Glenn Gould may have suffered from a mild form of autism, the keeper of the Gould archives says, a theory that may explain both the pianist's musical genius and his eccentricities, which included an overfondness for scrambled eggs and an aversion to shaking hands.
Timothy Maloney, a musicologist and director of the music division of the National Library of Canada, has worked two years on a paper contending that the late virtuoso had a neurological disorder characterized by social deficiency, obsessiveness and intolerance of change.
Dr. Maloney sees Mr. Gould's retirement from the concert stage at 31 as an effort to cope with the condition, Asperger's syndrome.
"Every new hall, every new piano and every new person was extremely stressful to Gould," Dr. Maloney said in an interview at the National Library in Ottawa. "As he grew older, he needed to be at a remove from society. This is an arch example of an Asperger's sufferer."
In Glenn Gould and Asperger's Syndrome, a condensed version of an article to be completed in the spring, Dr. Maloney cites Mr. Gould's reclusiveness, obsessive work habits, prodigious memory, even his strict diet of scrambled eggs and arrowroot biscuits, as symptoms of the disorder.
In Mr. Gould's time, many reviewers, including The Globe and Mail's John Kraglund, expressed their irritation at the performer's famous "platform antics," such as humming, rocking at the keyboard and conducting the orchestra when either hand was momentarily free. According to Dr. Maloney, "Gould could no more control such mannerisms than play the violin. They ruled him, not he them."
Ray Roberts, Mr. Gould's close friend and long-time business associate, supports the Asperger's theory. After hearing Dr. Maloney speak at the Gould Gathering conference in Toronto last fall, Mr. Roberts was struck.
"Many psychiatrists have come up with theories, but this was the first one that seemed to make any sense. [Glenn]wanted to have his environs and the way he lived very controlled."
Mr. Roberts added, however, that had the condition been diagnosed while Mr. Gould was alive (he died in 1982), "he probably would have dismissed it out of hand. Glenn had a penchant for ignoring the obvious sometimes."
Asperger's syndrome was named for the Viennese physician Hans Asperger, who published a paper in 1944 describing a pattern of behaviour in several young boys. Although they demonstrated normal language and intelligence levels, they had deficiencies resembling autism in social and communication skills.
The disorder wasn't recognized by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders until 1994. Since then, scholars have hypothesized that Albert Einstein, Vladimir Nabokov, Ludwig Wittgenstein and Béla Bartk all may have had the disease, which is much more common in men than women.
Dr. Maloney first stumbled upon the Gould theory while reading U.S. psychiatrist Peter Oswald's 1996 biography Glenn Gould: The Ecstasy and Tragedy of Genius. In it, Mr. Oswald (who died shortly after the book's publication) makes a passing reference to the possibility that Mr. Gould may have been afflicted with Asperger's. When he began his research two years ago, Dr. Maloney, who has no medical background, found immediate parallels between Mr. Gould and the average Asperger's sufferer.
The musician's acute sensitivity to light, sound and temperature were typical symptoms, as was his phobia about shaking hands. While he was alive, Mr. Gould constantly complained of drafts, required space heaters to be placed near his piano and once interrupted a concert in Jerusalem until a door at the back of the balcony was closed. During his touring years, a sign was placed outside his dressing room asking that fans not attempt to shake the pianist's hands, as he was "saving them for the next performance."
Even his musical genius, which has inspired a ballet, a movie and two plays, fit the bill. According to the official diagnostic criteria for the syndrome, many people with Asperger's exhibit an exceptional skill or talent in one area and tend to become preoccupied with their chosen subject of interest.
Mr. Gould was a perfectionist who focused obsessively on his art. His pristine interpretations of Bach coupled with his astonishing technique as a player made him one of the greatest classical musicians of the 20th century.
Though Dr. Maloney expects some negative reactions from the international legions of Gould fans and scholars, he maintains that by exposing the supposed illness behind Mr. Gould's genius, he is in fact doing the late pianist a "posthumous favour."
"While the assets that this syndrome brought him -- incredible memory, tenacious drive, intense focus on his special interests -- took him to levels of excellence most people can only dream of, the liabilities attendant with the condition put him in another realm, that of a victim," Dr. Maloney explained.
He even suggested that, at times, Mr. Gould's repertoire fell prey to the disease. "There is an element of pedantry and extreme inflexibility that these people have," he said of Asperger's sufferers. "It was to the detriment of some of his [later]interpretations."
Sufferers from Asperger's syndrome are generally able to take in enormous amounts of information at once, yet exhibit a lessened ability to process sequential data. During his career, Mr. Gould excelled at the polyphonic music of Bach, but his later interpretations of Mozart and Beethoven (music that evolves in a more sequential manner) were slammed by critics.
Asperger's syndrome now is widely treated with the antidepressant Prozac. Had Mr. Gould been successfully treated for the disorder during his lifetime, Dr. Maloney is convinced the pianist on Prozac would have still been capable of his sorrowfully beautiful 1981 recording of the Goldberg Variations.
"I don't believe [treatment]would have diminished his capabilities in any way," he insisted. "I think it would have been a great relief for him."
Rhona Bergman, the author of The Idea of Gould, is not so sure.
"There was obviously something different about Gould; he was a genius," she said from her home in Philadelphia. "You can't take the neurosis out of the artist. It's integral."
Dr. Helen Meseros, a Toronto psychiatrist who is writing a biography of Mr. Gould, bluntly dismissed Dr. Maloney's theory.
"I don't agree with it on the basis of my investigation of Gould's early childhood," she said. "He was a delightful, very advanced child, not impaired in any way. Asperger's children are not even able to make eye contact. They are almost like robots. Gould was nothing like that."
Despite the critics, Dr. Maloney insists his theory is "a positive, rather than a negative consideration of [Gould's]life and legacy." He believes Mr. Gould spent much of his existence in pain, misunderstood by critics and teachers who mocked his eccentric behaviour as showing off. And although Dr. Maloney admits it is impossible to do a thorough case study on a dead person, he said he is convinced.
"In my heart of hearts it just seems to make so much sense. It puts Gould's kookiness into a whole new light."