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By Renée Goossens

Published by ABC books 2003-09-04

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Copyright material

Memories of the conductor and composer Eugene Goossens by one of his daughters

Going to a concert - Australia

The chauffeur collected us from Wahroonga as he always did before a concert. It felt very grand. I had never been to a concert before. In New York, they had always said I was too little to stay up so late. (But now I was seven years old.)

During the journey it was already becoming dark, much earlier than it used to in New York. Crossing Sydney Harbour Bridge was particularly beautiful at night. We counted the illuminated ferries and an ocean liner festooned with strings of lights which made it look like an enormous, peculiarly shaped Christmas tree. With the water sparkling, it was much more beautiful than anything I had ever seen before.

Parking at the Conservatorium, we went straight to Daddy's rooms. The Director's Studio it was called, one huge room with a lustrous grand piano, a dark brown leather sofa and several comfortable velvet arm chairs. There were French doors opening onto a terrace leading to a tropical garden which overlooked the Botanical Gardens and in the distance, dancing water.

"Is this really your room, Daddy?" I asked, running into his outstretched arms and enjoying a hug.

"Yes, my little one. This is where I work. Piano students come for auditions. I rehearse with the Chamber Music groups, rest before concerts, and talk to members of the staff and the orchestra. The sofa is comfy enough for an afternoon nap. It's a quiet place for composing, too. I rather like it."

"Time to go, Gene dear." My stepmother was keeping an eye on her watch. Daddy liked to be at the Town Hall at least half an hour prior to a concert. Donie had walked down ahead, to tune her harp.


Sydney Town Hall was dark, tall, wide and seemed to me to be a very old building. But once you walked up the stairs — we usually went in by a side entrance —and across the foyer, it was like being in a film. Glass chandeliers hung from the ceilings which were painted with gold around the edges. It seemed enormous. We went straight to the Green Room, which was a large space with brown walls, lots of dark wood, rather dreary and no green anywhere at all.

"Why is it a Green Room, Daddy?" I asked.

"It always is, little one. Don't ask silly questions."

His reply made me wonder if he really knew either. To the side of The Green Room was a small room with 'Private' on the door. Daddy put on his bow tie and dress coat in there. Then he came out, looking so very handsome, tall and important that I was totally proud of him.

A man in a black suit and bow tie collected us, then showed us to our seats in the Eastern Gallery. I loved settling down early, listening to the chattering audience and to the exciting sound of the tuning of the orchestra. All those different hesitant noises, some perfect, some peculiar, some scratchy as tunes were played, all at different times.

I could see my sister, sitting calmly, her feet on the pedals of her harp finishing her tuning, patting her arms against the strings but I couldn't quite hear the sounds she was making against the volume of the other instruments.

A hush fell over the hall, voices cut off abruptly as they do on the radio before the voice of an announcer is heard. There was a boisterous, friendly clapping of hands as Daddy walked on to the little stand in the centre of the stage, climbed up, bowed to the audience, then turned his back to us as he paid attention to his orchestra. The music began.

The first item was the Overture to Wagner's The Mastersingers. It overwhelmed me. Sometimes a piece of music would flood into me and I would have to hear it over and over again, playing it all day, given the opportunity. I never grew out of that habit. Nothing else in the programme made any impression. A pianist played beautifully, but the vitality of the opening piece was so important that I wished to hear no further sounds. It came back into my head, playing with a constancy which drowned all else. I was mesmerised.

At interval, we went to see Daddy, who was splashing himself with something from a bottle labelled Bay Rum to freshen himself up, I suppose, rubbing himself down and looking red in the face but very happy.

"Daddy, I adored that first piece. Can I hear it again? Do we have a record at home? Will you teach me all about it, and the story? I read my programme notes but they don't tell me enough."

"I'm glad you liked it, little one. Yes, I will tell you more, later. But now go back to your seats or we will be late with the second half."


A misunderstanding about recordings

I read in the ABC Weekly that there was a concert at eight a.m. on the very next day, with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra and Daddy conducting. It seemed peculiar that nobody had mentioned it, for I had never heard of him having to be at work so early. It also seemed unfair that he had to work on a Sunday.

I knew he liked to be in the Green Room half an hour before the concert began. The car journey took about an hour. So I decided I had better wake him at just before six a.m. He always had breakfast alone in his room.

I had watched Sven preparing breakfast so I knew just what to do. It had to be Indian Tea in a heated pot. One hard-boiled egg, just three and a half minutes, with two slices of toast and butter, with Dialectic Marmalade as Daddy insisted it was called, because Daddy was not allowed sugar. Of course, I must not forget the five prunes.

Pleased with myself but also a little apprehensive, I knocked on the door at five past six. The room was very dark, as there were double curtains on the windows, and the walls were a sombre green. Heavy, wooden furniture made the place even darker, so it was difficult to find my way across to open the curtains. Music was strewn all over the lid of the black piano, and I nearly tripped on the thick pads of scores on the floor.

"It's me, Daddy. Good morning. Here is your breakfast. I thought I'd better get you ready for your concert this morning."

He was flabbergasted, and not at all pleased.

"What concert?" he asked, and I felt very important at being the only person who knew.

"I read about it in the ABC Weekly. It's terribly unfair for you on a Sunday morning, so I've given you extra marmalade. I suppose the hire car will be here in a moment."

"Listen, you silly child. Haven't you ever heard of records?"

I was too wounded to reply, and walked towards the door, feeling disgraced, wondering why the orchestra and Daddy would be on a record when people could come and see them instead.

"I thought recordings were only of dead people," I said mortified, as I reached the door.

"You'll be dead too, if you do this again," he said, then called me back when he saw the tears streaming down my face. He hugged me, kissing me on both cheeks against his stubbly face.

"Now run along. We'll talk later about the music you enjoyed last night. But first of all what I need is some more sleep."

Just before lunch, Daddy called for me by ringing his large bell. It was our special signal, and just hearing it excited me. I knew the importance of the bell, and it certainly was loud, in our big house. I had been sitting outside by the tennis court and was still able to hear it, right from the other side of the house, in his composing room.

The bell was one of a set of six cow bells he had brought back from Italy, in his hand luggage. He adored their sounds and wanted to use them in a composition. He had not minded in the least that they weighed eight pounds each, even when the man at the airline desk made him pay what he considered a fortune in Excess Weight. I used to love hearing about it. When he told everybody the story, he loved to exaggerate wildly, making it more amusing with each telling. But as he only rang the bells when he wanted to see me, I was afraid he might still be angry about my silly mistake.

"There's a surprise for you on the floor. I found it for you last night. It's the piano reduction of Die Meistersinger von Nuremberg. You seemed so excited about the overture. If you are a good girl, I'll play some of it for you after lunch. I've got some work to do until then. Run along again now."

We had lunch outside, on the veranda by the tennis court. Our new Dutch cook Nell had prepared roast lamb with all the trimmings, such as Daddy liked best, and a heavy Dutch style pudding the closest she get to an English steamed pudding. Everybody was in a good mood.

"May we, Daddy?" I asked, with nothing but The Mastersingers on my mind.

The moment pudding was finished, he took me by the hand to his precious shiny black piano. It had been shipped out from England and had belonged to his father who had also been a well-known conductor. The instrument had been damaged in transit and the music stand did not stay up properly. He propped it up with two pairs of scissors, which made it look rather odd, but served the purpose and he did not want anybody 'fiddling about to fix it'.

He began to play the first melody on the piano. "This is how it goes, as you will remember from last night. Wagner introduces his themes, as if they were people, so that when you listen to that tune, you can expect the person, or something about that person in the story to appear."

Spellbound, I listened as he explained the significance of leitmotifs, (leading motives) together with the plot, and the lives of the people taking part in the contest after which the winner of the song would be given the hand of Eva, Pogner's daughter.

"What if Eva doesn't like the winner?" I asked with utmost concern.

"That's the secret you'll discover when you see the opera," Daddy replied, entering into my spirit of excitement.

"May I, Daddy, may I? When? Where? How?"

"Sit down, child, you're getting far too excited," he said, flustered by my enthusiasm.

"Rehearsals begin very soon at the Con, and once the singers have tidied themselves up a bit musically, you may come and sit in. It's a treat, though. You cannot come to every opera, or you'll be up every night. I think this one will be your special introduction."


* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Nothing else seemed to matter to me, my cats, the tennis court, the visits to the beach, playing with my friends. I awaited the rehearsals of The Mastersingers as if my very life depended upon it. I even asked if I could have a better piano teacher, as I wasn’t getting on with the woman in the village. I would need to improve if I wanted to play some of the tunes to myself. I found a record and wore out the tracks of The Prize Song, driving Nell to distraction by singing the theme endlessly.

"Other children, they sing the pop songs, the jolly sounds which I hear on the radio," she would complain.


* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *


After a concert one night I sat with Daddy in the back seat of the hire car, enjoying the special treat of discussing next week's programmes.

He was going to introduce Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring, and a work by Scriabin, Poème d'Extase. He hummed a few tunes from the second piece, then stopped suddenly to say, "Look at those lights, driver, behind us. I could swear we must have someone following us. Take another route and see what happens," Daddy instructed. His voice sounded amused rather than afraid.

The driver turned down a side street, tracked back through a few parallel roads, and we emerged in Wahroonga more quickly than usual. No car had followed.

"I'm very tired, so I'll go straight to bed. See you in the morning," he told me.

Ten minutes later two cars pulled up outside. One was my stepmother and sister Donie, the other a new hire car with important guests. Meanwhile Daddy had changed into his checked dressing gown, couldn't find his slippers and was walking barefoot through the living room, calling out, "I can't find any Milo. Where is the kitchen?"

Embarrassed to see people he did not know, then some whom he did, he retreated, hiding in my bedroom where I was feeding the cats.

"Don't you really know where our kitchen is, Daddy?" I asked, amazed "we've lived here for almost a year now."

"Kitchens are of no interest to me," he said defensively." Although I do enjoy making my own hot Milo in my kitchenette. But the tin was empty."

Quickly I went to Daddy to save him the embarrassment of being seen in his shabby bedclothes. I told him that we had important guests, from the theatre. Stepmother had invited them, telling their hire car driver to follow ours but apparently they got a bit lost when we changed directions. I thought it was funny but was sad to see Daddy perplexed.

Daddy was not at all amused. He insisted on a cup of Milo, and braved out the evening, in his dressing gown, for the visitors were old friends and he quickly forgot what he was wearing.

Two of England's greatest actors were among the guests. Dame Sybil Thorndyke was beautiful, although to me she seemed very old. She was specially kind to me, even asking me about myself.

"What do you enjoy doing? Are you going to be a musician?"

"Daddy has promised to take me to the rehearsals for The Mastersingers. I absolutely adore opera but I haven't been to one yet," I replied enthusiastically.

"You must come to one of our plays. Come and meet my husband."

Her equally famous husband, Sir Lewis Casson came over to us and asked me why I liked The Mastersingers.

"Would you like to hear some of it?" I asked, hurrying them into the study beside the Music Room, taking out a record and playing the Overture. They listened attentively, describing a performance they had recently attended in Germany.

"The Bayreuth Festival is quite an event. You must ask your father to take you one day. Or you could listen to the broadcasts on the radio, even if it will be at some unholy hour here, as it is broadcast live."

Daddy rescued them from my record playing, promising we would all attend the Premiere the following week, if it fitted in with their schedule, which it did.

So, my first visit to the opera, accompanied by my new friends, was all the more exciting. Dame Sybil looked radiant, and agreed with me that the tenor was quite the most handsome man on earth. Allan Ferris was his name, and he became the object of my adoration. I pinned his picture to my bedroom wall and kissed it good night before I went to sleep every single night. A pretty soprano, Joy Tasman played Eva and I would have loved to have been grown up and to have been the character she played. It was such a romantic story.

The stage set was to represent Germany several hundred years ago, the singers were costumed in gorgeous period costumes. James Wilson sang the important role of the blacksmith Hans Sachs. He had broken his arm and wore it in a sling, even if the libretto had no explanation for it.

I knew every melody so well, each ensemble, and now it was all assembled together with acting and costumes, it was absolutely fantastic. When the opera ended and all the wonderful tunes I had learnt had been played, I felt terribly sad that the event I had waited for so eagerly, was over. I wanted it to go on forever.

"May I come to another performance, Daddy?" I asked.

"We'll see," he said, appropriately.


Then one day, unexpectedly, my stepmother announced, "You are to be auditioned this afternoon by the great Nadia Boulanger. You are very lucky, for she is a famous composer and pianist who has one of the most prestigious schools in Europe." Indeed not only was she all these things, but I knew my father and his sisters had worked with her in London before I was born.

My heart sank. "I haven't practised since we were on the boat on that awful out-of-tune piano. You know I am not very good, even when I work hard. It will be a disgrace to Daddy. I don't want to audition."

We went to Madame Boulanger's imposing home by taxi. She was an ageless lady of regal deportment who dressed like a fashion model, yet possessed the most friendly and gentle face I had ever encountered. There was something about the way she moved which suggested she would be kind, her arms moving with a fluidity, touching me softly on the shoulder to guide me into the room. She must have been in her late sixties or early seventies. It was not what she wore that I was impressed by, but by the inner beauty which gave reassurance that everything was going to be all right.

"So this is la petite musicienne?" she enquired, welcoming me, continuing her conversation in rapid French which I could not understand. She indicated to Stepmother that she should wait in the salon, and led me towards her music room and bade me sit at the piano.

The room was not as beautiful as ours had been in Sydney. It lacked colour, its centrepiece an enormous Bösendorfer Concert Grand, forbiddingly black and threatening.

"Ma petite," she began, continuing in English. "You will learn the language, do not fear. Here all I need is to hear how you play. First, a little sight-reading."

She brought out a bundle of immaculate music sheets, such as we seldom saw in Australia. I missed the dog-eared music books to which I had grown lovingly accustomed.

The first piece was by Jacques Ibert, The Little White Donkey. A recent examination piece, it was one of the few pieces I had committed to memory. If I played it now, as a sight-reading test, Madame Boulanger might imagine me to be proficient and gain false expectations. My thoughts raced as if my head would explode.

"I cannot do it. I cannot play the piano. You see, my parents want me to be good, like them, but I have no talent. I really must go back home to Sydney now. I would be useless to you and a disgrace to my family. Please understand." I could not restrain my tears.

Madame Boulanger came and sat down beside me on the piano stool, as my friends used to when we turned pages at each other's concerts. "Would you not play just one piece for me? That way, your mother, she could hear you had tried. I could explain that my standards were too demanding for one so young. That would maybe save the situation."

I could have kissed her.

There was one movement of a Mozart piano sonata, in C major which I knew I could play passably well. I smiled at her and launched into it, introducing sufficient wrong notes to make even this lovely music excruciating, laughing as I did so. She put her hand on my shoulder and gave it a squeeze.

"It will be our little secret," she promised, stroking my hair and smiling at me. "Leave it to me. Be happy somewhere, my child," and we walked out into the salon together.

"Madame Goossens, I am afraid, the little one, she is not ready for my school. A good child, but much too young. Let her develop a little. We will say au revoir. Perhaps we shall meet again in a few years time."

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *


In 1957 I occasionally went to London to visit my father and on one occasion he particularly invited me to stay overnight at his flat in St John’s Wood. He said: "Stay the night and come to a concert with me at the Royal Albert Hall. It's the wonderful young German baritone,

Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. A recital. Lieder. It's a stunning programme. He'll be one of the world's greatest singers in a few years. Come and be part of that legend. I've been given free seats by an old friend."

We had never paid for seats to concerts before. The idea seemed odd now, that Daddy should ever have to pay. I was glad he had a friend who could let him have free tickets.

"We shall eat at the Colonnade. It's an old family hotel. The food is a bit dreary, but it's reliable. They never serve a bad meal. I have an account there and I think you will like it. We can get taxis around, save getting cold on the Tube. You have a bit of a cough, haven't you?" he enquired, concern in his voice.

"I've had this cough for weeks, can't seem to shake it off. All I need is some sunshine." We smiled at each other in agreement, as if we dreamed together of Sydney again..

Daddy helped me into my student duffel coat, second-hand from Oxfam. He pulled down a woollen scarf from a peg in the hall, went to put it around his neck, then, lovingly, put it around mine instead. I reached up and kissed him on both cheeks, tears rolling down mine as I did so. How could I possibly be cross with him? He was certainly more sinned against than sinning..

"This is all very strange, isn't it, little one?" His voice reflected his sadness and aloneness.

"Do you think we will be able to go back to Australia soon?" I asked him.

"I've had a really bad time there. I loved it and wanted to dedicate myself to the new Opera House, you know the site I wanted was finally chosen, but they were taking so long to organise it." He broke off from what he was saying, looked as if he was thinking about something else, and muttered sadly, almost to himself, "I had thought people respected me."

"Daddy, they did! You had so many friends in the orchestra who adored you, and your Diploma Students. Surely it will be all right again soon. Surely people don't change."

"Things happened which I don't want to discuss, or to worry you about. But I don't think I am going to be able to go back there. Not for a long time, anyway. You, my little one, would find the atmosphere very changed."

"I'd like to know what happened, Daddy. It would help me to understand what you're going through."

"I'm no good at talking about personal things. Leave it at that. Things will work out."


The Royal Albert Hall recital attracted a full house. It was my first visit to that beautiful theatre in the round, although I knew my family had performed there frequently for decades.

Unfortunately for me, Daddy's friend had given us seats in the second row centre, which brought us into immediate view of the singer. This should have been ideal, until my cough took a hold. Once I began, I could not stop, using Daddy's scarf to muffle the loudness, almost choking with the effort of silencing my barking sounds.

At interval, Daddy said we were going to see Mr Fischer Dieskau.

As we walked in to see him in the Green Room, he rushed forward and shook Daddy by both hands.

"Sir Eugene, so kind of you to come to my recital."

To my eternal mortification he turned to me, "And this little lady, she is your daughter, no? And with a very bad cough." He smiled at me and addressed me directly, "I will give you a pastille to suck. It will help the soreness in your throat."

He handed me a Zube, then changed his mind and gave me the whole packet.

I was speechless with embarrassment, then, remembering my manners said, "Forgive me. Your wonderful recital is being spoilt by my coughing. Would you prefer that I did not return to the hall?"

He smiled, his young round face friendly and enthusiastic, "The most important thing for a singer, is to have an audience. It is not your fault you have a cough. Please go back to your seat now, and forget your embarrassment."

He asked his pianist to fetch a glass of water, gave it to me, and poured himself some water, taking a separate glass. I supposed he was afraid of catching my germs.

The treatment must have worked, for I did not cough even once during the rest of the programme. At the end of the performance, he came forward to take a bow, and his special smile first to my father and then to me is amongst my most treasured memories.

© Renée Goossens 2002


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