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  • Writer's pictureGraham Abbott

The Music of Eugene Goossens

It's a sad reality that a person's achievements, even their greatness, can be overshadowed by a single event which serves to blot out so much that is good. I'm we could all think of examples from the worlds of politics, royalty, sport, art…

In the world of music there is a figure who was in his day a fine conductor and a fine composer, someone who had a major influence on the artistic life of Australia, and yet all his achievements in both conducting and composition count for very little in the eyes of some because of one scandalous event. He is of course Sir Eugene Goossens. Here’s some of his music, which I hope will get you in the right frame of mind. [listen]

In this post I want to talk about the music of Goossens in its own right. That he was a great conductor is not in question. After studying in Bruges and London and establishing himself as a fine violinist, he rapidly rose to prominence as a conductor, initially as an assistant to Sir Thomas Beecham. He championed new and recent music, and, like his father and grandfather before him, was a renowned conductor of opera.

That Goossens' career was ruined by the scandal which befell him in Australia in 1956 is also not in question. His association with Roseleen Norton and her followers in Kings Cross, taking part in sexual rituals, was enough to for him to have been charged with "scandalous conduct", which he wasn't. He was charged, however, with the importation of material then considered pornographic when this material was found in his possession on returning to Australia on a flight from Britain. This public humiliation was enough to make him flee the country and, in the opinion of many, it hastened his death, with occurred six years later.

The scandal was enough to also blot out for decades Goossens' name from the list of fine composers in the first half of the 20th century. Fortunately this situation has been changing in recent years as more of his music has become available on recordings. I want to share just a little of the unjustly-neglected music which flowed from the pen of this amazing musician.

Eugene Goossens

Aynsley Eugene Goossens was born in London in 1893. He studied violin and composition at the Royal College of Music in London. His contemporaries included Arthur Benjamin, Arthur Bliss and Herbert Howells.

In April 1912 both sides of his professional life - composing and conducting - made simultaneous debuts when he conducted his Variations on a Chinese Theme at an RCM concert. Goossens' Variations (which are based on the same so-called Chinese theme used by Weber in 1809 and Hindemith in 1943) impressed those who heard the 19 year old composer conduct it in 1912. It was repeated - again under the composer's baton - the following year at the Proms. [listen]

In the period up to the early 20s Goossens became established as one of Britain's leading conductors. He was famous for being able to take over from other conductors at very short notice and he had a prodigious facility for being able to take in complex scores rapidly. In 1921 he formed his own orchestra and launched a series of contemporary music concerts. Among other achievements he directed the British concert premiere of Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring, but this period saw him no less active as a composer.

He wrote chamber music and piano music as well as works for orchestra. Among his chamber music are pieces which show an effortless assimilation of French styles - particularly the world of Debussy - and more English pastoral idioms. The Four Sketches for flute violin and piano date from 1913. [listen]

Avoiding service in the first world war due to a heart defect, Goossens produced a great deal of music for piano at this time. Perhaps his best known solo piano work is Kaleidoscope, a suite of 12 short pieces which was completed in 1918. These short pieces evoke the world of Schumann's Scenes from Childhood, Tchaikovsky's Children's Album, and Debussy's Children's Corner. [listen]

In London in the early 20s, Goossens produced highly accomplished works across all the fields already mentioned: orchestral, chamber and piano music. The Rhythmic Dance for two pianos (dating from 1920) began life as a work for pianola, and the two-piano version was followed by arrangements for orchestra and band some years later. There are hints of the world of Debussy, Ravel and Stravinsky in this music, yet it also fits perfectly into the world of English music of the time. [listen]

Goossens' own orchestral concerts of contemporary music in London eventually ended when the project went bankrupt. The United States then beckoned when George Eastman asked Goossens to be the conductor of the newly-formed Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra from 1923. This began a fruitful period in which Goossens developed his reputation as both conductor and composer on both sides of the Atlantic.

Just before taking up his post in Rochester, Goossens had his Phantasy Sextet performed at the Berkshire Festival of Chamber Music. The work was written in enormous haste as his conducting engagements had crowded his diary to the exclusion of composition for the first half of 1923. He created a work in a single movement but with three contrasting sections, and it's a remarkable piece, full of freshness and energy. Rather than being scored for the more usual pairs of violins, violas and cellos, Goossens chose to write the work for three violins, one viola and two cellos. This is its finale. [listen]

In his piano music, Goossens was largely a miniaturist. His works are usually collections of short pieces on an intimate scale which say what they have to say eloquently and with great finesse and charm. Often they're also programmatic; Kaleidoscope was a good example of this. In 1924, Goossens produced a set of three short piano preludes called Ships in which each movement describes a different sort of ocean craft. Here he shows himself more aligned with European composers like Honegger who reflected modern technology in their music, and incidentally, all of Goossens' piano music displays the fact that he was, in addition to everything else, an excellent pianist. This is the third piece from the set, called "The Liner". [listen]

Despite being established in the USA, Goossens returned to England every year to undertake conducting engagements. Among the major works he composed during this time was his one act opera Judith, based on the gory tale of justified decapitation from the Old Testament apocrypha. This was written in 1925 and premiered at Covent Garden four years later.

Judith requires a cast of five singers and takes around an hour and a quarter to perform. At the time inevitable comparisons were made with Strauss's Salome, on the basis of style and of subject matter, but Goossens' work makes quite a different effect on the listener and in my opinion is certainly due for revival and reassessment. (Sadly, I no longer have access to the the 1980 studio recording of the complete work, featuring Pearl Berridge and Raymond Myers, and to the best of my knowledge it’s not available publicly.)

Quite apart from being the son and grandson of famous conductors, Goossens was part of an amazingly talented musical family, the eldest of five children who were all astounding musicians. Leon Goossens was one of the world's greatest oboists, and his sisters Sidonie and Marie were renowned harpists. Their brother, Adolphe, was a fine horn player but tragically was killed in action in the first world war. The generation was amazingly long-lived, ending only with the death of Sidonie Goossens in 2004 at the age of 105.

Sidonie Goossens
Marie Goossens

In 1927 Goossens wrote an oboe concerto for his brother Leon, a single movement work full of elegance and colour which seems to tread well the fine line between the lyrical beauty of which the oboe is capable and the technical demands required in a concerto. [listen]

Leon Goossens

By the end of the 20s Goossens' reputation as a conductor could accurately be described as being "international". He was regarded as one of the most important British musicians of his time, not only as a conductor, but it was his conducting work which naturally attracted the most glamour, especially in the United States. In 1931 he was appointed musical director of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, replacing Fritz Reiner in the post. During the 30s his output as a composer slowed dramatically, writing relatively few works. He was clearly a success in Cincinnati as he stayed in the post for 15 years while continuing to conduct elsewhere in the USA and in Britain.

The major work to appear during this period was the first of his two symphonies, which was begun in 1938 and completed in 1940. It was received politely at its early performances in the United States, as well as later ones in Britain during the second world war, but Goossens was now finding that he was regarded as part of the "old school" rather than being a "bright young thing". The first symphony is, with the benefit of hindsight, demonstrably an excellent work, more than 40 minutes in duration, the work of a mature and skilled composer. This is the third movement. [listen]

One of Goossens' enduring legacies to the musical world came about during his time in Cincinnati. In 1942 he commissioned 18 American composers to write stirring and patriotic fanfares to be played at the orchestra's concerts that season, as a contribution to the war effort. Most of these are rarely heard today but one has become a classic: Aaron Copland's contribution was his Fanfare for the Common Man.

Goossens began his second symphony two years after the first and completed it in 1945. He himself admitted that it's reflective of the wartime in which it was composed. Like the first symphony it shows a composer totally at ease in manipulating large forms and completely at home in writing for the orchestra. It too was received with mixed feelings by those who heard its early performances, sensing a composer out of touch with the latest music, writing in an old fashioned form in an old fashioned way. Others criticised him for being too influenced by all the music he was conducting, and not really finding his own voice.

While there may be merit in some of these ideas, the fact remains that the second symphony says important things in an impressive way and it, like the rest of Goossens' output, displays a technique which is rarely encountered today. This is its third movement. [listen]

In 1946 Goossens was offered one of the most prestigious appointments in the British musical establishment: musical director of the newly formed Covent Garden Royal Opera and Ballet Company. He turned it down, it is said, because he would be subservient to the company's general administrator. Rather he left the United States and moved to Australia, taking up the simultaneous appointments of chief conductor of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra (the first person to hold that title) and director of the NSW State Conservatorium of Music (now the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, part of the University of Sydney).

In 1951 Goossens revived Judith at the Sydney Conservatorium. To the surprise of many he selected a young soprano to sing the title role who was not at a student there but in whom he sensed some potential. It was in fact this soprano's operatic debut but she went on to have a pretty good career; her name was Joan Sutherland.

In 1954 Goossens premiered in Sydney a work which occupied him for something like ten years: his gigantic oratorio The Apocalypse, regarded by many as the climax of his career as a composer. Scored for gargantuan orchestral and vocal forces, it too is due for serious reassessment on the part of performers and audience alike. [listen]

In the nine years Goossens spent in Sydney he conducted major works which had never been performed in this country - The Rite of Spring, Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande, orchestral works of Richard Strauss - the list is incredible. He developed the SSO's playing to very high standards, and is the person generally held responsible for promoting the idea that Sydney's new opera house should be built on Bennelong Point. Goossens became the centre of Sydney's social elite and was knighted in 1955, a fact which made his eventual fall in the scandal of 1956 all the more tragic.

After his return to London in 1956 Goossens lived another six years. He was, in the words of Richard Bonynge (who visited him at the time) "absolutely destroyed", but he was offered work by the BBC and he made some significant recordings.

As a composer, the most important work of his final years was probably the Concert Piece op 65, writtenin 1958 for the unusual combination of oboe (doubling cor anglais), two harps and orchestra. Of course, the solo parts were written for his siblings Leon, Sidonie and Marie. It shows Goossens, among other things, conceding far more to the gestures of modernism than his earlier works had allowed. This is the middle movement, called "Chorale". [listen]

Sir Eugene Goossens died in Hillingdon in Middlesex in June 1962 at the age of 69. With major releases of his orchestral music and piano music on CD in recent years, and the chamber works starting to appear as well, Goossens' work as a composer is finally able to be assessed with some sort of clarity. His connection with Australia makes him of special significance to our musical psyche and I hope this article has given you the inspiration to explore his music for its own sake.

This article is based on a Keys To Music program first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in August, 2008.

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