Glenn Gould is one of many musicians linked to Asperger’s syndrome. However, his much-documented eccentricities may have had a different cause.

Canadian pianist Glenn Gould (1932-1982) was infamous for his odd behaviour. He wore winter clothing all year round; he hummed while he played; he shunned the concert stage and was socially reclusive. During his time, he was considered an eccentric – a charmingly mad genius. In recent years, however, it has been suggested by many that Gould suffered from Asperger’s syndrome.

Gould is one of a long line of musicians, including Mozart, whose exceptional talent has been linked to Asperger’s, a form of mild autism much publicised in the media. But, writes Sydney-based clinical psychologist Steven Laurent in the cover story of the March issue of Limelight, Gould does not display the key symptoms of Asperger’s. In fact, his foibles were far more prosaic, although no less unfortunate.

“The pills, the refusal to go out without coats and scarves, the oversensitivy to drafts, the obsessive diarising of physical symptoms, all point to a phobia of germs and disease,” writes Laurent. “As much as we’d all love to label Gould with the latest buzz-word in pop psych, and think of him as a kind of ‘Rain Man’, I do not believe he strictly met criteria for Asperger’s disorder.”

First identified by Hans Asperger in 1944, the autism spectrum disorder was only officially recognized as a diagnostic category in 1994 – more than a decade after Gould’s premature death at the age of 49. Since then, Gould’s unusual personality traits – as well as those of Einstein, Mozart and Wittgenstein – have been attributed to the disorder.

Gould biographer and psychiatrist Peter Ostwald makes the case for Glenn Gould as Asperger’s sufferer in his book Glenn Gould: The Ecstasy and Tragedy of Genius. Similarly, in the 2006 book Asperger’s Syndrome And High Achievement: Some Very Remarkable People, mathematician Ioan James cites Gould as one of many high-profile Asperger’s sufferers. James specifically cites Gould’s list-making, strange dress, “cackling laugh”, reluctance to make eye contact and fear of affection as evidence for the diagnosis.

These traits, however, can all be attributed to common phobias and an obsessive personality, believes Laurent. According to the textbooks, Asperger’s involves, firstly, a qualitative impairment in social interaction and, secondly, restricted, repetitive patterns of behaviour, interests or activities. By contrast, “Gould can be seen socializing in many films and documentaries: he makes eye contact; he has a sense of humour; he appears to understand what is appropriate in social interactions.

“We also know he was very keen to share his interests with others, to speak on the phone for hours with friends and acquaintances. While I believe a weak but sufficient case can be made for his having obsessive patterns of interest and inflexible routines and rituals, I also think what many think of as his ‘Aspy’ traits can be explained as symptoms of an anxious, obsessive disposition.”

But what of his habit of swaying and humming while playing the piano – perhaps Gould’s most flagrant eccentricity? “No more or less than a bad habit acquired in youth, which he never made a concerted effort to get rid of, probably too anxious that he might throw his playing off.”

The idea that Glenn Gould may have been asexual – a rumour that pursued the pianist throughout his life – has also recently been dismissed in the 2010 documentary Genius Within: The Inner Life of Glenn Gould, which chronicled affairs with several women, including Cornelia Foss, the wife of American composer Lukas Foss.

As for the sparsity of such romantic relationships throughout Gould’s life, Laurent has a simple explanation. “Gould was a nocturnal control freak hypochondriac and – let’s face it – a musical geek, so is it any real surprise he had a relatively uneventful love life?”

 

The March issue of Limelight goes on sale on February 16. The cover story celebrates the 30th anniversary of Glenn Gould’s 1981 recording of the Goldberg Variations. Laurent discusses Gould’s life and career, and compares his recordings of the Goldbergs with the recordings of ten great pianists, including Angela Hewitt and Andras Schiff.