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Tuesday, 25 June 2013

Another First Night

Tuesday, June 25th., Cadogan Square, London.

Another oath broken. After some fantastic experiences at my own first nights, I had sworn never to attend another. But when I told the authorities of Covent Garden that I should not be present at the first performance of the Goossens-Me opera "Judith", there was such horrified, outraged protest that I accepted a box on the spot.

EUGENE GOOSSENS (1893 -1962) was born into a family of musicians, in Camden Town but studied in Bruges before attending the Royal College of Music in London, where his teachers were Sir Charles Villiers Stanford and Charles Wood. Earning his living as a violinist at first, he became a protégé of Beecham, going on to conduct the British premiere of The Rite of Spring in 1921, then moving to the US and subsequently Australia. Although his first compositions were small-scale – piano pieces, songs, chamber music – he was writing confidently for orchestra from early on. His First Symphony was completed in 1940, in Cincincatti, and the Second Symphony was premiered in 1946. Goossens composed two operas, Judith (1925) and Don Juan de Mañara (1934), a massive oratorio, Apocalypse (1951), and a generous quantity of other works, orchestral, chamber, instrumental. His music was lost from sight for some years after his death but began to re-emerge from the mid-1990s with recordings from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

And there I sat on the first night, hiding behind a curtain and surveying the crowded house. My highly nervous state was mitigated by the realisation of the unquestionable fact that I was not Eugene Goossens, exposed defenceless to the public and conducting the orchestra. I kept carefully in the box, but well-intentioned friends and quidnuncs would insist on visiting me both before and after the performance. I had not the courage to tell them that, with the important exception of loud and prolonged applause, all an author wants on a first night is to be left alone.

‘It is said at Holywood [sic] that a successful film invariably makes use of these ingredients: religious uplift, snobbery, and sex appeal; and the shortest scenario which has ever been written to this formula was, "My God," said the Duchess, "what legs!" Mr. Arnold Bennett has reduced the story of Judith to the same formula, with the addition of a murder to amplify it, and has handed it to Mr. Eugene Goossens to make into an opera. The conflict between the God of Israel and His pagan enemy is the main theme; instead of the Duchess we have the Oriental Court of Holofernes ; the legs of the Russian Ballet are there, and we have the seduction of Holofernes by Judith to lend further sex interest, while his murder by the same lady gives a good strong dramatic situation. So far, admirable; for we can have a soprano heroine whose varying passions give scope for coloratura, a contralto attendant to enunciate the obvious at the right places, a love duet, a ballet, an Oriental potentate who can rant and play the he-man, and a nice, modest baritone to be his victim. The only trouble about this perfect opera book is that it needs not merely music but the right kind of music. The right kind of music will be good, honest Italian stuff a la Tosca. Mr. Eugene Goossens is not Puccini, nor would he be if he could; he is not a nationalist composer at all, but one of the cosmopolitans who are at all costs dry. It is sad to have to write an obituary notice of yet another gallant attempt at creating a British opera. But facts are facts; the opera was still-born, and there is not likely to be any attempt at reviving that which never had any real operatic life in it.' Musical Times review, August 1929.

I paid what I was afraid would be a state visit to the prima donna, Gota Ljungberg. But it was not in the least stately. After I had kissed her hand we forgot ceremony and were realistic with one another about all manner of things, and laughed like girl and boy.

Göta Ljungberg (1898 - 1955) was a major Swedish Wagnerian soprano of the 1920s who sang throughout American and Europe and left an important recorded legacy. At Covent Garden in 1929 she created the title role ofJudith, an opera by Eugene Goossens which lasted for but two performances

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