Sidonie Goossens

Principal Harpist of the BBC Symphony Orchestra for 50 years
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The Independent Online

Sidonie Goossens, harpist: born Liscard, Cheshire 19 October 1899; MBE 1974, OBE 1981; married 1924 Hyam Greenbaum (died 1942; one son deceased), 1945 Norman Millar (died 1991); died Betchworth, Surrey 15 December 2004.

Sidonie Goossens was the greatest orchestral harpist of her generation. The harp was not the instrument she might have chosen, but when she began playing professionally, in the early 1920s, the only women employed by orchestras were harpists.

She was born in 1899, in Liscard, in the Wirral. Her father, Eugene, son of another Eugene, also a conductor, was then conductor of the Carl Rosa Opera Company and her mother had been a singer with the same company. Her elder sister, Marie, who died in 1991, was also a distinguished harpist and two of her brothers were equally famous (the third, Adolphe, died in the First World War) - the oboist Léon, who died in 1988, and the conductor Eugene, who died in 1962 (and largely through whose foresight the Sydney Opera House was built).

All the Goossens family studied at the Royal College of Music, where a teaching room is named after them. Her father chose the harp for her ("Daddy decided on the harp," she said. "I wanted to be an operatic singer, but Daddy's choice was the wise one: it gave me a career") and she and Marie studied with the harpist Miriam Timothy.

"Sid", as she was known ("I have been Sid since 1901"), didn't take to the instrument immediately, she told the interviewer Michael Church:

I used to bluff my mother, who'd be listening to me practising from the room below. I'd do a few notes, and then put my dolls into the holes of the harp, as though they were on different floors of a house. The harp was hard work, and initially I was so small that I had to stand up to play it. As you make all the sharps and flats with your feet on the pedals, you're doing a step-dance all the time.

After leaving the RCM the sisters were in constant demand for such diverse musical experiences as the Queen's Hall Orchestra under Henry Wood, the German Opera, the Russian Ballet and even The Desert Song and Chu Chin Chow. She made her orchestral début in 1921 with the Queen's Hall Orchestra. "We wore knee-length dresses for concerts," she remembered, "and Sir Henry insisted that we wore dark stockings, because if he saw our legs in fashionable gunmetal stockings, it distracted him."

During that period every musician in London was virtually "freelance". As early as 1923 Goossens was first harpist with the "Wireless Orchestra" which preceded the formation of the BBC Symphony in 1930. As the first full-time orchestra in London it attracted the cream of the freelance players and subsequently the finest conductors in England and from abroad. Adrian Boult was the chief conductor and Arturo Toscanini among the distinguished guests.

My first meeting with Sidonie Goossens took place soon after the Second World War. During the interval of a symphony concert, broadcast from the BBC studios at Maida Vale, I asked her whether she would advise me to become a professional harpist. Her positive response helped to set the seal on my own career.

Not too many years after this meeting, I was called in at very short notice to play second harp to her for a little-known symphony by Arnold Bax. I had to confess that I had not played the work before. "We have not played it here for 17 years," she replied. I took this to be an instruction to concentrate on the job in hand.

Each concert and rehearsal with Goossens was a lesson, by example, in the art of orchestral playing and in correctness of behaviour. She did not, for instance, come armed with a newspaper for the sometimes long periods of inactivity but observed the music instead and she had no need of electronic tuning devices. Although she once told me, rather tongue-in-cheek, "Never tune for Strauss or Wagner", her harp always sounded perfectly in tune with itself and the rest of the orchestra - no mean feat.

Subsequently, however, I declined an offer to play regularly as second harpist in spite of the orchestral manager's assurance that "Sidonie will not be here for ever". Maybe not "for ever" but this was 1955 and I realised then that many orchestral managers and conductors would come and go before Sidonie retired. She remained as Principal to the BBC Symphony Orchestra until 1980, an association of half a century.

Sidonie Goossens's total dedication to her role as Principal Harpist earned her an enviable reputation among conductors and players alike, equal to that of any other instrumentalist. As well as many first performances of important works, considered standard repertoire today, she appeared frequently as soloist with the orchestra. Pierre Boulez was one of her favourite conductors ("She could play anything I put in front of her," he said, "this extraordinary septuagénaire") and during his period at the BBC she excelled in many complex and difficult works which featured the harp.

She received official recognition, her honours including fellowships of the Guildhall School and the Royal College of Music and in 1980 the Krug Award of Excellence, given for outstanding service and excellence in a wide range of professions. In 1974 she was appointed MBE, and seven years later advanced OBE. She was professor at the Guildhall School of Music and numbered several very successful professional harpists among her pupils.

Meeting Sidonie Goossens in great old age, at her beautiful Elizabethan cottage in Surrey, was both happy and inspiring. On the table would be music she had prepared for a student later that day (she carried on teaching into her late nineties) and upstairs a book of sonatas by François Joseph Nadermann next to her favourite harp, made by Erard. In the garden were magnificent urns given to her many years before by Lady Beecham. Goossens obviously still enjoyed each day for itself and dealt promptly with her mail, often by return, in an excellent handwriting that never faltered.

Her final appearance at the Proms was in September 1991, one month before her 92nd birthday. She accompanied Dame Gwyneth Jones in "The Last Rose of Summer" at the last night of the Proms. Her husband of 46 years had just died but she felt that he would have wanted her to fulfil the engagement. Perhaps one secret of her success was revealed during a rehearsal when she remarked that she was "never bored". How many musicians can claim that?

Eight years later, in September 1999, she again attended the last night of the Proms, as a guest, and her 100th birthday the following month was marked by a concert in her honour at the Wigmore Hall. In a series of centenary interviews she demonstrated absolute recall of her musical career, reminiscing about composers she had known and those she had played for "in the pit", Diaghilev, Britten, Elgar, who asked her to breakfast ("I got to know him well, he was very dear to me. Like a military general - exactly as he appears on our £20 notes"), Cyril Scott, Alan Rawsthorne, William Alwyn, Constant Lambert.

She was married twice, first to Hyam Greenbaum ("Bumps"), a conductor, by whom she had a son who died in childbirth. He was a depressive and a drinker, and died of cirrhosis of the liver in 1942. Her second marriage was to Sir Thomas Beecham's administrator Norman Millar.

Michael Jefferies