Destiny: The Extraordinary Career of Pianist Eileen Joyce
by David Tunley, Victoria Rogers and Cyrus Meher-Homji
Published December 2017
ISBN: 9780734037862 Lyrebird Press
On 18 May 1960, the Australian pianist Eileen Joyce (1908-1991) gave a piano recital in the Scottish city of Stirling. At the end, in a symbolic gesture, she did something she had never done before, she closed the lid of the piano. Unknown to the audience, in the absence of fanfare and farewell, it was to be her last performance. Muscular problems and exhaustion precipitated by the exigencies of travel had taken their toll. She was only fifty-two. Thereafter, she gave only the occasional performance. Her last was on 29 November 1981 when she appeared with Geoffrey Parsons at a fund-raising concert at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden.
This fascinating book is a collaboration between three scholars associated with The University of Western Australia, an institution the pianist had close ties with in the latter part of her life. Its aim is not biographical, but rather to reflect on the facets of her artistry, and her place and legacy in the context of 20th century pianism. It’s been published in tandem with a 10 CD set featuring the pianist’s complete studio recordings on the Decca Eloquence label. I have had the good fortune to review the set.
A classic story of rags to riches, Joyce started life in Zeehan, Tasmania, but at three years old her family moved to Boulder, Western Australia. Here she was taught piano at St. Joseph’s Convent. Progress was rapid and she relocated to the Loreto Convent in Perth with the aid of a scholarship.Percy Grainger talent spotted her, declaring: “I have heard Eileen Joyce play and have no hesitation in saying that she is in every way the most transcendentally gifted young piano student I have heard in the last twenty-five years. Her playing has that melt of tone, that elasticity of expression that is, I find, typical of young Australian talents, and is so rare elsewhere”. Wilhelm Backhaus was similarly impressed. It was recommended that she study abroad. From 1927-1929 she studied at the Leipzig Conservatory with Max von Pauer and Robert Teichmüller. From there it was on to the RCM in London for lessons with Tobias Matthay, in addition to a few from Adelina de Lara.
Joyce arrived in London in 1930 and it didn’t take long for her career to take off. Her first break came along with the BBC Proms. She made her debut on 7 September 1930 playing Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3 with the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Henry Wood. Over thirty seasons, between 1930-1959, she was to make thirty-two Prom appearances. She also became the darling of BBC radio. Her “versatility and marvellous memory" was a valuable asset, and she broadcast much contemporary music, including works by Rieti, Bliss and Howells. However, in the mid-forties, the BBC began to lose interest in her. Her glamorous image eventually mitigated against her, and she came to be regarded as ‘lightweight’. She was excluded from the Third programme until December 1957 when she made her debut in Bach’s D minor Harpsichord Concerto. It all came too late. Four years later she was to retire. Her good looks were an asset when it came to television, on which she first appeared in March 1937. Between 1952-1959 she made eleven TV appearances, mostly in lightweight fare.
During the war, Joyce was one of many artists who gave of their services. Travelling the length and breadth of the country, their concerts offered hope and beauty, boosting morale and lifting spirits. The period following hostilities Rogers calls ‘The Golden Years’ (1945-60). Christopher Mann, the pianist’s husband and agent headed an effective publicity machine. Joyce was a crowd-puller. In Harringay Stadium in 1947 she played to an audience of 10,000. In Belle Vue, Manchester it was 6,000. Her elegant couture added greatly to the allure, as did the darkened halls with two spotlights trained on her.
In 1943 Joyce made her film debut in Battle for Music in which she appeared as herself playing Grieg’s Piano Concerto. It was the start of a nine-year affair with the film industry which is explored in chapter four of the book by Victoria Rogers. In total, Joyce appeared in four films and provided the soundtracks for four others. Brief Encounter is perhaps the best known, where she is heard playing the Rachmaninov Piano Concerto No. 2. Her ‘cinematic’ career was frowned upon by some in the musical establishment, with the BBC pigeonholing her as ‘a box office artist’, yet it increased her exposure and popularity with the public, and gave her recordings a very welcome boost. In a sense, she was a pioneer, paving the way for subsequent generations of musicians to grace the silver screen. Rogers provides a helpful diagrammatic table of Joyce’s film career with dates, music played and participating actors.
For a pianist whose repertoire centred predominantly on the Romantic repertoire, it seems curious that Joyce should be ‘seduced’ by the harpsichord. It was sometime in the late 40s or early 50s that she stumbled upon a harpsichord whilst rehearsing at the Royal Albert Hall. It was love at first sight, and she lost no time in contacting the maker Thomas Goff (1898-1975) to acquire an instrument for herself. After a period of marathon practice she debuted on the instrument in Bach’s F minor Concerto with the London Symphony Orchestra under Sir Malcolm Sargent at the Royal Albert Hall on 4 March 1951. Victoria Rogers’ chapter gives plenty of useful background and context to the early music movement in Britain in the 1950s and early 60s. Goff was a pivotal figure. Whether he was aware of it or not, he “opened a new chapter in the early music revival in the UK”. His eagerness to recruit the popular pianist demonstrated his astuteness. Eventually, he, Joyce and fellow collaborators such as Thurston Dart and George Malcolm were at the cutting edge. Goff used his own instruments: iron-framed, seven pedals, with added mechanisms to facilitate a more myriad palette of sound. In later years his instruments were superseded.
In Chapter six, Cyrus Meher-Homji outlines the pianist’s recording career. It all began in 1933 when, as an unknown pianist, she decided to kick start her career with a self-funded recording. The piece she chose was Liszt’s concert study La leggiereza. Parlophone, who cut the disc, were so impressed they refused to charge and paid her instead, requesting a side two. Joyce offered Paul de Schlözer’s Etude in A flat, Op.1 No.2, a fiendish show-stopper, where a luscious melody is set against cascading semiquaver runs. The results of this initial foray into the world of recording were such a success that she was invited back to Parlophone just four months later. Her recording career had been launched. She later recorded for Columbia, HMV, Decca and Saga. She recorded at a time when there was a dearth of female artists. Her famed accuracy made the process easier. She had a wide range of repertoire and never specialized as did Cortot and Rubinstein in Chopin and Schnabel in Beethoven. She was occasionally censured for having a superficial repertoire, but the critics were dismissive of the music rather than the performances. Interestingly, her Brahms was praised as being better than Backhaus'.
For those with more than a passing interest, the five appendices offer a wealth of valuable information. In addition to listings of concerto and recital repertoire, there’s information on the Royal Festival Hall Harpsichord Concert Series and Bach Proms performances. Finally, there’s a comprehensive discography. This beautifully produced book is well-illustrated with a splendid array of black and white photographs. One in particular caught my eye. Apparently, Joyce was very popular with advertisers and appeared in numerous adverts ranging from pianos to cigarettes. There's a reproduction of an advert for a well-known night-time beverage, with the caption “I rely on Ovaltine for a good night’s rest”.
This excellent publication will be of particular interest to pianophiles, and act as a handy supplement to Joyce’s recently released Complete Studio Recordings.
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