Like Elgar, Goossens’s training as a violinist enabled him to write effectively for the instrument. He was also a member of several string quartets, notably the International, and had written three works for string quartet by 1917.
The First Violin Sonata of 1918 shows the influence of Debussy, Ravel and Strauss in its use of modality and light chromaticism, but the mood created by the idiomatic violin writing and the piano figurations is very much his own. The first movement’s second subject is highly original, and the order in which the material is presented is unconventional. The second movement, with its sultry romanticism, sensuous and intimate, is the only music Goossens ever recorded as a pianist with his close friend and colleague André Mangeot. The last movement, a scherzo, has a sweeping, rather Baxian second subject. The work was given its première in May 1920 by its dedicatee, the great Albert Sammons, with his usual partner William Murdoch. Goossens admired this duo very much, believing that “there would never again be a more perfectly-matched team”.
In the same year Goossens and Mangeot gave the première of the Lyric Poem, dedicated to the violinist and dating from 1919, at Salle Gaveau in Paris, where they had earlier given the première of the orchestral version. Their programme included works by Ravel and Milhaud, and a riot broke out between their supporters and a Vorticist claque that included Satie and Schmitt. The piece is improvisatory in character and soaring in its lyricism, flowing naturally from the dramatic, cadenza-like opening to its quiet ending.
Goossens knew well the young cellist John Barbirolli, later one of the finest British conductors. He and the pianist Ethel Bartlett were amongst the earliest interpreters of new works by Goossens, Debussy, Delius, Ireland, Bax and many others, including Goossens’s first piece for a string instrument and piano, the Old Chinese Folk-Song. This exists in versions for violin and for cello and is dedicated to his fearsome old teacher Rivarde. For this short, characterful piece and his opus 1 Variations, he researched authentic material from London’s Chinese quarter in Limehouse.
During the 1920s Goossens produced no compositions for violin and piano. While in the United States, however, he worked with famous violinists, and the Polish-born Paul Kochanski, who taught at The Juilliard School, requested a new work. The resulting Second Violin Sonata, dedicated to Kochanski, was not ready until 1930 and was given its première not by him, but again by Sammons and Murdoch at the Bradford Music Club on 20 January 1931 and repeated at Wigmore Hall in February. A matter-of-fact notice in The Times described it as: “…big music which builds up coherently into a firm structure more than capable of carrying its rich decoration, its vigorous impulse…Its interest is mainly harmonic. Clashes and negation of tonality are transitory.” Certainly, there is an unprecedented richness of texture in the piano writing, with powerful basses and use of the whole keyboard, with enormous dynamic contrasts. The violin writing is demanding: rhythmically complex and occasionally awkward. The first movement, with three different ideas, is developed in a fluid, seamless structure; the remarkably dramatic, even obsessive, coda with its insistent bass D flat over 36 bars has the violin initially playing the opening theme one semitone lower. The central movement, A la Sicilienne, is predominantly brooding and melancholy. The last movement opens with an introduction which is by turns dark and solemn, light and lyrical. It then bursts into a dance-like section which ushers in the glorious, highly original second subject, perhaps one of the composer’s greatest inspirations. The transition to the coda is magical and the work ends in an affirmative, luminous blaze. Goossens himself referred to “lyrical intensity” in this work.
This was Goossens’s last major work for this combination: the great Jascha Heifetz, soloist many times with the Cincinnati Orchestra, took it up and asked Goossens for a violin piece with piano, and a concerto. In 1937 he provided the Romance, dedicated to Heifetz, a free transcription of music from his opera Don Juan de Mañara, which had its première at Covent Garden the same year: it is a typically intense, lyrical outpouring.
Eugene Goossens’s superb music has been neglected for many decades. Only now, fifty years after his death, is he beginning to win something of the recognition thus far reserved for many of his contemporaries.
Goossens, Eugene: Overtures and Beginners, Methuen, 1951
Rosen, Carole: The Goossens, André Deutsch, 1993
“For my dear André [Mangeot], – toujours l’ami et l’artiste. A souvenir of his splendid performance of this work. Eugène, July 1931”
Courtesy of Oliver Davies