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vale Geoffrey Tozer

August 24, 2009

The sad news arrived on Friday that the great Australian pianist Geoffrey Tozer had died of liver failure the previous day. It’s a shock, and I can’t quite believe he’s no longer available at the other end of the phone.

I first met Geoffrey in Melbourne about twelve years ago. He volunteered at the last moment to turn pages for me, which he naturally did with great deftness. Belinda Webster assured me afterwards that there was nothing he liked better than to turn for people. Some years later, I remember a concert at ANAM where Frank Wibaut was about to play the Bartok sonata. Frank came forward and started to explain something about his busy schedule that week, how he had had to teach the sonata to students… I wasn’t sure where it was going but I did notice a gentleman standing up for some reason. Right at that moment, Frank was appealing to some kind member of the audience to come up to turn his pages, and there was Mr Tozer, who had guessed what Frank was about to ask.

Now, it was clear that Frank did not know who Geoffrey was. Seated behind Frank and looking out into the audience, Geoffrey was a study. Every nuance of Frank’s playing, even if almost imperceptibly, fleetingly reflected itself in Geoffrey’s open childlike face. A couple of times I almost laughed out loud at the bemused look that was prompted by something Frank did. But, beyond the novelty of the situation, it demonstrated something essential in Geoffrey’s unusual character.

Geoffrey didn’t regard himself as an international virtuoso. He often spoke critically against the idea of a precocious, prodigious childhood, which he had experienced. He revelled in the way music plays into life, and the converse, so that participating in any way was always special for him, whether it be turning someone’s pages, giving an inspirational lesson (often for free and for hours) or taking centre stage himself. Above all, he was able to maintain an exquisite innocence.

I only feel unutterably sad that I won’t now have the opportunity to know him better. I never saw him happier than the night my sister’s friend Alan came over to mum’s house and showed old films to us in the lounge room. Quite a film buff was our Geoffrey, and he LOVED cartoons, especially the old ones with all the great music… We had the chance two years ago to play together at a festival in Kangaroo Valley. We talked a lot about music, who we admired, what we were writing. In the taxi on the way home one afternoon I asked him what he was writing at the moment. “Oh,” he said, “I’ve just finished another piano sonata.” Can I have a copy, I asked. “Oh no, I haven’t written it down yet.”

I hope that there is something written down.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/2009/sep/06/geoffrey-tozer-obituary

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13 Comments leave one →
  1. Phoenix_Rising permalink
    August 25, 2009 10:23 am

    Very sad to hear this news… he was very generous in his time given to students and I remember him fondly from my years at Melbourne Uni and ANAM. RIP Geoffrey.

  2. Geoff Fiddian permalink
    August 28, 2009 12:21 am

    Geoffrey Tozer’s debut with the Astra Chamber Orchestra, filled the Myer Music Bowl, where he played only the first movement of the Bach.
    This was repeated in an MSO/TV studio performance weeks later, and at ‘Town Hall Schools’ Concerts that same year.
    There is no ABC evidence, in either Public Concert Schedules or Orchestral Rosters, to confirm his early completion of the Beethoven Cycle. His ‘manager’, when challenged, refused to accept media misinformation
    Regretfully, Geoff’s undoubted talent was exploited by others at the expense of a normal childhood. Kids in short pants should not be shackled to, let alone chew on, a keyboard.
    This is where Geoff, and Australia, lost out.
    I witnessed it all as a long-term ABC Concert Department staffer.
    Geoff. I can only hope you’ve found peace.

  3. August 28, 2009 6:47 am

    I really don’t see that there is anything in my post to cause offence; it was meant as nothing other than a vignette illustrating a couple of moments I spent with Geoffrey. He was a great and admired colleague and I’ll miss him. His playing could be as good as anything I have ever heard and I think we have lost an important part of our musical heritage as a result of his early death. However, it is also true that Geoffrey himself revelled in quirky stories and funny moments, and it would be wrong if we were unable fondly to remember that.

  4. Geoff Fiddian permalink
    August 29, 2009 12:07 pm

    Ian, I meant no offence in my comment, but I well remember a very small Geoffrey Tozer huddled on the ‘Town Hall stairs beneath the West Balcony prior to those first Schools’ Concerts, on the rough end of further advice of how to interpret the Bach. Five performances in that Series, and it was always the same. He declined use of the Artists’ Room, under pressure.
    That seemed the pattern for some time. Quite a number of us were irate that he was denied normal teenage years. Australian music shall long be poorer for a combination, by others, of selfishness and ambition.
    Regretfully, there are other examples well embedded in the international spehere of fine music.
    On one occasion, an MSO violinist was heard to comment, “The kid needs a wild bird, and a few wild parties”. The philosophy may be deemed ‘sound’.

    • August 31, 2009 8:20 am

      Thanks Geoff, your input very welcome. I hope that a biography might be written at some stage, sooner rather than later.

  5. JohnofOz permalink
    September 3, 2009 1:58 am

    Ian,
    I have to say I found your words a beautifully crafted insight into a musician of whom I knew little. I only heard him twice in the flesh, both relatively recently in Melbourne in about 2004 on a couple of old Pleyel pianos, and at Kangaroo Valley in 2007. At the risk of appearing other directed, I may have maintained a lesser view of Geoffrey Tozer, were it not for blogs such as yours and that of Norman Lebrecht. This notwithstanding, Geoff Fiddian’s references to elements of tragedy in Tozer’s early life are, in my view, useful for those of us with no personal knowledge to understand the man’s undoubted complexity.

    • ianmunro permalink
      October 2, 2009 12:27 am

      A belated reply, now that the memorial service is over and Paul Keating has been allowed his rant.

      It seems to me that those who now shout so loud in defending Geoffrey’s memory are treating him with as much disrespect than any of those whom they accuse of malevolence, an egregious claim if ever there was one. Turning Geoffrey, again, into a political pawn now that he can’t speak for himself makes my stomach turn. The choice of Keating to deliver the eulogy is a powerful enough indication of the agenda that is being pushed, as is the unattributed piece in the Times, which speaks fulsomely for itself, in more ways than one. Perhaps the service would have been less sparsely attended if more people who cared for Geoffrey knew that they were not likely to suffer an uncomfortable and inappropriate tirade. There are certainly other reasons why Geoffrey was not engaged as regularly as he might have been over the last ten to fifteen years, and the fact that he received such large amounts of public money over the years should, at least, cause those who claim that his genius was unrecognised pause for thought.

      Australia is a pretty good country, full of flaws, some of which we’re aware of and others which are not so clear. The fact that artists here often feel under-valued is a perennial but ought to be seen in a wider perspective. Here, we are very seldom persecuted, we have plenty of opportunities in an affluent and relatively cultured society to learn our craft and start a career. These days, the professionalism of the classical music community here is at a level not seen or heard before, although we need to be ever vigilant, as the recent and ongoing ANAM and VCA situations show. Most of all, if we are wise we bear Seneca in mind and embark on the life of a musician with the expectation that the financial returns might not be great, but with the hope that the other rewards will be. I really don’t see that Geoffrey was treated any worse than any other of my colleagues, and he fared much better than some. His personal life supplies many more of the answers than these wild accusations would have us believe.

      The one part of Keating’s speech with which I agree is that more should have been done to help him. But how do you help an alcoholic? Easier said than done. It’s been a traumatic time and Geoffrey’s death has shocked and dismayed us. Now, wouldn’t it be better to focus on helping all the other talented Australian musicians to live and work rewarding lives? One of the few things I’m sure about is that Geoffrey would have agreed with that.

  6. September 6, 2009 2:28 am

    I’m bumping two comments by Zsuzsi from the blog thread:

    Dear ian,

    having just read your “the prince and the pauper”
    you are absolutely correct. Geoffrey was immediately thrilled when Paul K proposed that he start the Wunderkind school for genii in Queenbeyan …GT was excited at the compliment, but the former treasurer had given him no lessons in accounting or management..
    or offered any structural help…
    I have no idea how GT was expected to magically start a school ….
    of course he lost the money….

    regards

    Zsuzsi

  7. September 6, 2009 2:31 am

    Dear Ian
    I was a life long wicked friend of Geoffrey Tozer’s, since 1964…not quite life long, his mother was my piano teacher and other mother…my mother having died in 1964…the Geoffrey I met was a cherubic angel in short pants who had read Shakespeare and Catullus as I had (I was 2 years older) but we became instant friends in spite of everybody….I could play….but fuck..he was a genius at the keyboard..and a true musician..and artist…our friendship wove through many things…… art & literature & nature & puppies…I was conceived of Hungarian parents ..so of course..Bartok..Lizst…Kodaly…(there’s a story there)
    Belinda tells me she has the only DVD of him relaxing…….. here at my home by the sea at Somers, in 2006 with herself and Schnabel, Geoffrey’s beloved blind Jack Russell ….
    I spoke to hime twice in the five weeks before he died…..something is amiss….of course he was gay..
    He told me that he had been tested for bowel cancer.
    When I asked seriously if he had had a second opinion, he insistd that he had. After the first visit to hospital we spoke at length and he was quite cheerful……little did I realise he was saying “goodbye”…..we regailled many innocently wicked irresponsible fun times…….I should have known.
    Anyway, kind sir, I have heard many wonderful truths about you from Belinda……I have read your delightful review of G.T’s facial expressions when turning a page, it’s good to know that a 21st century renaisssance person who needs knee transplant surgery exists, and please accept my joy at knowing that Geoffrey had such a true friend.

    My love and good friendship

    Zsuzsi Korchma

  8. September 6, 2009 2:35 am

    Thanks so much Zsuzsi, I have heard about you too from the same source! I used to go the Lord Somers Camp with the school orchestra, about the only undiluted happy time I had at high school…

  9. helenmacdougall permalink
    October 20, 2009 7:56 pm

    I too was moved to read two stories that reflect so well the Geoffrey I remember. I only had lessons from Geoffrey for a year, in 1986, but it was a truly remarkable experience. I wish I had been able to tell Geoffrey how much he influenced my perception of music, my whole musical career…

    Wherever I am touring in the world now I tell my colleagues a story about the last concert I heard him play, way back in 1987 with a fantastic performance of the Liszt Hungarian Rhapsody no.2 and an entirely improvised second half, at the Llewelyn Hall in Canberra.
    He managed to break a bass string on the concert Steinway during the Rhapsody, and as it was an important note in that piece, he improvised a short passage to modulate upwards, and continued the rest of the piece – by heart! – up a semitone.
    After the concert, he told me the story of what had happened to him on the way to the concert, with his usual wide blue eyes and boyish enthusiasm, as though it had all been a fabulous adventure: “You’ll never guess what happened on the way to the concert this evening…” He had been cycling to the hall when a drunk suddenly sprang in front of his bike. Geoffrey had been taken to hospital, but there had been no time to do anything about his broken ribs (here he lifted his shirt almost proudly to show the bandages) or to set the little finger of his left hand, which had been taped to the fourth finger provisorily. So this was why he’d broken the string – more force from two fingers than from one, even if one was broken – but more than that, he’d effectively just played one of the most brilliant recitals I have ever heard with only nine fingers!

    I was devastated to hear he has died.
    Rest in peace dear Geoffrey. There’ll never be another like you.

  10. Tyrone Boyle permalink
    October 27, 2009 5:14 pm

    Hello. I came to know Geoffrey only after discovering him on “Youtube” playing a piece that I’m currently working on (Pytotr Schlozer’s Etude in A-flat Major, Op.1 – No.2). Even before researching on who this pianist was, I was intruiged by his playing (and of this performance in particular). Upon researching the internet, I was in inspired and saddened by the life of this incredible human being. Being on the other side of the world (Chicago, IL), I feel that his life was one that is not so much different than any other human being on the planet. His persona seemed to be one that was all-encompasing and had many facets that we can all relate to. He seemed to be a giving individual (most importantly with his time – which is what’s most important anyway) who was always willing to make people (particuarly other artists) they were no less as important/significant as he. He also seemed to have his own “issues/demons” that he struggled with (in regards to his alcoholism) – things that every human being in one form or another struggles with. Having been adopted at the age of 17 and coming from a background where my natual mother was an alcoholic (and abusive), I can to some degree empathize with the stuggle that must have been for him. All of that set aside, Geoffrey was on this earth for the amount of time he was alloted and he has indeed touched the lives of many people – in his own “world” and (thanks to the internet)others on the other side of the world. I definitely plan on learning more about him and appreciating the musical legacy he left behind in recordings. Thanks, Geoffrey for enriching and inspiring!!!
    Sincerely,
    Tyrone S Boyle
    Chicago, IL USA

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