Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Goldner, Richard (1908–1991)

by Suzanne Baker

This article was published online in 2014

Richard Goldner (1908–1991), violist and inventor, was born on 23 June 1908 at Craiova, Romania, younger of two sons of Romanian-born parents of Jewish heritage, Avram Beer (Alfons) Goldner, delicatessen owner, and his wife Bertha, née Sachter. The family left Romania for Vienna in 1908. Richard began learning the violin at the age of four or five, and, impressed by a nine-year-old cellist, decided when twelve or thirteen to make a career in music. After high school, he enrolled in 1925 at Vienna Technical University to study architecture. He did not complete the course, and from 1927 to 1930 trained in music at the Neues Wiener Konservatorium. Learning from masters such as Karl Bronislaw Huberman and Simon Pullman, and now playing the viola, he was a member of Pullman’s Neues Wiener Konservatorium orchestra, and of other ensembles and orchestras, from the mid-1920s.

Following the Anschluss in March 1938 Pullman’s orchestra was disbanded. Goldner resolved to emigrate; it took a year to obtain entry to Australia. On 31 July 1938, in Vienna, he married Vienna-born Marianne Reiss. While waiting, and in hiding, he and fellow musicians continued to play together, their need for music outweighing the risk. The couple—together with his brother Gerard and his wife, Marianne’s sister Irma—fled Austria in February 1939. They arrived in Sydney in the Orama on 23 March. Unable to take up an offered position as principal violist with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra because he could not join the musicians’ union until he was naturalised, he and Gerard found employment making costume jewellery. Shortly after, the brothers founded their own women’s accessories business, Natty Novelties Pty Ltd.

Richard was a wiry, nervously energetic man who had shown a talent for innovation from his youth. His inventiveness, and the brothers’ business, became topics of interest in local newspapers and Cinesound newsreels. During World War II the Australian authorities sought his help in overcoming the deficiencies of the common zip fastener, especially its tendency to become clogged with foreign matter. He devised a fastener that was patented in Australia and abroad; it was put into production for the Australian war effort by the brothers’ new company, Triflex Pty Ltd, which took over a former Natty Novelties factory. Sold on a cost-plus basis to the Australian—and later to Allied—armed services, it was used in the British and French clothing industries after the war, until invention of the nylon zipper rendered it obsolete. The Goldner brothers were designated enemy aliens and were subject to travel restrictions until Richard was naturalised in June 1944.

That year Goldner learned of the death of his mentor, Pullman, at the Treblinka extermination camp in Poland. At his wife’s suggestion, in 1945 he used money made from his wartime inventions to found the chamber orchestra he had earlier dreamed of establishing in Australia with Pullman after the war. The seventeen-member orchestra, solely funded by Goldner, was initially called ‘Richard Goldner’s Sydney Musica Viva,’ in honour of Hermann Scherchen, who had conducted an orchestra named Musica Viva in Vienna. The first concert was held at the Conservatorium of Music, Sydney, on 8 December 1945, despite a blackout that necessitated hiring a generator for internal lighting and using car headlights to illuminate the entrance to the conservatorium.

Producing ten concerts in 1946 and twenty in 1947, Goldner and his ensemble were invited to tour Melbourne, Adelaide, and New Zealand in 1948. Eventually consisting of five players, initially including Goldner as violist, Musica Viva was warmly welcomed by recent European refugees as well as locals who had a love of the works of central European composers. The ensemble’s extensive touring program took a toll on Goldner personally and financially. In 1951, the Musica Viva committee decided to cease operation until a new structure for the presentation of music could be designed. The enterprise was revived in 1953 with the assistance of Fred Turnovsky and Paul Morawetz. Restructured as a concert agency rather than a performing ensemble, the new Musica Viva Society of Australia was guided by Charles Berg and Ken Tribe, with Goldner as music director. It was eventually the largest not-for-profit chamber music organisation in the world. Goldner continued as honorary music director until 1969, but never came to terms with having the project turned into something different from his original concept.

Goldner also had an extensive career as a teacher. He taught violin and viola privately from the early 1950s, and at the New South Wales State Conservatorium of Music (1960-65). In 1966, lacking teaching opportunities in Australia, he went to the United States of America, and in 1968 became professor of music at Duquesne University, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Following the death of his first wife in 1969, he married an Australian concert violinist, Charmian Gadd, on 22 December 1970 at the registrar general’s office, Sydney. Between 1977 and 1987, although largely retired, he taught privately and was for a time chair of the department of music at Western Washington University, Bellingham. He continued inventing, his most successful later device being a violin shoulder rest known as ‘Playonair.’ Funds from sales were used to establish Musica Viva International at WWU. It ran for four years, presenting a variety of musical events from festivals to chamber music.

Described by Charmian as extraordinarily generous, Goldner rarely relaxed and had a reputation as a hard taskmaster. Any shortcomings in performance could become a source of distress, as happened during the ambitious touring program of the initial five Musica Viva players. Irina Morozova, violist in the Goldner String Quartet named in his honour, recalled his ‘passion for teaching’ which helped musicians around the world (Baker 2010, 87). Awarded the Austrian Cross of Honour for Science and Art, First Class, in 1970, he returned to Australia in 1987. Survived by his wife and the son from his first marriage, he died on 27 September 1991 at Balmain, Sydney, and was cremated. Besides the Goldner String Quartet, he is remembered by the Richard Goldner award, which is presented to the winner of a concerto competition held by Balmain Sinfonia.

Research edited by Karen Fox

Select Bibliography

  • Baker, Suzanne. Beethoven and the Zipper. Sydney: self-published, 2010
  • Goldner, Richard. Unpublished memoirs, copies held by Charmian Gadd, Peter Goldner, and Musica Viva
  • Goldner, Richard. Interview by Hazel de Berg, 7 November 1966. Transcript. Hazel de Berg collection. National Library of Australia
  • National Archives of Australia. A435, 1944/4/2075
  • O’Brien, Geraldine. ‘A Flying Zip Was Music to His Ears.’ Sydney Morning Herald, 22 March 1989, 18
  • Shmith, Michael. ‘Richard Goldnerthe Musical Moses.’ In Musica Viva: The First Fifty Years, edited by Michael Shmith, 4-7. Pymble: Playbill, 1996

Additional Resources

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Citation details

Suzanne Baker, 'Goldner, Richard (1908–1991)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/goldner-richard-15195/text26389, published online 2014, accessed online 18 November 2018.

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