Sir Eugene Goossens (1893–1962)

The Goossens family, originally from Bruges, was one of the most important musical dynasties in England for more than a century. Eugene I (1845–1906) and Eugene II (1867–1958) were both distinguished operatic conductors. Eugene Goossens III, born in London in 1893, was descended from musicians on both sides and had four surviving siblings: the horn player Adolphe, tragically killed in the Somme in 1917; Leon, who became the most famous oboe player of his time; and harpists Marie and Sidonie who graced the great London orchestras for over half a century.

Following early study at the Bruges Conservatory and in Liverpool, Goossens won a scholarship to the Royal College of Music in London, where he studied the violin with Achille Rivarde and composition with the conservative Charles Villiers Stanford. His first professional jobs, while still a student, were playing the violin, and weeks after leaving College he joined Henry Wood’s Queen’s Hall Orchestra. By that time, however, his career both as composer and conductor had begun. In February 1912 he had completed his opus 1, Variations on a Chinese Theme. Stanford, after heavily blue-pencilling it, decided it was worth a performance and asked young Goossens to conduct it at the spring term concert. Here he already showed the musical influences that shaped his style: Debussy, whom he had heard in London conducting La Mer and L’après-midi d’un faune; Strauss’s Elektra and Salome under Beecham at Covent Garden; and Stravinsky’s early Firebird with Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in 1911.

A heart condition meant he could not serve in the First World War and in 1916 Beecham engaged him to conduct opera, beginning with Stanford’s The Critic, as well as concerts. Goossens also organized his own successful series with innovative programmes, including The Rite of Spring in the presence of Stravinsky in 1921, and later conducted ballet for Diaghilev. He rapidly acquired a reputation for assimilating complex modern scores quickly. As one of the most versatile and dashing young firebrands, he led an extremely active social life, meeting Casals, Cortot, Rubinstein and Thibaud for chamber music, writers such as Arnold Bennett (the librettist for both his operas), WB Yeats and Scott Fitzgerald, and artists including Picasso and Epstein. So busy was his performing career and social life, he found it increasingly difficult to find time to compose.

In 1923 Goossens accepted an invitation from George Eastman, of Kodak fame, to take over his new Rochester Philharmonic, while continuing to conduct seasons in Europe. In 1931 he began tenure of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, following Fritz Reiner, until 1945. He also conducted many great American orchestras, introducing new works by British composers including Bax, Bliss, Holbrooke, Moeran, Quilter, Scott, Delius, Walton and Vaughan Williams. Despite his heavy schedule Goossens wrote many large-scale works during this period: two symphonies, Phantasy concertos for piano and violin, two operas and the choral work The Apocalypse. His operas Judith and Don Juan de Mañara were given their premières in 1929 and 1937 but had a mixed reception, and on his return to England in 1946 Goossens was disappointed to be passed over for directorship of Covent Garden.

Following a tour of Australia in 1946, he accepted the dual rôle of Principal Conductor of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra and Director of the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. For nearly a decade musical life in Australia was transformed by his efforts: the SSO became an orchestra of international standard and the Conservatorium benefited from his discipline; not least, he was the first to designate Bennelong Point as the site for the famous Sydney Opera House. It was only through the then puritanical Australian Customs’ laws that his career there came to an abrupt end in 1956. Goossens’s last six years in London were an anticlimactic succession of conducting tours and recordings, during which he composed little and his health deteriorated. He died in 1962.

Gusztáv Fenyő

Reference sources:
Goossens, Eugene: Overtures and Beginners, Methuen, 1951
Rosen, Carole: The Goossens, André Deutsch, 1993