of Elvis Presley but it irritates or fatigues a classical audience.

His performances drew both acclaim and criticism, but Gould himself despised performing. During an interview with Alex Trebek (who would later become the much-loved host of the television game show Jeopardy), he declared that live concerts were “dead” and “sterile” and concert-goers were a “force of evil.”

Indeed, he once asked an audience in Stratford to refrain from clapping as he hated applause. Not surprisingly Glenn Gould stopped giving public performances in March of 1964, preferring the “privacy, solitude, and the womb-like security of the studio” where he could create his music in a more personal space.

This desire for privacy, solitude and an escape from public scrutiny was also attainable in Wawa.

Johanna Rowe (a local historian and author) in a SooToday article from Sept. 11, 2020, wrote the following.

He was rarely recognized by locals, though by this time (1960’s) he was at the peak of his fame.

The odd attire that made him so recognizable elsewhere drew little attention in town.

They found him a bit eccentric but welcomed him. Here in Wawa, there are many eccentrics and all were accepted so perhaps his style was deemed less “odd” here.

Glenn was well known, especially in Toronto, for oddities such as wearing heavy coats even in extreme heat, donning fingerless gloves before the era of Michael Jackson, having an aversion to shaking hands, reclusive tendencies, hypochondria, and preferring to socialize by telephone.

Glenn Gould’s mystique has not faded in Wawa despite his death in 1982 at the age of only 50.

There is now a beautifully painted heritage door to commemorate his time there which can be seen at Magpie Scenic High Falls. It depicts the iconic image of Glenn Gould seeming to conduct an imaginary orchestra during his meanderings in the Northern Ontario wilderness.

His legacy also endures through his music – according to the Glenn Gould Foundation his recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations is still the best-selling classical instrumental recording of all time.

In fact, a performance by Gould was also included on the “Golden Record” which was 27 musical selections sent into space on both the Voyager I and II space probes launched by NASA in 1977. Perhaps a fitting tribute for an individual who seemed to feel apart from this world.

Each week, the Sault Ste. Marie Public Library and its Archives provides SooToday readers with a glimpse of the city’s past.

Find out more of what the Public Library has to offer at www.ssmpl.ca and look for more Remember This? columns here