Film encore for a tortured musical genius shames modern Australia

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The Independent Online

Sir Eugene Goosens was a British-born musical genius who had a life-long fascination with the occult. Lured to Sydney in the 1950s to be chief conductor of the symphony orchestra, he was fêted by the cultural elite. But he was abruptly sacked and forced to leave Australia in disgrace after being arrested with pornography in his luggage. Goosens, who had become besotted with a notorious self-styled witch, Rosaleen Norton, died in London, penniless and alone.

Sir Eugene Goosens was a British-born musical genius who had a life-long fascination with the occult. Lured to Sydney in the 1950s to be chief conductor of the symphony orchestra, he was fêted by the cultural elite. But he was abruptly sacked and forced to leave Australia in disgrace after being arrested with pornography in his luggage. Goosens, who had become besotted with a notorious self-styled witch, Rosaleen Norton, died in London, penniless and alone.

Now his musical legacy is being re-examined as a result of a new film that is impelling Australians to reflect on a shameful episode in their past.

The Fall of the House, which is being screened at the Sydney film festival, portrays Goosens as a victim of the tabloid press and a morally zealous vice squad detective, Bert Travenar. Interviewed last year, Travenar told the director of the film, Geoff Burton, that he thought Goosens was "weird" and perverted.

By today's standards, the photographs seized at Sydney airport in 1956 when the conductor returned from an overseas concert tour were tame. Back then, though, they were scandalous, and Goosens' relationship with Norton - which was exposed soon afterwards - fuelled the lurid headlines. The publicity followed him to London, where he died a broken man in 1962.

Sydney in the 1950s was a cultural desert. Goosens, who was also appointed head of the New South Wales Conservatorium, pledged to bring music to the working classes and to turn the Sydney Symphony Orchestra into one of the world's top six orchestras. He kept his promise, and also lobbied for the city to be given a world-class opera space, naming a former tram depot overlooking Sydney harbour as the ideal spot. It was on that site that the Sydney Opera House opened in 1973.

Goosens inspired a generation of young musicians, giving the legendary Australian soprano, Dame Joan Sutherland, her first operatic role. Dame Joan's husband, Sir Richard Bonynge, then a student at the conservatorium and now a world-renowned conductor, describes Goosens' arrival as "a shot in the arm".

But behind the public success lay a loveless marriage with Goosens' third wife, Marjorie, a wealthy and glamorous American. The couple, who had been living in the US, quickly established themselves as leading lights in Sydney society.

In private, though, they led separate lives, and Goosens - a man of sophisticated and unconventional tastes - found the city intolerably straitlaced. He had always been drawn to the occult, particularly its art and artefacts.

After seeing a book of Norton's erotic paintings, he visited her flat in Kings Cross, Sydney's seedy bohemian district. Norton entranced him, as did her promise that her "sex magic rituals" would unleash his creative energies as a composer. He embarked on a passionate affair with her, and was later initiated into her coven.

During a trip to London in 1955, Goosens was knighted. While he was away, Travenar searched Norton's flat on a tip-off and found love letters from him. He was arrested at the airport on his return and convicted of attempting to import 837 obscene photographs. He was too ill to attend his trial. His reputation in tatters, Goosens never worked again. One former friend describes him after the scandal as "a man encased in ice". Sir Richard says in the documentary: "They took a great influence away from Sydney, and they destroyed a human being. It really killed him. He was a great man, a great musician, and Sydney did him a great disservice."

Burton first tried to make a film about Goosens in 1968, but no one would fund it. The scandal was still too recent. It was not until 1982 that a bust of him was unveiled at the Sydney Opera House, acknowledging his key role in the project.

His daughter, Renee, believes he was victimised partly because of his Belgian background. "In the 1950s, if you came from elsewhere, you were a reffo [refugee]," she says. "There was a great suspicion of reffos. There were also many conductors who would benefit from his demise, and did."

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