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Geoffrey Penwill Parsons (1929–1995)

by John Carmody

This article was published:

Geoffrey Parsons, by Max Dupain, 1957

Geoffrey Parsons, by Max Dupain, 1957

National Archives of Australia, SP1011/​1:3668

Geoffrey Penwill Parsons (1929–1995), pianist, was born on 15 June 1929 at Summer Hill, Sydney, youngest of three sons of Sydney-born parents, Francis Hedley Parsons, carrier, and his wife Edith Vera, née Buckland. Geoffrey’s education was at Summer Hill Public School and then (1941–45) at Canterbury Boys’ High School. Obtaining his Leaving certificate in 1945, he placed first in New South Wales in music, winning a university exhibition and a Teachers’ College scholarship. He subsequently enrolled in architecture at the University of Sydney but took no serious part in the course. In 1947 he enrolled in arts but did not proceed, instead accepting a scholarship, offered the previous year, to study at the New South Wales State Conservatorium of Music. He graduated in 1948 but had already begun making a name in Australian music.

The Parsons family was musical. Both Geoffrey’s parents and his elder brothers were choristers at the Petersham Congregational Church and Frank and Vera were also members of the Royal Philharmonic Society of Sydney and the Hurlstone Choral Society. But Geoffrey’s musical gift was special and had been first noticed by a family friend, the eminent musician George Vern Barnett. Barnett arranged for one of his young pupils, Elva Biggs, to teach piano to the seven-year-old boy. By 1941 he was well known as a pianist, notably as a member of the group of schoolfellows organised by Leslie Sage, the music master at Canterbury Boys’, which included the brilliant boy-soprano Frank Osborne and two flautists; they performed in the Sydney Town Hall and other venues. About the time of his twelfth birthday, Parsons began seven years of study with the renowned performer and pedagogue Winifred Burston, who had brought the Busoni tradition to Australia, at the conservatorium of music. In 1939 he had won the prize for under-twelve piano solo in the City of Sydney Eisteddfod; in 1944 he won the Associated Music Clubs of Australia scholarship; and in 1945 he ‘enthralled’ (Forbes Advocate, 1) an audience at Forbes with Chopin and Addinsell: a reporter wrote that he ‘plays with a dramatic intensity that is astounding for a boy of sixteen’ (Forbes Advocate 1945, 6). By this time he was already performing for the Australian Broadcasting Commission (ABC), including on the Young Australia program.

In 1946 Parsons was one of a duo that won the City of Sydney Victory Eisteddfod open prize for piano duet, and in 1947 he was one of the State finalists in the ABC concerto and vocal competition. When he performed in those finals (with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra under Joseph Post) in April, the Sydney Morning Herald’s critic, Stanley Monks, astutely wrote that his playing showed ‘great spaciousness,’ ‘command over wide tonal shading,’ and ‘a vivid colouring which he could tone down to pastel shades’ (Sydney Morning Herald, 8). Indeed, in later years a colleague heard him repeating a chord scores of times: ‘I want to achieve a “fat” pianissimo,’ Parsons explained (Chard, pers. comm.). In late 1947 he won the open piano championship at the City of Sydney Eisteddfod.

By the middle of that year Parsons was giving concerts both as soloist and accompanist, while attracting favourable reviews: one newspaper item described him as a ‘cheery, fair-haired … pianist’ (Sun 1947, 12). In mid-1948 his career as an accompanist had a serious start when (with the contralto Essie Ackland and the young violinist Carmel Hakendorf) he made an Australia-wide tour. It was the first of thirty-four tours he made of Australia. The following year he was associate artist with the baritone Peter Dawson on tours of Australia and New Zealand, during which Dawson described him as ‘one of the leading accompanists in Australia and Britain’ (Barrier Miner 1949, 3) and ‘the best accompanist he ever had’ (Brisbane Telegraph 1949, 8). Dawson took him on a tour of Britain in 1950: though the venues and repertoire were not especially elevating, the professional experience and opportunities for contacts were valuable. Remaining in Britain, he earned a living partly by playing in sometimes seedy hotel bars.

In 1957 Parsons made his first return tour of Australia with the British tenor Richard Lewis, whom he had met while working on the music staff of the Glyndebourne Opera in 1955. He returned to Glyndebourne in 1958 and, subsequently, in each season from 1960 to 1965, all the time greatly admired by the singers. In between, at the invitation of the German baritone Gerhard Hüsch (whom he had avidly listened to on ABC radio as a boy), he travelled to Munich to deepen his musical education. They had performed together in Britain, notably with Winterreise, and developed a rapport, principally because the young Australian learned a great deal from him about Schubert, Parsons’s lifelong favourite composer. In Munich he studied and performed with Hüsch and undertook some chamber-music concerts. He also had an intense series of lessons from Friedrich Wührer, who, Parsons said, taught him how to practise as well as inducting him into the essence of performing Schubert and showing him ‘how to make the best possible sounds on the piano’ (Davis 2006, 56).

Back in Britain Parsons filled his diary with concerts for an array of singers and instrumentalists. A turning point came in 1961 when the recording producer Walter Legge asked him to play for his wife, the legendary singer (Dame) Elisabeth Schwarzkopf. Together, in what some considered the most significant musical partnership of his career, they were to grace international concert platforms and recording studios until 1979.

Another patron, Lady (Harriette) Lamington, supported him financially and hectored London agents on his behalf, with some success. She also underwrote the costs of his visit to Munich. But his most important partnership, outside professional music, though it did involve a musician, was with the Toowoomba-born baritone and singing teacher Erich Vietheer, whom he had met in 1958. Though, like most such personal relationships, it had its ups and downs, they were essentially soul-mates with no musical rivalry between them. They did, early on, give some recitals together, but as Erich’s success as a teacher grew, that aspect of their lives remained something for conversation at their home in West Hampstead (‘The Parsonage,’ as friends called it). Erich’s death from a heart attack in 1989 left a void in Parsons’s life; he commissioned a stained-glass window in Vietheer’s memory in St Cyprian’s Anglican Church, Marylebone—the church they had attended and where Parsons organised a musically lavish memorial service.

Appointed OBE in 1977 and AO in 1990, Parsons was an honorary member of the Royal Academy of Music (1975) and the Guildhall School of Music (1983); a fellow of the Royal College of Music (1987); and the Royal Philharmonic Society’s instrumentalist award (1992). From 1983 he taught at the Royal College of Music, being appointed Prince Consort Professor of Piano Accompaniment in 1994. His last months were torrid, with the discovery and surgical removal of tumours caused by the skin malignancy Merkel cell carcinoma. Despite numerous operations, he insisted on fulfilling many of his recital commitments, giving his last concert, in Stockholm, with Barbara Bonney on 10 December 1994. He died on 26 January 1995 at Westminster and was cremated; his ashes were brought back to Australia. His funeral service was held in the same church as Vietheer’s.

Parsons was one of Australia’s greatest musicians and, as an international star, was the peer of Dame Nellie Melba and Dame Joan Sutherland in calibre and renown. His discography is extensive and the catalogue of singers and instrumentalists with whom he performed and recorded is long, including such names as Birgit Nilsson, Dame Janet Baker, Olaf Bär, Christa Ludwig, Jessye Norman, and Lauris Elms. Though he loved performing with Australians, he almost never played Australian music (and, in any case, was out of sympathy with all twentieth-century music, apart from Richard Strauss’s works). Nevertheless, he was supportive of fledgling Australian musicians when they came to Britain; the pianist John Talbot remembered his ‘kind and generous intercession,’ which ‘gave me a swifter entrée into the musical life of London than … I might have found by my own unaided efforts’ (Talbot, pers. comm.).

Virtually everyone who performed with Parsons revered the experience and used words like profound, impeccable, insightful, and musically imaginative to describe his playing; experts considered him superior to Gerald Moore, whom he succeeded in renown. Some wondered why a musician of his brilliance did not pursue a career as a soloist; his invariable answer was that he derived greater musical and emotional satisfaction from collaborations, especially with singers. Friends also remembered the fastidiousness of dress and grooming of the elegant man: ‘Mad on clothes’ (Kimber pers. comm.), he had transformed from a plump schoolboy in short trousers to a musician of close to six feet (183 cm) tall, who seemed born to appear in a suit of tails.

Music was almost a religion for Parsons, but he was also a committed Christian. Though brought up Congregationalist, he had become a confirmed Anglican (in St Paul’s Cathedral) quite soon after moving to London. Family was also of profound importance, especially his devotion to his mother. When he left Australia, his father had written to him: ‘Be steadfast in your faith … accept praise as a reward for work well done … disdain what is obvious flattery’ (Davis 2006, 20). One of his aphorisms probably epitomises the man and his values: ‘The why of music is terribly important.’ The Accompanists’ Guild of SA Inc. named an award in his honour, and the University of Sydney established the Geoffrey Parsons Australian scholarship.

Research edited by Karen Fox

Select Bibliography

  • Barrier Miner (Broken Hill). ‘Peter Dawson Has Sense of Humor.’ 29 April 1949, 3
  • Brisbane Telegraph. ‘Peter Dawson on Queensland Tour.’ 28 May 1949. 8
  • Chard, Geoffrey. Personal communication
  • Davis, Richard. Geoffrey Parsons: Among Friends. Sydney: ABC Books, 2006
  • Forbes Advocate. ‘About People.’ 14 September 1945, 6
  • Forbes Advocate. ‘Youthful Pianist Enthralls Audience.’ 7 September 1945, 1
  • Garrett, David. ‘Accompanist who Was “Simply the Best.”’ Sydney Morning Herald, 31 January 1995, 15
  • Kimber, Beryl. Personal communication
  • National Library of Australia. MS Acc04.252, MS Acc05.150, MS Acc05.186, MS Acc06.117, MS Acc07.016, MS Acc12.050, Papers of Geoffrey Parsons, 1950–circa 1999, 2005
  • Sun (Sydney). ‘Youth Has Fling on Air.’ 24 August 1947, 12
  • Sydney Morning Herald. ‘A.B.C. Finalists Appear at Town Hall.’ 18 April 1947, 8
  • Talbot, John. Personal communication

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Citation details

John Carmody, 'Parsons, Geoffrey Penwill (1929–1995)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2020, accessed online 14 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 19, (ANU Press), 2021

View the front pages for Volume 19

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