Eileen Joyce 1908 – 1991

 

 

 

A Centenary Tribute

 

by Neville Cohn

 

 

Her dirt poor parents in Boulder were so short of money, that her clothes were made from old flour sacks – and her  shoes were hand-me-downs two sizes too big for her. It’s almost certain that these slights and embarrassments made the little girl long to be famous and rich. And that is what happened to Eileen Joyce – or little Ellie as she was known in Boulder where her parents settled not long after Ellie was born in Tasmania in 1908.

 

One hundred years on, there will be many a commemorative recital in her honour around the world. So, too, in Perth which loomed large in Joyce’s affections, so much so that towards the end of her life, she donated significant monies for the building of the Eileen Joyce Studio on UWA campus in memory of her parents.

 

During the 1940s and into the 1950s, Eileen Joyce was arguably the second most famous of living Australians, second only to Don Bradman – and she earned buckets of money in the process.

 

She was glamorous, she was feted wherever she went – and the clothes she wore were almost as a big a talking point as her performances. Eileen Joyce would say that, in her mind, certain colours suited certain composers: lilac for Liszt, yellow for Schumann, blue for Grieg, red for Tchaikowsky and so on. And she would frequently give recitals in which she would wear a different concert gown for each work on the program, a habit that would surely have been sweet compensation after her poverty-stricken youth. And these were not gowns made by some anonymous suburban dressmaker. On the contrary, they sported the labels of some of the priciest couturiers in the world, such as Worth and Norman Hartnell, the Queens’ dress designer.

 

For years, she was very frequently written about in women’s magazines which informed their avid readers that even Joyce’s hairstyles were dictated by the music she played: hair piled high for Beethoven, drawn back tight for Mozart and let down for Debussy!

 

Some critics blasted her for these “tasteless distractions”, “prostitution of her art” and “cheap tricks”. Eileen laughed all the way to the bank.

 

As a child, Ellie liked to play the harmonica but when an aunt moved in with the family, she brought an item of furniture that would change Ellie’s life forever – a battered old upright piano to which the little girl took like the proverbial duck to water.

 

Ellie was taught the piano at the convent school she attended in Boulder. Enter one Charles Schilsky who would by now be totally forgotten if not for being the first senior musician to spot Ellie’s extraordinary potential and do something about it. Schilsky had come to Boulder as an examiner for Trinity College of Music, London.

 

After hearing young Ellie, he approached the local priest and told him the little girl had a giant talent and needed top tuition. The Catholic church came to Ellie’s musical rescue. Monies were raised in improbable ways. Hats were passed around in Boulder taverns – and more than a few of the winnings from games of two-up found their way to the growing fund. Ellie went to Perth as a boarder at Loreto Convent where Sister John gave Ellie the music guidance she needed.

 

Enter Charles Schilsky yet again. Invited back to Perth to adjudicate at an eisteddfod, he immediately recognised that Ellie was moving forward by leaps and bounds, put in a good word or two and before long young Eileen was on her way to Europe for lessons in Leipzig, Germany from Robert Teichmuller. Here, too, she flourished, absorbing her teacher’s wise counsel like blotting paper. Then she went to England. Sir Henry Wood, founder of the famous London Proms, conducted her debut concerto performance; it was a huge success. Eileen Joyce was on her way to justifying Percy Grainger’s comment that “she was the most transcendentally gifted pianist I have ever encountered.”

 

Her big break came in London. She’d decided to make a piano recording privately which she intended to use as a sort of musical calling card when looking for concert opportunities. But when she returned to the studio to pay for the recording she had made days earlier, she was told, to her pleasant surprise, that her playing was so impressive that, not only did she not have to pay for the recording, she was instead offered a contract to make further recordings on the Parlophone label – and that was the beginning of a career during which many of her records became best sellers, making a fortune for both the recording company and Eileen.

 

This was also about the time that Eileen, a compulsive liar for most of her life, began manufacturing fanciful fictions about her life and career – and these fabrications became increasingly complicated until, later in life, she had difficulty herself in remembering what was true and what was not. Early on, she claimed to have been born in 1912 – but then, many movie actresses also hid their year of birth.

 

In 1937, Eileen married stockbroker Douglas Barratt by whom she fell pregnant. It was not a happy union – and their son John was born sixteen hours after Britain declared war on Germany. Not long after, Douglas was killed on active service.

 

Later, Joyce met  Christopher Mann – and although presenting themselves as a married couple, there are still doubts whether they were legally married or not: another one of Joyce’s lies?

 

Whatever the state of their union, Mann proved a brilliant agent; his connections and shrewd business acumen transformed Eileen into a superstar and earned them a fortune. Her son, though, was to have a traumatic youth and adolescence at Eileen’s and Christopher’s hands. He was packed off to boarding school at the earliest possible moment. And Mann’s attitude towards the little boy would make David Copperfield’s stepfather seem a paragon of enlightenment and compassion by comparison.

 

For the rest of his life, Mann treated John appallingly, at best treating him like some barely tolerated house guest and insisting on the most detailed accounting, literally to the very penny, of the parsimonious allowance he so grudgingly gave the child who was more often than not dumped like some unwanted parcel at boarding school. To her eternal discredit, Eileen never intervened, passively allowing Mann to wreck John’s childhood and adolescence. This indifference to her only child became ever more obvious towards the end of life when Eileen lavished far more affection on her dogs than her only child.

 

When she died, she left money for guide dogs for the blind. Would that she had been equally caring about her son John to whom she left nothing – nothing! – so that, to acquire some dearly loved childhood artefacts, he had to engage an agent to purchase these at an auction sale of his mother’s possessions. But Joyce did leave money to John’s young son, to be held in trust until he turned 25 years old. John did not attend his mother’s funeral.

 

Mean and neglectful she may have been towards her son but in other ways Joyce was generous with her time and abilities. She rarely turned down an appeal to play to raise funds for this or that charity. And in wartime England she worked unceasingly, as did, say, Yehudi Menuhin, to play for the troops in hospitals and munitions factories up and down the land. This, too, brought record crowds to her performances whether as recitalist or concerto soloist.

 

Joyce’s success on the concert platform or the recording studio was based on a very shrewd self assessment. A superb technical facility allowed her to play, with ease, any work she attempted at the piano. But she lacked interpretative depth – and she knew it. So she avoided music like the late sonatas of Beethoven, for instance, with which she could not identify compellingly. Hers was essentially a superficial gift – and she  exploited it brilliantly. It won over a huge international audience.

 

Much later in life, she developed an interest in the harpsichord and this at a time when

baroque performance practice was almost unknown – and she is rightly credited with doing valuable pioneering work drawing attention to often neglected early music.

 

In old age, Joyce very much wanted to honour the memory of her parents and she did so, on the advice of the late Sir Frank Callaway, founding professor of  UWA’s School of Music, by donating significant monies to the university to purpose-build a small auditorium on campus. And it is widely agreed that the Eileen Joyce Studio is one of the most beautiful appointed and situated venues of its kind in the world. It houses a collection of historic pianos as well as water colour paintings of Joyce as concerto soloist at London’s Royal Festival Hall. There is also a fine Augustus John portrait of Joyce when young. There’s also an oil paining of her in doctoral robes (she was awarded an honorary doctorate in music by UWA).

 

To mark the centenary, Piers Lane who stood in for Joyce years earlier when her hands were not up to the job, will give a recital of works close to Joyce’s heart at the Octagon on Sunday March 16th at 5pm: the program includes the 24 Preludes, opus 28 by Chopin and Grainger’s arrangement of the first movement of Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A minor.   Perhaps the recital organisers will arrange to have the paintings and drawings of Eileen Joyce displayed in the Octagon foyer on the day of the recital.

 

Neville Cohn


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