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Joyce, Eileen Alannah (1908–1991)

by David Tunley

This article was published online in 2014

Eileen Joyce (1908-1991), concert pianist, was born on 1 January 1908 at Zeehan, Tasmania, fourth of seven children of Tasmanian-born Joseph Thomas Joyce, miner, and his Victorian-born wife Alice Gertrude, née May. By 1911 the family was living at Boulder, a gold-mining town adjacent to Kalgoorlie, Western Australia. Like many mining communities, Boulder and Kalgoorlie resounded with music from choirs, bands, and orchestras reflecting the traditions of miners from many countries. Central to Eileen’s musical training were the piano lessons given her by Sister Mary Monica Butler at St Joseph’s Convent School, where she was educated.

A system of examinations, then organised by London academies and colleges of music, ensured a high standard for music teachers and students in both city and country. It was through this system that Joyce’s talent was discovered by the visiting London examiner Charles Schilsky in 1923. So moved was he by her playing that he immediately wrote to the Kalgoorlie Miner that she ‘bids fair to become within the next very few years a pianist of sensational order and will take her place in the very first ranks among her contemporaries’ (1923, 4). She was then fifteen years old. Money raised on the goldfields provided a two-year scholarship for her to attend Osborne, a Loreto Convent school in Perth, where she extended her general education and was guided in piano by an extraordinarily gifted teacher, Sister John More. In 1926, the last year of her scholarship, a committee was formed to raise funds for the young pianist’s training abroad. Joyce left Australia in December 1926 to study under the director of the Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy Hochschule für Musik at Leipzig, Germany, the pianist Max Pauer.

Pauer’s classes proved too advanced and Joyce transferred to Robert Teichmüller, another teacher at the institution. Under his instruction she made great progress. In 1930, after she decided to move to London, Teichmüller wrote to the distinguished English conductor Albert Coates commending her highly. She made her London début in September that year playing Prokofiev’s third piano concerto at the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) Proms under Sir Henry Wood. During the next three years she extended her technique and musicianship through studies with Tobias Matthay, Adelina de Lara, Artur Schnabel, and Myra Hess. BBC broadcast recitals began to spread her name, but the most effective medium was recordings. The first of these came out in June 1933, following a small payment to Parlophone for a private recording. Her brilliant, sure-fingered technique quickly led to a contract.

Three years later Joyce embarked on her first Australian tour, organised by the fledgling Australian Broadcasting Commission. Shortly after her return to London, in a rapid romance she married Douglas Legh Barratt, a stockbroker, on 16 September 1937 at the register office, Marylebone; a son was born in 1939. It was an unhappy marriage that was cut short by Barratt’s death at sea in 1942 while on service with the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve. Like many musicians, Joyce helped raise morale by touring and playing during World War II, often with the London Philharmonic Orchestra in theatres and music halls.

During the 1940s Joyce formed a relationship with Christopher Mann (d. 1978), a theatrical and film agent whose list of artists, musicians, and actors included some of the greatest stars in Britain and the United States of America. It is not known whether they were officially married, although both claimed they were, and they were regarded so by the public (Davis 2001, 114). Mann managed Joyce’s career, arranging international tours for her in Europe, the United States, Africa, South America, and Asia, as well as another to Australia in 1948. She gained a star status that she enjoyed for the rest of her life. Her glamorous image owed much to her lavish concert gowns, created by leading designers, particularly Norman Hartnell. The couple’s combined wealth enabled them to buy property in Mayfair and farms in the country, including two at Chartwell previously owned by (Sir) Winston Churchill, who became their neighbour.

Extending her career into film and television, Joyce performed on screen and in soundtracks, and acted in A Girl in a Million (1946) and Man of Flowers (1983). In 1949 she took up the harpsichord and clavichord, becoming part of the movement to revive early music then taking place in Britain. By 1960 she had made more than one hundred recordings, some of which were highly acclaimed. It was unfortunate that she was often regarded as a light-weight pianist because of the many recordings of shorter works which established her name. In the 1930s, she had practised seven hours a day, amassing a wide repertoire that included over seventy concertos. She gave the first performances of Shostakovich's piano concertos in Britain—the first on 4 January 1936 with the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Sir Henry Wood, and the second on 5 September 1958 with the same orchestra under Sir Malcolm Sargent. Her film work is probably best known: in 1945 she played Rachmaninoff's second piano concerto on the soundtrack in two feature films, Seventh Veil and Brief Encounter.

Generosity to both her fans and to charitable causes had built her popularity further. She often chatted with admirers at her concerts, and performed in schools, asylums, hospitals, and prisons. Her gruelling professional regimen, which included annual tours of Britain, radio and television broadcasts, recording sessions, and lengthy concert programs, provoked acute physical and nervous problems in mid-life, including a nervous breakdown in 1953. For many years she suffered from rheumatism and sciatica.

After effectively retiring from the concert scene in 1960, Joyce continued to be involved in the music world. She encouraged young musicians and supported musical causes. She returned to Perth in 1979 to adjudicate at the National Eisteddfod, and the same year donated $37,600 to the University of Western Australia for an Eileen Joyce Music Fund, as well as giving Western Australia a clavichord, an antique French music chair, a portrait of herself by Augustus John, and a bronze bust by Anna Mahler. In 1981 she attended the opening of the Eileen Joyce Studio at UWA, which she had financed at a cost of $110,000. Awarded honorary doctorates in music from the universities of Cambridge (1971), Western Australia (1979), and Melbourne (1982), she was appointed CMG in 1981. Survived by her son, she died on 25 March 1991 at Redhill, Surrey, and was cremated. She is remembered in Tasmania by the Eileen Joyce Memorial Park.

Research edited by Karen Fox

Select Bibliography

  • Callaway Centre, University of Western Australia. CRE 001, Eileen Joyce Collection
  •  Davis, Richard. Eileen Joyce: A Portrait. Fremantle, WA: Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 2001
  • Hubble, Ava. ‘Always Proud of Her Origins.’ Sydney Morning Herald, 9 April 1991, 14
  • Kalgoorlie Miner. ‘Musical Prodigy in Kalgoorlie.’ 16 October 1923, 4.

Additional Resources

Citation details

David Tunley, 'Joyce, Eileen Alannah (1908–1991)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/joyce-eileen-alannah-14817/text26003, published online 2014, accessed online 21 November 2018.

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