Eugène Goossens

1893 1962

Eugène Goossens

Composer • Violin


Sir Eugene Goossens’ career in music spanned decades and continents. As a conductor and administrator he had an intimate connection to some of the most famous music of the twentieth century. His unstable, and eventually apparently unseemly, personal life brought about an abrupt fall from grace.

Eugene Aynsley Goossens was born in London on 26 May 1893. His parents were Eugene, a opera conductor and violinist, and Annie Elizabeth Mary Agnes, a singer. Eugene was their first of five children. Goossens began his studies young, working first at home before being sent in 1901 to Bruges, Belgium, to study at the St Francis Xavier School and the Muziek Conservatorium there. He returned to Britain in 1906, continuing his musical education at the Liverpool College of Music.

In 1907 Goossens began at the Royal College of Music, London, entering as a violin student. In 1911 he was awarded the Musicians’ Company silver medal and in 1912 was made an associate of the college. He worked after graduation as a violinist for multiple ensembles. A medical condition saw him excused from the military during World War I, his brother however, died on the Somme.

A 1916 conducting debut as a replacement for Sir Thomas Beecham brought many opportunities for Goossens. He worked as Beecham’s unofficial deputy for a decade. He worked with Les Ballets Russes and Carl Rosa Opera Company, Covent Garden. He developed his own orchestra in 1921 to present contemporary music. With Stravinsky in attendance Goossen’s ensemble presented the English premiere ofLe sacre du Printemps.

From 1919 through to a 1928 divorce, Goossens was married to Dorothy Millar, a divorcée. The couple had three daughters during their time together. In 1923 Goossens joined the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra, in Rochester, NY as conductor and he became a teacher at the Eastman School of Music. The seasonal nature of the job, which was offered by George Eastman of Kodak, allowed Goossens to conduct around the US, including Philadelphia, Boston, and New York. He wed a second time in 1930, this time to a much younger Janet Lewis. The union would lead to another two daughters and ultimately another divorce, this one in 1944.

Goossens became the conductor on the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra in 1931. He had a growing and respected reputation as a conductor and composer. He was appointed to the Légion d’honneur in 1934.  One of the lasting impacts of his time in Cincinnati came during World War II. Goossens wrote to several composers and commissioned 18 fanfares meant to support the war effort. One of the fanfares that the orchestra received and premiered during the 1942-43 season wasAaron Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man.

An invitation to be the first conductor of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra would take Goossens away from Cincinnati down to Australia in 1947. The offer included becoming the director of the New South Wales State Conservatorium of Music. The job came after a successful tour through Australia where he conducted the state orchestras in 1946. 1946 was also the year he began his third marriage, this time to another divorcée Marjorie Foulkrod. In Sydney, Goossens swore to make the Sydney Symphony one of the best in the world. His influence was harsh but effective. The orchestra responded well to his leadership and the paying subscriptions doubled. At the conservatorium his job was not simply a title: he was actively engaged in the management of the school and the education of the students. He was a strict but generous teacher, ready and willing to introduce talented students wishing to study abroad.

The 1950s saw Goossens at his zenith. His outdoor performances in Sydney attracted 25,000 people. He was a major early proponent of getting what was to be the Sydney Opera House built. He and the SSO made the ensemble’s first recordings. In 1955 he was knighted. This would all come crashing down however, when a search of his bags upon returning to Sydney in 1956 led to the discovery of indecent photographs, books and film. He had an interest in the occult and a relationship with a ‘witch’ Rosaleen Norton. The contents led to a scandal. He was arrested and fined £100 for importing prohibited goods.

Goossens quickly resigned his two Australian positions and returned to England. His health began to fail and he separated, though did not divorce, his third wife. He would spend the remainder of his life with Linda Main, a young pianist from Adelaide whom he described as his aide. After the scandal in Sydney work was hard to find. On a visit to two of his daughters in Switzerland, Goossens became ill and would die on the night he returned to England, on 13 June 1962.

Eugene Goossens left behind a modest composition catalogue. This includes two symphonies, two operas, an oboe concerto, and chamber works. He was not fond of conducting his own pieces beyond their premieres.

Goossens’ first symphony was written in his brother’s cottage in England, on an ocean liner, and in Cincinnati between 1938 and 1940. The first of four movements introduces two themes, the first described by the composer as ominous, the second as plaintive and wistful. The themes return at time throughout the movement and other moments of the symphony. The piece closes with a growing number of instruments sharing in a fanfare, starting in woodwinds and celesta and ending in the brass, chimes, and organ.

In Five Impressions of a Holiday, a listener can hear Goossens’ influence from his time studying in Belgium during a time of French Impressionism. The piece is scored for flute, or violin, with cello and piano. He composed it in 1914 as only his seventh opus and it set as five movements: ‘In the hills’, ‘By the rivers’, ‘The water-wheel’, ‘The village church’, and ‘At the fair’. The movements do not suggest much more than a mood to be felt at each vacation spot, with the exception of the piano mimicking church bells in the fourth movement.

Eugene Goossens wrote his opus 45, an oboe concerto, for his brother Leon. Eugene had written the solo part by 1929 but not the orchestra part, leading to a performance in Boston with piano accompaniment. The full complete version would be debuted in 1930 at the Henry Wood Prom with Wood conducting. The one movement piece, lasting approximately twelve minutes, does not contain much in the way of virtuosic fireworks, but was meant as a showpiece for Leon’s expert technique. The brothers joked that the concerto was based on Leon’s warm-up exercises.

Sir Eugene Goossens’ reputation is more firmly entrenched as a conductor, rather than as a composer. His time at the head of different organizations saw him make drastic, immediate changes. He released less talented musicians or teachers and strove to enhance the standing of the ensembles and schools where he worked. He was met with approval though, as his musicianship and professionalism were clear to see to those under him. His scandal-tainted end was coolly written of inThe Times at the time of his death, but since then he has had a correction to his reputation and contributions to music. The Eugene Goossens Hall, a performance and recording space in Sydney was named in his honour for his contributions to Australian music.