Thursday, October 29, 2009

Geoffrey Tozer

I had never heard of this pianist until a few days ago, when someone on Piano World posted a link to a story about his memorial service. He died in August of this year at the age of 54 after years of decline following early successes as a child prodigy and young man. The medical cause of his death was liver disease, developed over years of alcoholic drinking.

You can read about him here and in former Australian prime minister Paul Keating's eulogy here.

I was struck, reading about this man so soon after seeing the movie I described in my last post, by the contrast between his difficult life and those of the accomplished amateur pianists in the movie. I keep thinking about how his early concentration on music crippled his personal development.

From my admittedly quick reading of the facts, it seems that Tozer followed some very bad advice and made some very bad decisions. For example, one trusted adviser told him he should skip high school and just play concerts and meet people, which he proceeded to do. I'm sure following this course of action enabled him to develop his artistry and technical skill to a high level, but at what cost?

And then when Tozer was in his early 40s, he came to Keating's notice and ultimately was awarded grants totaling more than half a million dollars over 10 years. He certainly did many worthwhile things with the money -- such as embarking on some ambitious recording projects -- but did not establish a stable life. The grants were given by one politician and taken away by another, so they were not something anyone should have counted on for the long term.

Keating, in his eulogy, laid heavy blame for Tozer's death on the failure of the musical establishment in his own country to support and nurture this artist, and he excoriated Australia's orchestras for not supporting their home-grown genius. His comments were ill-informed. Very few classical musicians -- only those at the very top of the heap, like the Yo Yo Mas -- are supported by such hiring, which only is financially significant if the artist performs constantly at first-class venues. Most full-time musicians, even the very successful ones, put together a patchwork of jobs and count themselves lucky if they can pay the rent. Even if Tozer had performed with every orchestra in Australia several times a year, though perhaps it would have supported him emotionally, it would not have supported him materially.

I do believe that governments should support the arts because they cannot flourish under capitalism. Just because something is commercially viable does not mean that it's good. So much dreck that is passed off as music earns most of the money, and most of the real artists, whether they play classical, jazz, or other creative forms, are left to flounder and make their own way.

Thousands of very fine musicians have the same troubles as Tozer and do not self-destruct. His story is a sad one, and perhaps even a tragedy in the classical sense in which the protagonist causes his own downfall, but I sense that his problems went much deeper than lack of recognition for his art.

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