Eugène Goossens

Eugène Goossens

Composer • Violin

• 1893 1962


Most often remembered as a highly regarded conductor with substantial tenures as music director of both the Cincinnati and Sydney Symphony orchestras, Eugene Goossens was also an important composer of twentieth-century music. Had the achievements of his career not been overshadowed by an unfortunate scandal and fall from grace in his last years, his legacy would likely have been even more significant.

Born in London and of Belgian heritage, Goossens trained as a violinist at the Bruges Conservatory and the Liverpool College of Music. It was not until he attended the Royal College of Music that he began serious composition study, with Sir Charles Villiers Stanford. Among his first compositions from 1911-13 are the Variations on a Chinese Theme and the Octet (written for flute, clarinet, horn, harp, and strings). These works utilized an early style strongly reminiscent of the French impressionists Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel, and drew strong praise from the elder statesmen of the composition circle at that time, including Frederick Delius.

In order to support himself, Goossens followed in the footsteps of his father and grandfather, both of whom were conductors. He trained as the assistant conductor to Sir Thomas Beecham, and began to develop an impressive conducting career. In 1921, he gave many Londoners their first Stravinsky experience in the premiere UK performance of Le Sacre du Printemps.

In 1923, George Eastman (of Kodak fame) invited him to become the first music director of his newly formed Eastman-Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra. Following continued success there, he was offered the helm of the Cincinnati Symphony in 1931, where he was active in commissioning a number of new works, including Aaron Copland's masterpiece Fanfare for the Common Man (1942).

Although a composer of modest number, Goossens composed works in nearly every genre. His first significant orchestral work, Sinfonietta (1922), was championed by Arturo Toscanini. His most popular works include his Oboe Concerto from 1927 (written for his brother, Leon Goossens), two symphonies from 1940 and 1945, and two operas drawn on libretti by Arnold Bennett. These include the opera Judith (in which Joan Sutherland made her debut in 1951) and Don Juan de Mañara. With the exception of premieres and a few rare occasions, Goossens never had a strong inclination to conduct his own works.

It was in Sydney that Goossens would reach both the pinnacle of his career and the lowest depths of indignity. The Sydney Symphony Orchestra had been recently organized, and in 1947 Goossens was invited to become its first music director. Goossens was a visionary; although his dreams began small (the introduction of outdoor performances and increased visibility) they culminated with his groundbreaking idea and subsequent proposal for the Sydney Opera House. His many efforts were finally rewarded when he was knighted in 1955.

A 1957 scandal with artist Rosaleen Norton severely affected Goosens and destroyed his Australian career. Forced to resign from his conducting posts, Gossens returned to England. His chronically ill health and a congenital heart defect contributed to a long period of illness following the scandal. Sketches for a ballet and third opera were left unfinished at his death in 1962. He is the author of Overture and Beginners: A Musical Autobiography.