Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Goossens, Sir Eugene Aynsley (1893–1962)

by David Salter

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (MUP), 1996

Eugene Aynsley Goossens (1893-1962), by unknown photographer

Eugene Aynsley Goossens (1893-1962), by unknown photographer

State Library of New South Wales, GPO 2 - 08175

Sir Eugene Aynsley Goossens (1893-1962), conductor and composer, was born on 26 May 1893 at Kentish Town, London, eldest of five children of Eugene Goossens (d.1906), a violinist and opera conductor of Belgian birth, and his wife Annie Elizabeth Mary Agnes, a singer and daughter of the operatic basso Thomas Aynsley Cook. His paternal grandfather, another Eugene, had also been a violinist and conductor. Young Eugene was given music lessons at home before being sent in 1901 as a boarder to St Francis Xavier School at Bruges, Belgium; from 1903 he attended the Muziek-Conservatorium twice a week and was trained in violin and solfège. Having rejoined his family in 1906 at Liscard, Cheshire, he continued his studies at the Christian Brothers' Institute and at the Liverpool College of Music. He developed a particular passion for steam locomotives and ocean liners which he was to retain throughout his life.

In 1907 Goossens' violin playing gained him the Liverpool scholarship to the Royal College of Music in London. His professors were S. A. Rivarde (violin), J. St O. Dykes (piano), (Sir) Henry Wood (theory) and Sir Charles Stanford (composition). Although he was a nervous performer, Goossens quickly established a reputation for his stylish student compositions. He was awarded the Musicians' Company's silver medal in 1911 and in the following year was made an associate of the R.C.M. After graduation he worked as a violinist in theatre bands, in the Queen's Hall Orchestra and in various string quartets. He was rejected for military service in World War I on medical grounds; his brother Adolphè (a gifted horn player) perished on the Somme.

At the short-notice request of (Sir) Thomas Beecham, in 1916 Goossens conducted The Critic, an opera by Stanford. Goossens' success at his formal début encouraged Beecham to use him as his unofficial deputy, an arrangement which continued for almost a decade and which led to more prominent engagements directing Diaghilev's Les Ballets Russes and the Carl Rosa Opera Company at Covent Garden. At the register office, London, on 18 November 1919 he married Dorothy Millar, née Dodsworth, a divorcee. They had three daughters before the marriage ended in divorce in 1928. In June 1921 Goossens had assembled a virtuoso orchestra under his own name to give concerts of contemporary music in London. These included a critically acclaimed first concert performance in England of Stravinsky's Le Sacre du Printemps, with the approving composer in attendance. The Evening News referred to the young conductor as 'London's Music Wizard'.

Invited by George Eastman, the 'Kodak King', in 1923 Goossens became conductor of the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra in New York State, a post which also involved teaching at the Eastman School of Music. The position was seasonal, allowing him to conduct the great orchestras of Philadelphia, Boston, New York and San Francisco, and he returned to Europe each summer for additional appearances, including the premières of his major compositions. On 5 January 1930 at North Congregational Church, Detroit, Michigan, he married Janet Lewis, fourteen years his junior. They were to have two daughters before being divorced in 1944.

In 1931 Goossens succeeded Fritz Reiner as permanent conductor of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, a post he retained for the next fifteen years. Appointed to the Légion d'honneur in 1934, he was by then a recognized figure in international music. As a composer he was placed alongside his British contemporaries (Sir) William Walton, (Sir) Arthur Bliss and Ralph Vaughan Williams. Goossens was happy to exploit his authority as a conductor to champion new music in his programmes. A tall, handsome and immaculately dressed figure with thinning, swept-back hair, he conducted in the grand charismatic manner with a long baton and large beat. His management of orchestras was firm, but always based on an immense practical knowledge of instrumental technique and on his prodigiously detailed memory of a vast, wide-ranging repertoire.

On 18 April 1946 at Paris, Kentucky, Goossens secretly married an American divorcee Marjorie Foulkrod, née Fetter (b.1912). After a well-received tour of Australia later that year, during which he conducted the State orchestras, Goossens was invited by (Sir) Charles Moses, the general manager of the Australian Broadcasting Commission, to become the first permanent conductor of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. In addition, he was offered the directorship of the New South Wales State Conservatorium of Music. When he accepted the concurrent posts, the two salaries gave him a combined income greater than that of the prime minister.

Goossens returned to Australia in July 1947 and set about his new tasks with characteristic energy and decisiveness. Having vowed, on arrival, to make the S.S.O. 'one of the six best orchestras in the world', he soon jettisoned its weaker members and engaged or promoted younger players. The orchestra responded to his deep musicianship and skill as a trainer; the public (and critical) response was enthusiastic to the point where subscriptions soon doubled, and the A.B.C. was able to attract soloists and conductors of the first rank to perform with its orchestras. Goossens introduced Australian audiences to more than fifty major works which had previously been ignored or considered too challenging. He also championed local composition, giving many first performances, among them the world première (1946) of John Antill's Corroboree.

At the conservatorium, Goossens insisted on an immediate lift in standards, failed whole classes, dismissed staff, and traded on his reputation in Europe to recruit new teachers. He disbanded the mediocre conservatorium choir, conducted the senior orchestra himself and staged a series of ambitious opera performances, including his own Judith for which he selected a little-known Sydney stenographer, (Dame) Joan Sutherland, to make her operatic début in the title role. Whenever possible, he taught the diploma classes in harmony, counterpoint and composition; his students included Richard Bonynge, Maureen Jones, Brenton Langbein, Geoffrey Parsons and Malcolm Williamson. Despite his rigorous, uncompromising style of teaching, Goossens was an encourager, unfailingly generous with letters of introduction for talented young musicians who wished to further their studies abroad.

By the early 1950s Goossens had established himself as a major local celebrity: he was featured conducting Tchaikovsky in the newsreels; his free outdoor concerts attracted crowds of 25,000; and his tireless agitation for a performing arts centre in Sydney helped to push the State government into planning the Sydney Opera House on Bennelong Point, the spectacular site that Goossens had first suggested. He directed a series of historic sessions for EMI (Australia) Pty Ltd which produced the first commercial recordings of the S.S.O. Notwithstanding a punishing schedule, he took on the presidency of the State council of the Federated Music Clubs of Australia, published the first volume of his projected autobiography, Overture and Beginners (London, 1951), and continued to compose and to pursue his hobbies of photography and painting. In 1955 he was knighted.

At a more private level, a lifelong interest in pantheism and the occult led Goossens into friendship (from 1952) with the notorious Sydney 'witch' and artist Rosaleen Norton and her lover, the poet Gavin Greenlees. He frequently visited their flat at Kings Cross. This rather indiscreet association came to the notice of the police in October 1955 and an undercover vice-squad investigation secured a bundle of letters from Goossens to Norton which the police considered sufficiently incriminating to support a charge of 'Scandalous Conduct'. When Goossens returned to Sydney on 9 March 1956 from an extended European tour, his baggage was searched at the airport by customs officers and found to contain more than one thousand indecent photographs, as well as books, masks, incense and a quantity of strip film. He was taken to police headquarters where he made a signed statement.

At the prosecution in Sydney on 22 March he was too ill to appear. His counsel J. W. Shand pleaded guilty, on his behalf, to having imported prohibited goods. Moses gave evidence as to his good character, but Goossens received the maximum fine, £100. He immediately resigned both his posts and returned to England two months later. The Sydney Morning Herald in its editorial commented: 'The end of his career has been pitiful beyond measure'.

Goossens was briefly reunited with his wife on his return to Europe in May, but they were soon living apart. In failing health, he took a variety of rented accommodation in London, including a room at the Colonnade Hotel. At his invitation, he was joined by a young pianist from Adelaide, Linda Main, who was his support and companion for the remainder of his life. News of the scandal surrounding his departure from Australia had reached Europe and he struggled to find regular work as a concert conductor. When Bonynge visited Goossens he found him 'absolutely destroyed. It was tragic'. Nevertheless, the British Broadcasting Corporation and several gramophone companies remembered his particular skill with complex, unfamiliar scores and engaged him to direct a series of significant studio recordings.

Taken ill in Switzerland while visiting two of his daughters, Goossens died of rheumatic heart disease and a haemorrhaging gastric ulcer on 13 June 1962 in Hillingdon Hospital, Middlesex, on the night of his return to London; he was buried with Catholic rites in St Pancras and Islington cemetery, North London. A substantial, but somewhat cool, obituary in The Times described his conducting as 'urbane, civilised and immensely professional'. His five daughters survived him. Goossens left his residual estate 'including all & every copyrights and royalties lawfully arising from my works to my faithful companion and assistant Miss Linda Main'.

Although he was a highly skilled and prolific composer, Goossens' music has been criticized as 'lacking in sap' and exhibiting 'singular unmemorability'. His works were much performed between the wars but his output has fallen into neglect and its often severe technical demands tend to resist revival. Perhaps because he spent so much time conducting the music of more talented contemporaries, his own compositions display impressive eclecticism without finding a distinctive personal voice. The restless quality in his larger works tends to undermine the impact of their striking thematic and formal design. Goossens' early mastery of orchestral colour—the scherzo Tam o'Shanter (1916) and Sinfonietta (1922)—derived from Richard Strauss and Claude Debussy, while his chamber pieces echo the French musical impressionists of the late nineteenth century. His most important and distinctive works are the Symphony No.1 (1940) and Symphony No.2 (1942-44), two operas, Judith (1929) and Don Juan de Manara (1935), both to librettos by Arnold Bennett, and the Concerto for Oboe (1927), composed for his brother Léon. In 1991 the A.B.C. named a new studio in Sydney after Goossens in belated recognition of his contribution to music in Australia.

Select Bibliography

  • R. Norton and G. Greenlees, The Art of Rosaleen Norton (Syd, 1952)
  • D. Ewan (ed), Musicians Since 1900 (NY, 1978)
  • S. Sadie (ed), The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians (Lond, 1980)
  • P. Sametz, Play On! (Syd, 1992)
  • C. Rosen, The Goossens (Lond, 1993)
  • Current Biography (New York), 1945
  • People (Sydney), 20 June 1951, p 11
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 27 May, 14, 19 Aug, 19 Nov 1946, 6 May 1947, 17 Apr 1949, 20 Nov 1954, 15, 23 Mar, 12 Apr 1956, 14 June 1962, 26 Oct 1973
  • Times (London), 14 June 1962
  • New South Wales State Conservatorium of Music, Sydney, Archives
  • Muziek-Conservatorium of Bruges, Belgium, Archives
  • Royal College of Music, London, Archives
  • Eastman School of Music, Rochester, New York Archives
  • ABC Document Archive, Sydney
  • Attorney-General's Dept of New South Wales Archives
  • John Fairfax Group Pty Ltd, Sydney, Archives
  • transcripts of interviews (1992) with Dame Sidonie Goossens, Det Sgt H. Trevennar, Mr Richard Bonynge and Dame Joan Sutherland (held by author)
  • family information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

David Salter, 'Goossens, Sir Eugene Aynsley (1893–1962)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/goossens-sir-eugene-aynsley-10329/text18283, published first in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 20 August 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (MUP), 1996

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2017

Eugene Aynsley Goossens (1893-1962), by unknown photographer

Eugene Aynsley Goossens (1893-1962), by unknown photographer

State Library of New South Wales, GPO 2 - 08175