Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Conduct Unbecoming

Anglo-Belgian composer-conductor Eugène Goossens was ruined by a bizarre sex scandal. Paul Stump reports

The family of Eugène Goossens III was certainly an unconventional one. But the career of the most celebrated scion of this Anglo-Belgian musical dynasty was exceptional. It began in London in 1893 and ended there in 1962, encompassing worldwide conducting fame and climaxing in a scandal blending class, sex and witchcraft that even the most hardened tabloid reader would dismiss as implausible.

Eugène Goossens I, a fair-to-middling opera and orchestral conductor from Bruges, brought his family to England in 1873, where they continued to enjoy a life of unruffled bourgeois respectabiloity in Birkenhead. Eugène II was also a conductor but his son, Eigène III, although not encouraged to go into music, turned out to be the most talented of the lot.

The boy's family was eager to maintain the Belgian half of his identity that theys ent him to boarding school in Bruges at the age of eight. His musical education was Belgian bugt his first successes as a composer were in England (the piano suite Kaleidoscope and the wildly exotic Impressionist tone-poem Eternal Rhythm (1913). But what most galvanised the critics was his fluent, energetic way with a baton. So mcuh so that in 1923 the Rochester Symphony Orchestra, then one of the US's most notable bands, invited him to elad them. Offers came in from all over America; Goossens conducted all the continent's greatest orchestras. In 1942, he commissioned Aaron Copland to write a new ceremonial work for Rochester; the result was Fanfare for the Common Man.

As a composer, Goossens' music sometimes has a superficially 'English' character, with a folky pentatonic tone, but those expecting Vaughan Williams and the inoffensive, cloudy pastoralism of the cow-and-gate school should look in the next field. Goossens understood contemporary music - he conducted the UK premiere of the Rite of Spring - and assimilated its techniques experly into a conservative melodic idiom. The coda to his Second Symphony (1944) sounds like Elgar crash-landing a Lancaster bomber. His extravagant, 90-minute oratorio, The Apocalypse, is regarded as his masterpiece (reputedly lying in an Australian Broadcasting Corporation vault); it premiered in Melbourne in 1954.

Australia, after the war, wanted culture - in 1947 the Melbourne government offered Goossens a staggering sum (reportedly eclipsing the salary of the Prime Minister) to make a nation musical overnight. An obsessive, driven man, Goossens accepted on the condition that he could bring music to the working classes and build Sydney a top-notch opera house. In an article he published in 1948, Goossens emphasised that "music is the birthright of the people".

He arrived in Australia's dilapidated, provincial musical life like a hurricane, locating exceptional musical talent with surgeonly accuracy and made a world-class instrument of the Sydney SO within three years. Although there was little real affection for him among the players, there was undying loyalty and respect. Joan Sutherland was one of Goossens' discoveries, and he personally recommended her to the Royal Opera House in London. "He was a very kindly man, but a little reserved," she later wrote. Eventually, Goossens succeeded in persuading the politicians to clear a quayside in Sydney Harbour at Bennelong Point for the construction of a new opera house. In 1955, he was knighted for these efforts.

His labours were Herculean, but even they foundered against a cultural outlook of troglodytic backwardness. Australia in the 1950s had the morals, politics and worldview of a small, inbred, provincial town - it made Austerity Britain look like a civilisation of Babylonian abandon. In Robert Hughes' memorable formulation, the 'cultural cringe' of Australians made them want to be even more respectably British than the British themselves. As such, Goossens found Sydney impossibly petty and snobbish; his wife Marjorie doted on its social occasions.

Like most of his generation, Goossens was fascinated by freethinking, socialism and, fatally - for him - the occult. In the 1920s he had hung out on the fringes of Augustus John's Welsh circle. The very title of that Op.1 tone-poem, Eternal Rhythm, plus its unabashed sensuality, had nudge-wink overtones. These Dionysian habits died hard within him, and in 1954 he met Noeleen King, who sounds like a Barry Humphries invention but actually was a 'witch' from the bohemian Sydney burgh of King's Cross. She 'read his future' and told him that only 'sex magic' could restore what he, faultily, regarded as failing compositional gifts. Goossens took her at her shabbily fraudulent word and embarked on a passionate affair with her.

In those straitened years, when petit-bourgeois morals throttled Australia like a too-tight dog-collar, anyone artistic was deemed un-Australian. As for Goossens' 'foreign' origins, "anyone who was a reffo [refugee] was seen as suspect," recalls Sidonie Scott, his daughter-in-law. Being half-Belgian was enough. In this venomous atmosphere, Goossens never stood a chance. While receiving his knighthood in London in early 1956, his Sydney house was raided by the vice squad. A detective, Bert Travenar, a seedy little man who was unrepentantly self-righteous about the raid until his death in 2003, had set out to nail the 'weird pervert'. Acting on a tip-off, the police had enough evidence to arrest the conductor on his return to Australia. In his luggage, they purportedly found 'erotic drawings, photographs and black magic masks'.

Even by the standards of the time, Goossens' lewder possessions were tame - but the scandal burned so deeply into Australia that when director Geoff Burton, who recently made a documentary film about Goossens, first suggested the project in 1968, he couldn't find sufficient funding.

Even today, the Goossens scandal is a touchy subject down under. Years after the event, Sidonie Scott overheard a customer in a record shop reject Goossens' recording of the St Matthew Passion- "I'm not having it if it's conducted by that filthy old man."

Goossens escaped jail but was handed a heavy fine for 'indecency'. He suffered a complete physical and mental breakdown and fled the country under a pseudonym. Lady Marjorie sued for divorce. Goossens lost everything - money, career, reputation, wife, future, past. He was lucky to get away from Melbourne with his shadow. Back in England his music was forgotten, and Boult, Barbirolli and the deplorable Malcolm Sargent had conducting sewn up. Freelancing now, a baton for hire, he found some work, but his health was shot; he aged visibly. On a family holiday to Switzerland in 1962, Goossens suffered a massive heart attack. He was flown back to England, but the damage had been done.

On June 13, 1962, the Sydney Opera House was growing into one of the world's most striking buildings. Halfway round the world, in Hillingdon Hospital, London, the man who had made it possible died persona non grata. Goossens was 69 and ought to have been entering his prime as a conductor. Just four months later, the Beatles recorded Please Please Me, and the world changed forever. Even in Australia, minds would be opening up. The swan-white modernism of the Sydney Opera House was key to this process - Goossens' tragedy was that he was hounded to his death by the country whose cultural future he sweated blood to bring into the 20th century.

An edited version of this article appears in The Bulletin magazine, 30.6.05

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