Eileen Joyce’s mother was Spanish and her father, an itinerant labourer and mining prospector, was Irish. Eileen was born into relative poverty, in a tent, in the mining town of Zeehan, Tasmania and brought up near Boulder City in Western Australia. Educated at St Joseph’s Convent, her first instruction at the piano came from her mother. In 1926 Percy Grainger heard the fourteen-year-old Eileen, calling her ‘the most transcendentally gifted child’ he had heard. Wilhelm Backhaus also heard her and recommended that she study in Leipzig. A fund was set up to support her travel and tuition in Germany, and she studied there with Max Pauer and Robert Teichmuller. Pauer gave her the Étude in A flat Op. 1 No. 2 by Paul de Schlözer to study, and when the André family, with whom she was staying in Leipzig, suggested she study the basics of piano playing with Teichmuller, she played this piece for him. Teichmuller provided Joyce with all the ground-work for a strong technique but never charged her for his guidance. She also was exposed to and learnt unusual repertoire such as Reger’s Piano Concerto and the Burleske by Richard Strauss.
After three years in Leipzig, Joyce travelled to London with a letter of introduction to conductor Albert Coates from Teichmuller in which he wrote, ‘Eileen has a rare piano talent of special originality and high intelligence. She plays the really difficult Concerto of Prokofiev quite wonderfully.’ Joyce knocked on Coates’s door, and they played through Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in C major Op. 26 together.
In London Joyce had further periods of instruction from Adelina de Lara and Tobias Matthay, and in Berlin attended master-classes by Artur Schnabel at which she studied Beethoven’s ‘Emperor’ Concerto. Coates suggested she contact Henry Wood, the result being that Joyce made her London and Proms debut at the Queen’s Hall on 6 September 1930. She chose to play Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3 Op. 26, and Wood invited her to return for consecutive years when she played Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in B flat Op. 19, Busoni’s Indianische Fantasie for piano and orchestra, and Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 1 Op. 35. Four years after her debut she took part at the last night of the fortieth season of Proms, again playing Busoni’s Indianische Fantasie. ‘Miss Eileen Joyce played the solo part prettily, if not with any deep understanding of its intellectual qualities, and won much applause.’
From that auspicious beginning, Joyce had a long and successful career as soloist and concerto performer, having at least seventy concertos in her repertoire including those by John Ireland and Rimsky-Korsakov, both concertos by Shostakovich, Tchaikovsky’s Concertos Nos 1 and 2, and Busoni’s Indianische Fantasie; but it was her playing of the popular concertos by Grieg, Rachmaninov and Tchaikovsky that endeared her to the British public to whom she was a household name like Benno Moiseiwitsch and Mark Hambourg. Joyce toured extensively, playing in such diverse places as Brazil and Helsinki, and also played with the Berlin Philharmonic under Sergiu Celibidache, as well as with conductors of the stature of Eugene Ormandy and Victor de Sabata, whom she described as ‘wonderful’ when they performed Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major Op. 58 together.
Joyce, who possessed an arresting beauty, had enormous stamina at this time, being able to play four concertos in one evening: for example Chopin’s No. 1, Rachmaninov’s No. 2, the Concerto by John Ireland and Beethoven’s ‘Emperor’. During World War II she performed in British cities that had been bombed, sometimes up to three concert venues in one day, and appeared in feature films including Battle for Music (1944), Girl in a Million (1946) (in which she appeared as herself performing César Franck’s Variations Symphoniques), and Trent’s Last Case (1952) where she appeared playing Mozart at the Royal Opera House. Joyce is most fondly remembered for playing on the soundtrack of films including The Seventh Veil (1948) and Brief Encounter (1949). A film based on her life, in which she appears, was entitled Wherever she goes (1951). Arthur Bliss and George Malcolm wrote music for her.
Her frenetic working life, where music was the focus to the exclusion of all else, left Joyce disillusioned. ‘I worked too hard and travelled too much. I felt depleted spiritually and mentally, I was like a shell with nothing inside anymore.’ Her first marriage was not happy and led to separation, but her husband was killed in World War II. Their son was sent to boarding school at the age of two and a half, and Joyce admitted that her breakdown was partly due to her guilt over the neglect of her child.
After thirty years of intensive concert schedules, Joyce retired from the concert stage in 1962; but her popularity led her to make one more appearance at the Royal Albert Hall in London in 1967 when she played Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor Op. 18 with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Anatole Fistoulari. ‘Her playing had remarkable weight of tone and was unfailingly musical.’
A ‘popular’ pianist with a vast repertoire of short works by nineteenth-century composers, Joyce also played Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven, and popular works by Debussy, Fauré and Ravel, Sinding, Cyril Scott and Dohnányi. She had an exceptionally fluent technique which she could turn to anything, but she was not the kind of pianist one would expect to hear play Schubert sonatas or Beethoven’s ‘Diabelli’ Variations. She knew what she was good at, and excelled in it. Although her fast tempi in Bach may appear excessive today, she always played with great taste and finesse whether in a miniature by Mozart or Grieg, or a huge Romantic concerto by Rachmaninov or Tchaikovsky. There is never a feeling that she is just playing fast for effect, or that anything is at all superficial.
From her first appearance in London in 1930, Joyce broadcast for the BBC. Some of her radio and television broadcasts have survived from the 1950s, the most important being a 1953 ‘Last Night of the Proms’ when she played Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A minor Op. 54 with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Malcolm Sargent. From 1949 another Prom performance has survived of Joyce playing the Ireland Piano Concerto with the London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Adrian Boult at a seventieth birthday concert for Ireland.
Joyce made some records in 1933 for her own use. The company who recorded her, Parlophone, was so impressed with her disc of Liszt’s Étude de concert La Leggierezza that instead of charging her £7-10s-0d (£7.50) for making it, she was quickly signed to a contract. She recorded prolifically during the 1930s, almost a disc a month, and made some excellent discs for Parlophone, of which that first one already mentioned is one of the highlights. The repertoire covered a wide range, including Bach, Mozart, Paradisi and popular works by Chopin and Liszt as well as works that could be called ‘encores’ by composers such as Moszkowski, Rachmaninov and Liszt. An exception from the piano solos recorded for Parlophone was Arensky’s Piano Trio in D minor recorded with violinist Henri Temianka and cellist Antonio Sala. Around 1940 Joyce began to record for Columbia where she set down performances of slightly larger works such as Chopin ballades, some Mozart piano sonatas, Grieg’s Ballade Op. 24 and Haydn’s Piano Trio in G major Op. 73 No. 2. Surprisingly, little of Joyce’s concerto repertoire was recorded. In 1936 she recorded Turina’s Rapsodia sinfonica for Parlophone, and in the early 1940s for Columbia she recorded Ireland’s Piano Concerto and Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 1 Op. 35. Joyce gave the British premières of both Shostakovich concertos in 1936 and 1958.
When Joyce moved to Decca in the mid-1940s, she recorded Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor Op. 18 with the London Philharmonic Orchestra and Erich Leinsdorf, César Franck’s Variations Symphoniques with the Paris Conservatoire Orchestra and Charles Munch, and Mendelssohn’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in G minor Op. 25 with the London Symphony Orchestra and Anatole Fistoulari. Also for Decca Joyce recorded Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in G major Op. 44 with the London Philharmonic Orchestra and Gregor Fitelberg. This latter recording was assigned catalogue numbers but never released, apparently due to technical problems with the recording. It was not until the LP era that Joyce recorded Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A minor Op. 16; it appeared on the Saga label with John Frandsen conducting the Royal Danish Orchestra, as did an LP of encores of the type Joyce had recorded for Parlophone.
A handsome two-LP set entitled The Eileen Joyce Album appeared on EMI in 1987 containing a selection of her recordings from 1933 to 1942. On compact disc she has appeared on Testament and Pearl who each have devoted a disc to her. The Decca concerto recordings by Franck, Rachmaninov and Mendelssohn appeared on a Dutton compact disc with the Rapsodia sinfonica by Turina in 1998, whilst Dutton reissued the Shostakovich Concerto No. 1 in 1994.
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — Jonathan Summers (A–Z of Pianists, Naxos 8.558107–10).
Role: Classical Artist