BELONGING – a memoir
ABC books 2003-09-04
Memories of the
conductor and composer Eugene Goossens
by one of his daughters
Going to a concert
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
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,
"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
"It always is, little one. Don't ask
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
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
"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."
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
He was flabbergasted, and not at all
"What concert?" he asked, and I felt
very important at being the only person
"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
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
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
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?
"Sit down, child, you're getting far
too excited," he said, flustered by
"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
"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
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
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
"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
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
"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
"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
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
"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
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
"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."
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
A VISIT TO FATHER
AND A CONCERT - London
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
"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
"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
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
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
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.
Book review by
Fred Blanks smh.com.au