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Goossens, Eugène (I)

Brugge, 25/02/1845 > Liverpool (GB), 30/12/1906


Goossens, Eugène (I)

by Annelies Focquaert

The primogenitor of the musical Goossens dynasty was silversmith Jean-Baptiste Goossens of Bruges. When one Mr Mechelaere, choir master of the church of Our Lady in Bruges, temporarily lived as a houseguest with the Goossens family, he discovered that young Eugène and his brother Adolphe had beautiful boys’ voices. Mechelaere integrated them in his boys’ choir and soon both boys enjoyed a reputation for vocal excellence in Bruges. Eugène turned out to be the most gifted one and at age 9 was encouraged to take violin lessons at the Municipal Academy of Music in Bruges.

Two years later he earned the special prize-medal of the 'Société Renaissance', awarded for the 25th anniversary of king Leopold the First’s royal tenure. Together with his brother he pursued further studies at the Brussels Conservatory: Eugène took violin classes with Meerts and Beumer as well as solfège, harmony, counterpoint and composition with Fétis; Adolphe focussed on singing and piano, classes that turned to be eminently useful for his later duties as conductor of the choirs 'Les Artisans réunis' and 'L'Orphéon'.

Eugène graduated for violin in 1864 in the class of L.-J.Meerts and completed his advanced studies with Fétis in 1870. He undertook several tours in France and Belgium, not only as a musician but also as an actor, in the company of the young dancer Célanie Van Dieghem, who was to become his wife, earning fame in London as a choreographer under the name of "Madame Sidonie". During one of their tours Eugène (II) was born in Bordeaux, and the young family settled in Bruges again. However, after a few years it transpired that concert life in Belgium did not yield enough income to subsist, resulting in the family’s relocation to England in 1873.

For quite a while Goossens played in small orchestras, but concurrently he started conducting as well. When he was hired by the London-based Comedy Opera Company this enabled him to draw attention to himself by conducting a gala performance of H.M.S. Pinafore in the presence of Queen Victoria. In 1883 he became second conductor of the famous Carl Rosa Opera Company, and in that capacity he conducted e.g. the first performance of Massenet’s Manon in 1885. After Carl Rosa’s death in 1889 the torch was handed on to Goossens as first conductor.

In 1893 Goossens resigned as conductor of the Carl Rosa Company and moved to Liverpool with a view to becoming a teacher of singing. He had already been trying from 1892 to found an orchestra of his own (by organizing a series of Wagner concerts, among other initiatives), but when this attempt proved futile he founded in 1894 the 'Goossens Male Voice Choir', with which he regularly performed Belgian repertoire (e.g. Limnander, Hanssens, Soubre, Gevaert, Riga, Denepve…). Its mission was to develop the same high standards as male choirs in Belgium. The choir created a niche for itself by singing all works by heart and it was also distinctive as an organization because it was based on cooperative principles. Goossens conducted the choir, which by 1902 numbered 200 members, until the end of his life. Some sources also mention that he served as organist of St Anne’s Roman Catholic Church in Liverpool.

Among his progeny his son Eugene (II) as well as his grandchildren, among them Sir Eugene (III) Aynsley, achieved a career of excellence in music too.

© Studiecentrum voor Vlaamse Muziek vzw - Annelies Focquaert (translation: Joris Duytschaever)