What Glenn Wanted

David Milne’s Winter Sky, 1935. (Art Gallery of Ontario).

Recently, I came across a video in which Jessie Greig spoke about the fiftieth birthday of her cousin, Glenn Gould. Initially broadcast by the CBC in the autumn of 1992, as part of Glenn Gould: A Radio Celebration, this short clip features Greig reminiscing about two of Glenn’s birthdays, his thirteenth (1945) and his fiftieth (1982). Of the former, Greig recalls how the family celebrated “in the way all families celebrate birthdays, but even then, Glenn did not wish to participate. He seemed shy and definitely did not like all the fuss about something so simple as a birthday.”

That Glenn hated birthdays comes as no surprise. I’d heard about this unusual trait for years, largely through my conversations with Lorne Tulk. I figure Glenn’s dislike for birthdays went hand in hand with his overall character, his abandonment of live performances, his desire for limited personal contact and his Thoreauvian love of solitude and nature. It is this Thoreauvian element (Henry David Thoreau, that is, author of Walden; or, Life in the Woods, one of Glenn’s favourite books) which gets at the heart of this post.

What I love most about my interest in Glenn, is that every so often I stumble across an individual who helped shape his ideas. I enjoy learning about these people, exploring their roots and tracking down information to help me better appreciate Glenn. (This mode of investigation, by the way, is ever so much more satisfying than simply reading a biography.) In any event, thanks to the video of Jessie Greig, as posted on YouTube by Bruce Cross, the individual I was keen to investigate was the Canadian artist, David Milne (1882-1953).

Getting back to Jessie and her memories of Glenn’s fiftieth birthday in September of 1982, she goes on to say that Glenn “had become very interested in David Milne’s paintings. Milne had resided in Uxbridge in the early forties and Glenn would have loved to acquire one or more of the paintings. In the Fall of 1982, the Canadian government came out with a stamp honouring Mr. Milne and, my sister, Betty Madill, purchased a sheet of ten stamps and mailed them to Glenn along with a birthday card and the admonition that this was all she could afford for his birthday. Not the real thing, so the substitute would have to do. Glenn had a chuckle about it and he said he would phone her, but I don’t believe he lived long enough.”

David Milne’s, Red Brick House, 1931 as featured on a stamp issued by the government of Canada, on June 30, 1982 in celebration of Canada Day. The stamp was designed by Jean Morin and Pierre Sasseville.

Despite being the real thing, the sheet of stamps nonetheless was a thoughtful gift and one which, given Glenn’s frequent letter writing, must have proved suitable in more ways than one.

When I learned about Glenn’s having wanted a painting by David Milne, I immediately wanted to know more about the artist. Some investigating brought me to an article by Marshall Webb, entitled, “One hundred years of solitude” and published in the March 22, 1982 edition of Maclean’s magazine.

March 22, 1982 Maclean’s article on David Milne, by Marshall Webb. (Courtesy of the Maclean’s online archive.)

The article talked about how, throughout his life, David Milne sought simplicity, how “he grew impatient with anything more than what was barely necessary.” As well, “he eschewed possessions and remained close to nature.” Generally influenced by Walden, “this Canadian Thoreau” pursued an approach that was “logical, intellectual, objective,” the hallmark of which was an “economy of style.” A victim of neglect in his lifetime, Milne’s work “has always been eclipsed by the Group of Seven” and, “asked once if he were part of the Group, Milne replied, ‘I wouldn’t like to be more than one of one.'”

The paintings, watercolours and prints of David Milne have since garnered the attention they deserve and, by the looks of things, one will soon be able to browse the Milne collection at the Art Gallery of Ontario. The AGO has also created a wonderful series of short videos about the artist and his connection to places like Bancroft, Uxbridge, Palgrave, Burgoyne and others. That Milne sought out remote areas such as these, far removed from city living, bears a strong resemblance to Glenn and his frequent retreats to small towns along the north shore of Lake Superior, towns such as Wawa and Terrace Bay.

Despite Milne and Gould having been born five decades apart, the former having been more, how shall I say, sturdily built than the latter (let’s face it, Glenn was hardly one for roughing it outdoors) these two deeply spiritual artists – one a painter, the other a musician – both thrived in isolation. David Milne used seclusion “as a means for self-discovery” and Glenn Gould used seclusion as “the prerequisite for ecstatic experiences.”

Having watched each of the short videos issued by the AGO on David Milne, I compiled a few quotes that stood out to me as being similar to Glenn and his beliefs:

“I thrive on what would kill most people, seclusion, neglect.”

“I am alone in a wilderness which is excellent for battling art problems.”

“I miss my partners, a few chipmunks and birds and owls and porcupines…”

“Of being alone in a desolate place on a dark night with a high wind still sticks. I don’t feel lonesome, I feel excited and pleased with it.”

“When you live alone in the wilderness you learn caution. You must.”

“I have too the taste for few and simple things extended to an almost abnormal dislike for, and impatience with, possessions that are more than bare essentials. I like to think that my leaning toward simplicity in art, is a translation of hereditary thrift, or stinginess, into a more attractive medium.”

“The thing that makes a picture is the thing that makes dynamite – compression. It isn’t a fire in the grass; it is an explosion.”

This last quote I find particularly probing and, I think that in a similar way, it can be applied to Glenn’s work. That is, compression suggests efficiency, of making space, of tightening or making compact a particular structure. While Milne’s works exhibit this by way of an “economy of style” that features a “restricted palette” and a focus on “line and form” (quoting again from Marshall Webb), compression as applied to Glenn’s work, might be said to encompass a similar focus on line and form as it pertains to the clarity of articulation and dryness of pedal within his piano performances of contrapuntal works by Bach and others. As well, compression might be used to describe Glenn’s penchant for slow and deliberate tempos in his later years (take for instance, his 1981 and 1955 recordings of the Goldberg Variations by J. S. Bach.)

Milne’s use of a “restricted palette” also calls to mind Glenn and his love for the colour grey. Speaking in 1980 for the film, Glenn Gould on J. S. Bach’s Art of Fugue, Glenn explains how “these pieces contain an endless range of grey tense. I mean that as a compliment, because I love grey. [Albert] Schweitzer, as a matter of fact, had some marvellous things to say. He said it was a still and serious world, deserted and rigid and without colour and without light and without motion and so on’…That pretty well sums up my feeling about the last one, too, I must say.”

As far as I can tell, Glenn never knew David Milne, the latter having passed away when Glenn was just in his early twenties. As well, given the “one hundred years of solitude” for which Milne’s work basically lacked any interest, it’s likely that Glenn was in his later years when he developed a fondness for the works of Milne. One wonders how much the pianist knew about Milne’s love of solitude. Knowing as we do that Glenn was a voracious reader of all kinds of books and articles, it’s likely that he read Marshall Webb’s article in the March 22, 1982 edition of Maclean’s.

Aethetics aside, David Milne and Glenn Gould had a few other little things in common, not the least of which is the fact that both are buried in Mount Pleasant Cemetery. Interestingly, both Milne and Glenn’s grandfather were born in Paisley, Ontario. As well, Milne lived for several years in Uxbridge, Ontario. Those familiar with Glenn’s family history, will recall that Uxbridge was also the birthplace of his father, Russell Herbert. Finally, during his time in Toronto, Milne would enjoy walks along the West Branch of the Don River, an area very near to where Glenn would later have a studio at the Inn on the Park.

The question remains as to which of David Milne’s paintings Glenn wanted most to acquire. Any number of them offer the kind of colours favoured by Glenn. He might very well have had one in mind for an album cover. Come to think of it, I wonder what role (if any) Glenn played in determining his album covers. I supposed, then, it’s good to sign off with the thought in mind, that the cover of his 1981 Goldberg Variations could conceivably have been replaced by a painting like Gentle Snowfall. Yes, I like that.

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