The upholstery withdrew years ago, but the rest of its parts continue to hold fast: bolstered with brackets, bolts, piano wire and duct tape – and maybe a little pride, too (if a piece of furniture can feel anything, that is, deep down in its wooden bones).
Now sitting in a place of honour at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa, Glenn Gould's chair is an object of reverence for Gould devotees. But even the uninitiated (perusing the seat's rough and ready adjustable legs, curious proportions and obvious wear) sense the story of ingenuity, individual thinking and hard work that this relic embodies.
The chair. (Photo: Library and Archives Canada/Glenn Gould fonds/R13915-24-0)
Originally part of a set of folding bridge chairs, this one was adapted for Gould by his father Bert "in 1953 by sawing four inches off each leg," Katie Hafner explains in A Romance on Three Legs (Bloomsbury, 2008). Hafner continues:
"Gould preferred this chair to any piano bench because it enabled him to sit a perfect fourteen inches off the floor – six inches lower than the height of a standard piano bench. Gould’s father fashioned the chair so that it had individually adjustable legs, which enabled Gould to achieve the precise height he wanted on each. [...] It also had the give Gould wanted in all directions: left, right, forward, backward. It swayed – and creaked – along with him as he moved while playing. The chair was an object that he remained attached to all his life, and he took it with him everywhere."
Glenn Gould and his chair in 1956, relaxing at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto. (Photo: Library and Archives Canada/Glenn Gould fonds/MUS 109-1030)
Gould was clearly aware how peculiar his seat of choice seemed to others, and kept a good sense of humour about it, as seen in this filmed visit to Steinway & Sons on 57th Street in New York. He arrives, chair in hand, to try out some of the pianos in the basement. Gould's "stool" prompts a conversation about some other concert pianists who used special chairs, and Gould jokingly asks the Steinway rep how much he would pay to add his humble-looking seat to their collection of great piano benches.
'Glenn Gould Moments, part 1.' (Video: YouTube)
Over the years, the chair did its best to keep up with the constant demands Gould placed upon it. But as the following sequence of photos suggests, the cushioned seat eventually had no choice but to concede defeat.
Gould and his chair, at various stages in their professional relationship. (Photos: CBC Still Image Collection).
The last vestiges of the seat padding can be seen hanging on by a thread in this video, as documentary filmmaker Bruno Monsaingeon asks Gould about his chair, and if it is "as close a companion" to him as the composer J. S. Bach (whose music Gould championed).
'Glenn Gould and his chair.' (Video: YouTube)
With the cushion completely gone, "the only way a person could keep from falling through it while seated was to perch on a lone wooden support that ran from front to back," writes Hafner in her book. This late-career photo of Gould shows him practising this particular skill.
Gould at the piano. (Photo: CBC Still Image Collection).
Gould died on Oct. 4, 1982, shortly after his 50th birthday. He left behind a legacy unrivaled by any other Canadian classical musician. He also left his chair.
Glenn Gould's penthouse apartment at St. Clair West and Avenue Road in Toronto, photographed in January 1983. (Photo: Library and Archives Canada/Glenn Gould fonds/MUS 109-2136)
The chair was transferred to the music division of the National Library of Canada, on the fourth floor of 395 Wellington Street in Ottawa, where it sat in a glass display case near the elevators until 2005. After that, except for its appearance at the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Hull, it retreated to a storage vault.
Reserved seat. (Photo: Library and Archives Canada/Music Division/NL-15983)
Gould's chair returned to public life this past June, now on permanent display at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa. Perhaps you've had a chance to see it there, keeping company with Gould's famous CD 318 Steinway, on the mezzanine level outside of Southam Hall.
A boon travelling companion. A member of the family. Closer to him than Bach. Gould made it clear how he felt about the chair that supported him for nearly 30 years. CBC Music wants to know what you think, so please seat your comments in the specially reserved section below.
Glenn Gould's preferred piano, chair set for display
Designer reproduction of Glenn Gould's chair, by René Bouchara for Cazzaro
How to build your own Glenn Gould chair
Glenn Gould's obsessive search for the perfect piano
The Glenn Gould Archive (Library and Archives Canada)
Glenn Gould: The CBC Legacy
on Sep 28, 2012