Born in Vienna as the son of a teacher, Gulda began learning to play the piano from Felix Pazofsky at the Wiener Volkskonservatorium, aged 7. In 1942, he entered the Vienna Music Academy, where he studied piano and musical theory under Bruno Seidlhofer and Joseph Marx.
He won first prize at the Geneva International Music Competition in 1946. Initially, the jury preferred the Belgian pianist Lode Backx, but when the final vote was taken, Gulda was the winner. One of the jurors, Eileen Joyce, who favoured Backx, stormed out and claimed the other jurors were unfairly influenced by Gulda's supporters. Gulda began to play concerts worldwide. He made his Carnegie Hall debut in 1950. Together with Jörg Demus and Paul Badura-Skoda, Gulda formed what became known as the "Viennese troika".
Although most famous for his Mozart and Beethoven interpretations, Gulda also performed the music of J. S. Bach (often on clavichord), Schubert, Chopin, Schumann, Debussy and Ravel. His recordings of Bach's Well Tempered Clavier are well regarded by collectors. Apart from the Well Tempered Clavier, Gulda performed very few other pieces by Bach and recorded even fewer. Gulda's later reliance on co-operating with companies whose recording techniques were primitive in comparison to those espoused by more sophisticated rivals stood him in very poor stead with regard to posterity. The rescued Mozart sonata tapes issued on DG are unbelievably bad in terms of recorded technical quality; likewise the Debussy Preludes and Bach recordings of the late 60s and early 70s.
From the 1950s on Gulda cultivated an interest in jazz, writing several songs and instrumental pieces, and at times combining jazz and classical music in his concerts. In 1956, he performed at Birdland in New York City and at the Newport Jazz Festival. He organized the International Competition for Modern Jazz in 1966, and he established the International Musikforum, a school for students who wanted to learn improvisation, in Ossiach, Austria, in 1968. He once said:
There can be no guarantee that I will become a great jazz musician, but at least I shall know that I am doing the right thing. I don't want to fall into the routine of the modern concert pianist's life, nor do I want to ride the cheap triumphs of the Baroque bandwagon.
Gulda wrote a Prelude and Fugue with a theme suggesting swing. Keith Emerson performed it on Emerson, Lake & Palmer's The Return of the Manticore. In addition, Gulda composed "Variations on The Doors' 'Light My Fire'". Another version can be found on Gulda's album As You Like It (1970), an album with standards such as "'Round Midnight" and "What Is This Thing Called Love?". In 1980, he wrote his Concerto for Cello and Wind Orchestra, which has been called "as moving as it is lighthearted", in five movements "involving jazz, a minuet, rock, a smidgen of polka, a march and a cadenza with two spots where a star cellist must improvise."
In 1982, Gulda teamed up with jazz pianist Chick Corea, who was between the breakup of Return to Forever and the formation of his Elektric Band. Issued on The Meeting (Philips, 1984), Gulda and Corea communicate in lengthy improvisations mixing jazz ("Some Day My Prince Will Come" and the lesser known Miles Davis song "Put Your Foot Out") and classical music (Brahms' "Wiegenlied" ["Cradle song"]). In the late 1990s, Gulda organised rave parties, where he performed with the support of several DJs and Go-Go dancers.
These unorthodox practices along with his refusal to follow clothing conventions (he was notoriously described as resembling, in one South German concert, "a Serbian pimp") or announce the program of his concerts in advance earned him the nickname "terrorist pianist". In 1988, he cancelled a performance after officials of the Salzburg Festival objected to his including jazz musician Joe Zawinul on the program. When the Vienna Music Academy awarded him its Beethoven Ring in recognition of his performances, he accepted it but then reconsidered and returned it. To promote a concert in 1999, he announced his own death in a press release so that the concert at the Vienna Konzerthaus could serve as a resurrection party.
Phillips Records included Gulda in its Great Pianists of the 20th Century CD box set, which came out in 1999. His piano students included Martha Argerich, who called Gulda "my most important influence," and the conductor Claudio Abbado.
He expressed a wish to die on the birthday of Mozart, the composer he most adored, and did so. He died of heart failure at the age of 69 on 27 January 2000 at his home in Weissenbach, Austria. Gulda is buried in the cemetery of Steinbach am Attersee, Austria.
He was married twice, first to Paola Loew and then to Yuko Wakiyama. Two of his three sons, Paul and Rico Gulda, one from each of his marriages, are accomplished pianists.
A documentary film made for television in 2007, So what?! - Friedrich Gulda, tells a few aspects of his life story. Much more remains to be told.
Decorations and awards
- Richard Davis, Eileen Joyce: A Portrait, 126-7
- Chris Woodstra, Gerald Brennan, Allen Schrott, eds., All Music Guide to Classical Music: The Definitive Guide to Classical Music (San Francisco: Backbeat Books, 2005), 538
- "Friedrich Gulda, 69, Classical-Music Rebel," New York Times, 29 January 2000
- New York Times: "Gulda has Debut as Jazz Pianist," 22 June 1956, accessed 17 September 2011
- New York Times: "Brooklyn Sax Man Wins the Big One in Vienna," 17 July 1966, accessed 17 September 2011
- New York Times: Allan Kozinn, "Friedrich Gulda, 69, Classical-Music Rebel," 29 January 2000, accessed 17 September 2011
- New York Times: K. Robert Schwarz , "Gulda Reasserts his Claim to Fame," 25 September 1989, accessed 17 September 2011
- Seattle Times: Tom Keogh, "Cellist Joshua Roman returns to Seattle Symphony for opening night," 15 September 2011, accessed 17 September 2011
- Peter Gutmann, "Great Pianists of the Twentieth Century," ClassicalNotes.net
- New York Times: Anthony Tommasini, "An Enigmatic Pianist Reclaims Her Stardom," 25 March 2000, accessed 17 September 2011
- Chris Woodstra, Gerald Brennan, Allen Schrott, eds., All Music Guide to Classical Music: The Definitive Guide to Classical Music (San Francisco: Backbeat Books, 2005), 1
- Internet Movie Database: "So what?! - Friedrich Gulda (TV 2007)", accessed 17 September 2011; New York Times: "Friedrich Gulda: So What - A Portrait", accessed 17 September 2011
- "Reply to a parliamentary question" (pdf) (in German). p. 67. Retrieved 4 March 2013.
- Gulda-Werkstatt Official Homepage with a complete work list
- Youngrok Lee's Gulda appreciation pages
- A documentary on Friedrich Gulda entitled "So What!?"
- Eight Friedrich Gulda performances (ClassicalTV)