What was it like to live in the golden age of the piano virtuoso, in the first half of the 20th century – before the rise of hi-tech recording and challenges to the piano’s central position as queen of keyboard instruments? What was it like to come to that world from an impoverished childhood – particularly if you were a woman? These questions come to mind when one contemplates the life of Australian pianist Eileen Joyce (1908 – 1991) who grew up in Boulder, a West Australian mining town.
I’ve been thinking about Eileen Joyce after attending Julia Hasting’s musical play, Fame Fortune and Lies: the life and music of Eileen Joyce, performed as part of the Melbourne Fringe Festival. Julia is an accomplished pianist and an actor and she combined these two skills magnificently to give an outline of Eileen Joyce’s life, illustrated by performances of appropriate piano works.
Eileen Joyce’s is potentially a romantic story. A young girl always wanted to play but had access only to a dilapidated instrument on which, nevertheless, she made remarkable music. In his biography, Eileen Joyce: a Portrait, [Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 2001] Richard Davis suggests that Eileen’s mother insisted that the family scrape together the necessary sixpence a lesson, so that Eileen would have the chance to make something of her life through music and rise above the constraints of poverty. This wish was certainly fulfilled. There was much passing around of the proverbial hat and tremendous salt of the earth generosity that sent Eileen to a convent school in Perth and ultimately to study in Europe.
It seems likely that Eileen’s early training was rigorous and competitive; dominated by examinations, firstly the Trinity College then the new Australian Music Examinations Board (AMEB). She did well in these and drew the attention of people such as Percy Grainger, who was influential in Australia, but (in the typical Australian cringing fashion of the time) not as influential as the German Wilhelm Backhaus, who thought she should study in Leipzig. Eileen went to Leipzig.
How difficult for a young woman, not yet 20, used to poverty – teased at school because her shoes were too big and her knickers made out of flour sacks – to suddenly find herself a part of shipboard life, dining at the captain’s table. No wonder she was never much good at handling the press. Over the years at Leipzig her scholarship money almost ran out and she would have found herself back in the straightened circumstances to which she’d been accustomed, but she was rescued again by a wealthy New Zealand couple who heard her give a dazzling performance and she went with them and settled in London. It wasn’t the case of doors of opportunity opening immediately, but by the mid-1930s Eileen was a part of the smart social set – much favoured by young men and by now giving performances at the Proms, with prestigious orchestras and conductors such as Henry Wood. Apparently she had always been a little feisty. Davis’s biography recounts a time when Eileen had been dropped by a certain admirer. As revenge, she found her way into his flat when he was out, and cut off all of his fly buttons!
When I think of Eileen Joyce I remember an old 78 rpm Parlophone record of my mother’s, and through the crackles, Sinding’s Rustle of Spring , https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_rtvky6wiYQ played by the young Eileen. It may have been recorded soon after Eileen arrived in London. She had initiative – or was it desperation to earn money? In a BBC interview with John Amis, she tells us in her posh English accent that she heard that for seven pounds you could make your own recording at Parlophone. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=swgikN-b3OQ She fronted up to the studio and made her recording. This way the managers could hear her brilliance. They were so impressed that she didn’t have to pay her seven pounds and Parlophone signed her up.
How difficult to be swept up in a wave of fame, with pressing schedules, always having to be in shape to perform at the standard expected. It is not unusual for a young person to have difficulty coping with fame; we frequently hear of sporting stars turning to drugs and other forms of excess. Maybe Eileen did tend to overlook the huge support and generosity from her family and home-town. Maybe her lack of gratitude was inaccurately reported. I am reminded of the story of ‘cellist Jacqueline Du Près, who early in her career toured Russia. She was still living with her parents and her family were terribly excited when a parcel arrived from Russia – what exotic gift might it be? It was her dirty laundry.
Eileen married just before the war. It seems to have been a generally unhappy union. She had a son, John. Her husband was killed during the war. She soon had a new partner, Christopher Mann, a wealthy film and theatrical agent. There is some doubt as to whether they ever married, although he remained with her for the rest of his life. The story of Eileen’s relationship with John reminds me of Dame Nellie Melba, who was accused of neglecting her son, but missed him terribly. John had a life of boarding schools and, according to Julia Hasting’s account, went through a stage of refusing to speak to his mother, though he obviously worshipped her as a diva in her Norman Hartnell-styled gowns. According to Davis, Eileen’s ‘nervous breakdown’ in 1953 was tied to a realisation that she had failed as a mother.
There was sadness at the end of Eileen Joyce’s life. Julia Hastings portrays her as feeling that she had led a narrow life – being able to perform a particular repertoire, but accomplishing little more. In 1959 Eileen speaks of being ‘enslaved’ by the piano. I suppose this was brought about by her sense of having been an inadequate mother, although, as a pianist, she developed and changed with the times. She became involved in several films possibly because of Christopher Mann’s influence, and, with the move to an interest in ‘authentic’ instruments in the 1960s, she took up harpsichord and clavichord and gave performances of Bach and Vivaldi playing one of four harpsichords.
Eileen Joyce performed at a charity concert in 1967, but her final concert is acknowledged to be one in Scotland in 1960; at the end of that concert she closed the lid of the piano. It was the end of her career. She was exhausted and suffering from debilitating rheumatism.
Julia Hastings concludes her musical play with a performance of Percy Grainger’s Handel in the Strand – an acknowledgment of Eileen Joyce’s indebtedness to his early recognition of her talent.