Eileen Joyce 1908-1991

Eileen Joyce

Eileen Joyce

She was born on 1 January 1908 in humble circumstances in Zeehan, a declining, isolated mining community in western Tasmania.

Joyce made a sensational debut in 1930, playing the then unfamiliar Prokofiev third piano concerto at a Promenade Concert with Sir Henry Wood conducting.

 

Pianistic beauty

‘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.’ So wrote Percy Grainger in an open letter to the citizens of Perth, after the 14-year-old prodigy had played for him.

Eileen Alannah Joyce was always reticent to talk about her early years. We know now that she was born on 1 January 1908 in humble circumstances in Zeehan, a declining, isolated mining community in western Tasmania. She was still a baby when her family moved to another mining town, Boulder, 600 kilometres east of Perth, Western Australia. She learnt piano from the nuns at the convent schools she attended.

Grainger’s enthusiasm for the young girl’s talent was endorsed by the visiting German pianist Wilhelm Backhaus, who arranged for her to study at the Mendelssohn Conservatorium at Leipzig. The citizens of Boulder and Perth dug deep. After a farewell recital at His Majesty’s Theatre, Joyce sailed for Europe. At Leipzig she studied under Robert Teichmüller and Artur Schnabel, and in London at the Royal College of Music with Tobias Matthay.

Joyce made a sensational debut in 1930, playing the then unfamiliar Prokofiev third piano concerto at a Promenade Concert with Sir Henry Wood conducting. Soon she was in demand for concerts, broadcasts and recordings. She memorised more than 50 piano concertos and numerous recital programs.

In 1936 the ABC, which had been established only four years before, brought her home as one of its celebrity concert artists. Her success was largely responsible for the ABC’s decision to persevere with concert promotion, much to the displeasure of J. & N. Tait, the commercial entrepreneurs who had previously dominated the field. Fittingly, the first concert of the tour was at His Majesty’s in Perth. Her rapturous reception was repeated as she travelled around the country. In Melbourne she broadcast a special message to the people of Tasmania as part of the inauguration of the submarine telephone cable linking that state with Victoria.

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Biographical references

Richard Davis: Eileen Joyce – A Portrait, Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 2001
Cyrus Meher-Homji: ‘Eileen Joyce’, in The Oxford Companion to Australian Music, Oxford University Press, 1997