The sad life of Geoffrey Tozer

Tozer

“Who’s heard of Geoffrey Tozer?” a teacher at the Victorian College of the Arts asked his class at the beginning of The Eulogy.  No-one had.  An hour and a half of footage later the same teacher asked the same class “Who thinks Geoffrey Tozer deserves to be in the same group as Nellie Melba, Percy Grainger and Joan Sutherland?”.  All hands were raised.

Like the VCPA class I’d never heard of Geoffrey Tozer before seeing this film.  Based around the accusations in the obituary Paul Keating gave at his funeral, the documentary explored why Tozer’s loss was not mourned as the loss of “Glen Gould of Canada or Ginette Neveu of France” would be.  Why he was not named alongside the Australian musical greats of Nellie Melba, Percy Grainger and Joan Sutherland.  Why, despite his exceptional gifts, he had been so neglected.

The Eulogy was based around the VCPA’s teacher’s quest to answer Keating’s accusation that it was the “bitchiness” of the Australian music scene in Sydney and Melbourne which was responsible for this neglect.  But, as the documentary showed, nothing is that simple.  There was no one reason but several.  An important one was the ultimately negative, almost destructive influence, of his mother.  A talented pianist herself she was an amateur genetic engineer choosing a genius to be the father of her child, and deciding her unborn child would be a musical prodigy.  She dominated his life and career until her death, keeping him, but more importantly his talent and career, under her control.  Tozer was thus completely unprepared for everyday life.  He left school at 13, lived a very socially isolated existence, couldn’t look after himself and only seems to have felt comfortable and at home sitting at the piano.  During an affair he began to party and drink heavily.  Although the affair and partying ended he kept drinking; the alcohol eventually killing him.

Juxtaposed against the interviews with his brother and others who knew him was Keating’s obituary, which he had agreed to recreate for the film.  Of interest to me was the championship of Tozer Keating undertook after hearing him perform at his son’s school where Tozer was a music teacher.  Keating is a fascinating subject in his own right (for me anyone who listens to Mahler to relax is) and was a great champion of the arts in Australia, instituting the Creative Artists Creative Fellowships which were later abolished.  Interviews with the past manager of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra and a concert pianist who played with the orchestras which rejected Tozer, revealed Tozer’s unreliability, perhaps alcohol induced, and the impact this had on those he was working with.

I came away uplifted by Tozer’s music but saddened by his life, the harm a mother could do to her child, his lost childhood, his largely lonely adulthood, his hideous and long road to death by alcohol.  But on the positive side the documentary introduced me to his wonderful music and it’s easy to hear why Rubenstein called him “an extraordinary pianist”.    As I’ve been writing this I’ve listened to many of his performances, including his recording of Listz’s Hungarian Rhapsody No 2, where he slips Waltzing Matilda into the cadenza.  He may not be spoken of in the same breath as Melba, Grainger and Sutherland but he was one of Australia’s musical greats.

“Who’s heard of Geoffrey Tozer?” a teacher at the Victorian College of the Arts asked his class at the beginning of The Eulogy.  No-one had.  An hour and a half of footage later the same teacher asked the same class “Who thinks Geoffrey Tozer deserves to be in the same group as Nellie Melba, Percy Grainger and Joan Sutherland?”.  All hands were raised.

Like the VCPA class I’d never heard of Geoffrey Tozer before seeing this film.  Based around the accusations in the obituary Paul Keating gave at his funeral, the documentary explored why Tozer’s loss was not mourned as the loss of “Glen Gould of Canada or Ginette Neveu of France” would be.  Why he was not named alongside the Australian musical greats of Nellie Melba, Percy Grainger and Joan Sutherland.  Why, despite his exceptional gifts, he had been so neglected.

The Eulogy was based around the VCPA’s teacher’s quest to answer Keating’s accusation that it was the “bitchiness” of the Australian music scene in Sydney and Melbourne which was responsible for this neglect.  But, as the documentary showed, nothing is that simple.  There was no one reason but several.  An important one was the ultimately negative, almost destructive influence, of his mother.  A talented pianist herself she was an amateur genetic engineer choosing a genius to be the father of her child, and deciding her unborn child would be a musical prodigy.  She dominated his life and career until her death, keeping him, but more importantly his talent and career, under her control.  Tozer was thus completely unprepared for everyday life.  He left school at 13, lived a very socially isolated existence, couldn’t look after himself and only seems to have felt comfortable and at home sitting at the piano.  During an affair he began to party and drink heavily.  Although the affair and partying ended he kept drinking; the alcohol eventually killing him.

Juxtaposed against the interviews with his brother and others who knew him was Keating’s obituary, which he had agreed to recreate for the film.  Of interest to me was the championship of Tozer Keating undertook after hearing him perform at his son’s school where Tozer was a music teacher.  Keating is a fascinating subject in his own right (for me anyone who goes home to relax and listen to Mahler and Bruckner is) and was a great champion of the arts in Australia, instituting the Creative Artists Creative Fellowships which were later abolished.  Interviews with the past manager of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra and a concert pianist who played with the orchestras which rejected Tozer, revealed Tozer’s unreliability, perhaps alcohol induced, and the impact this had on those he was working with.

I came away uplifted by Tozer’s music but saddened by his life, the harm a mother could do to her child, his lost childhood, his largely lonely adulthood, his hideous and long road to death by alcohol.  But on the positive side the documentary introduced me to his wonderful music and it’s easy to hear why Rubenstein called him “an extraordinary pianist”.    As I’ve been writing this I’ve listened to many of his performances, including his recording of Listz’s Hungarian Rhapsody No 2, where he slips Waltzing Matilda into the cadenza.  He may not be spoken of in the same breath as Melba, Grainger and Sutherland but he was one of Australia’s musical greats.

You can see the trailer for The Eulogy here.

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