With the death of the British composer’s companion and advocate Pamela Main, more must be done to ensure that his legacy continues
The companion of Sir Eugene Goossens in his final years was the young Australian pianist Pamela Main (born January 24, 1930) who died on May 14. He would have made her his fourth wife but was not able to obtain a divorce before he became ill and died in 1962. However, he left his estate to Main and she dedicated her life for almost 50 years to guarding his archive in her flat in North London until she had to move to a home two years ago. On a regular basis performers from around the world came to her for copies of out-of-print scores and information about Goossens. In the last few years his stunning collection of letters from most of the leading musical figures of the day was acquired by the British Library and Main generously gave them all his manuscripts, which have now been catalogued. One of her last actions was to help support the recording of Goossens’ Complete Music for Violin and Piano.
Goossens was one of the most distinguished British conductors of his generation: the evidence is in his own recordings, many now transferred from LP. Coming from a Belgian dynasty of musicians, he was also a fine violinist and a composer at the forefront of the British avant-garde of the 1920s along with Arthur Bliss, Lord Berners, Bernard van Dieren and Kaikhosru Sorabji. He studied with Stanford at the RCM; played in the first violins in Henry Wood’s Queen’s Hall Orchestra and in chamber music; and in 1921 he started his own orchestra and launched it with the British concert premiere of The Rite of Spring. But it folded when he generously spent too much on contemporary works. In 1923 he moved to the US where he directed the Rochester Philharmonic and then moved to Cincinnati in 1931. He continued with a prominent American career but visited England annually where he conducted two of his operas at Covent Garden. After the war he moved to Australia where he raised musical standards to international levels as conductor of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra and director of the Conservatory. It was he who first suggested Bennelong Point as the place for the new Opera House. In 1956, in declining health he moved back to London.
The 60th anniversary of the death of Goossens last year was not supported like the recent anniversaries of Frank Bridge and John Ireland. If Vernon Handley had still been with us, things would have been different. In the 1990s he made three CDs with three different Australian orchestras on ABC Classics (ABC 442 364-2; ABC 462 014-2; ABC 462 766-2): more recently both the late Richard Hickox and Andrew Davis have recorded CDs of orchestral music with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra on Chandos (CGSA 5068; CGSA 5119). Handley included both of Goossens’ symphonies and the second of his CDs contains the Oboe Concerto, written for Goossens’ brother Leon, one of his most frequently played works. Leon Goossens’ own recording was issued on LP in 1977 (Unicorn RHS 348), along with a fine cycle, Six Songs from Chamber Music (James Joyce). Goossens’ music shares a mainstream idiom somewhere between Bax and Ireland, attractively melodic with an individual harmonic sense. When he’s been recorded by conductors of the calibre of Handley, Hickox and Davis, it’s surprising that so much of his music remains in limbo. Fortunately, in 2004, a delightful collection of chamber works, centred on flautist Susan Milan, came out on Chandos (CHAN 10259) and last year Robert Gibbs and Gusztáv Fenyó recorded all the violin and piano works (Naxos 8.572860). Performances like all these show that Pamela Main’s dedication to the Goossens cause has not been in vain – now he needs a new champion.
Peter Dickinson’s music, written for some of the leading international performers, is available on four Albany CDs, two on Naxos; and Heritage forthcoming. He is an Emeritus Professor of the University of Keele and of the University of London. His books include studies of Lennox Berkeley (2), Billy Mayerl, Aaron Copland, John Cage, Lord Berners and Samuel Barber. See www.foxborough.co.uk.