Learn about Life in the 1920s

Goossens was a star of English orchestral music in the 1920's

BELGIAN BORN IN FRANCE and educated in England, where he is finally naturalized, may be supposed to be at least two-thirds something else beside English. But Eugene Goossens, the composer, is heralded as English and his accomplishment is gratefully added to the modern glory of English music. The rather small doses of him that have been administered in the Symphony Orchestra programs under Mr. Coates's direction do not label him so much English as Russian, or at least Eclectic. He "cares naught for the Gilbertian advice to 'be early English ere it is too late.' He prefers to school his soul into the future far as human eye can see," observes Mr. W J. Henderson of the New York Herald. In a recent Symphony concert four little pieces labeled "Dance Memories" were played, and the analytic description of them by Mr. Henderson may give some bewildered listener an idea of how the modern composer sets about getting his dissonances that plague the simple lover of "tunes":


"The program notes informed us that in the Dance Memories,' while the other parts were written in the key of A those of the bassoons, violas, cellos, basses, harp and tympani were in E flat. This cruel divorcement of the violins from the rest of the strings may have presented an extraordmary appearance on the printed page, but to the ear the family quarrel offered no evidence of more violent discord than that to be heard in music of the hereafter written without any key signatures at all.
"As for tympani in E flat, these indeed are exotic plants in the instrumental garden. To write for a. double bass in E flat when the violins play in A may mean nothing except more trouble for the readers of one or the other; but if they all do play in A the tympani keep honestly to their two or three tones in E flat, the hearer may taste of those splendid dissonances which smite the palate of the ear as aloes smite the tongue. And all the world knows that we are tired of sugary music stealing along the auditory nerves like molasses from a faucet. At any rate Mr. Goossens's Conceits' were mighty pungent and filled with orchestral whimsies which justified the title, so that when he fell with a cold, hard thud at the end to the shopworn device of parodying the wry-necked squeak of a piccolo with the coarse snort of a tuba, some hearers must have felt a shock run down their spines and whispered to themselves, "so Ariel consorts with Caliban at last."

Since Mr. Goossens is looked upon as the bright particular star of modern English music, we welcome the acquaintance the English Bookman enables us to make with him. We find he was born no longer ago than 1893, and that his father has been "the well-known Carl Rosa opera conductor." He studied music in Bruges then in Liverpool and finally at the Royal College of Music in London before becoming violinist in the Queen's Hall Orchestra under Sir Henry Wood. Mr. A. Eaglefield Hull writes:

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"There he acquired his marvelous knowledge of every sound in the orchestra, from the shrillest note of the piccolo to the lowest depths of the contra-fagotto and bass-tuba; there he could not fail to gain much knowledge of the baton, and, what counts for more, of the conducting of rehearsals in a general way. That there are no concomitant evils from playing in an orchestra, Goossens is a convincing example. For keenness, enthusiasm, sensitiveness and sweet sanity he is unsurpassed. Toward the end of 1915 Sir Thomas Beecham invited him to conduct Stanford's The Critic,' and this he did so successfully that he became Beecham's right-hand man, conducting regularly at Drury Lane, the Aldwych, and in the provinces. Orchestral concerts also fell to his lot, and at the Manchester, Leeds, Bradford and Liverpool festivals he is ever a popular conductor. Finally, his conducting of an all-British program at the British Music Society's 1920 Congress, and at his own special concerts of contemporary music, set the seal on his growing reputation, and established him as one of the greatest of living conductors, with a special flair for contemporary music."

Mr. Hull does not dwell long on Goossens's early compositions. He even calls the "Four Conceits" that Mr. Henderson describes "little more than jokes." We find that a note "half humorous, half savage is heard in his setting of H. R. Barber's The Curse,' a character sketch of Spanish vagabondage." In "The Eternal Rhythm" he has "acquired a new language and a deeper feeling." We read:

"The work is based on one of the prose 'dance dramas' of Terence Gray, a young poet whose work lies chiefly in the direction of mime- drama. The poem treats of the. elemental rhythm of all visible and invisible natural forces and the responsive emotional vibra- tions which it awakes in the soul of the unfettered and fully developed human being. A long introductory movement, suggestive of the intense stillness of mountains, lakes and forests, contains the principal theme, Nature's Call The 'Eternal Melody,' heard at first quietly, gradually increases in volume and intensity until, heralded by a dominating trombone theme, it reaches the climax in the Colossal Rhythm of the Suns.' The music then subsides, and the human response begins, with dance-subjects in 7-4 and 5-4 times. This also achieves a tremendous climax, and an epilog closes the work in the opening mood of tranquil yet everlasting movement. It is in this piece that Goossens has come nearest to the human note which is such an important element in all truly great art. Bach, Beethoven, Strauss, Scriabin, Stravinsky, all have it, and it will undoubtedly loom more and more in the future pieces of Goossens. A fairly safe augury for this increasing humanism may be founded on the evidences of his recent lectures for the British Music Society, in which ho has shown himself singularly facile in placing himself en rapport with all kinds of audiences. His little brochure on 'Modern Tendencies in Music,' published by the Arts League of Service is quite one of the best descriptions of the aims of the various modern movements in music.
"The 'Hommage a Debussy' for piano, written in 1920 and just published, is a short threnody in the style of Stravinsky's 'Symphonies (chords) for Wind Instruments.' The Goossens setting is less poignant, and quite acceptable, being cast in the mold of Scriabin's last Preludes; whereas the Stravinsky piece is an outrage on the lamented composer whom it impudently claims to commemorate.
"Despite all these brilliant and interesting works, I am convinced that Goossens's best work has still to come. He has youth and physique on his side. He has passed through one stage after another so properly, even primly, thoroughly acquiring everything new (even if it doesn't matter much, like the Straussian chords in the Cello Rhapsody') that he has by now mastered all there is to master in technique—pointillist orchestration, Villemin's planes, Strauss's unrelated chords, Schonberg's expressional polyphony, and so on. There is nothing more for him to do now but speak strongly out of himself."

By way of summary we read:

"The earliest, and I believe the best, way of getting to know Goossens's music lies through the piano pieces, and his four contributions to this medium roughly correspond to the chief phases of his musical evolution—Concert Study (1915), the brilliant legerdemain stage; Kaleidoscope (1917-18), the French phase; Nature Poems' (1919), the Stravinskian phase; and 'Hommage a Debussy' (1920), a post-impressionist admiration of the great leader of French musical impressionism. . . .
"A love of other arts besides his own special one has kept him keenly alive to modem movements, and a genial and generous nature has enabled him to make the best of his operatic and orchestral experience in this much-underrated land of ours, where others would have succumbed."

Source: Literary Digest - Feb 18, 1922