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Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

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Parsons, Geoffrey Penwill (1929–1995)

by David Garrett

Claims of superiority are debatable in the arts, where precise measurement is impossible and subjectivity is the norm. Australians often ask themselves whether we've matched the world standard, but one claim will rarely be debated by knowledgeable music lovers: that the Australian Geoffrey Parsons had no peer as a singer's accompanist.

The past tense is sad, for Geoffrey died in London last Thursday, after a brief fight with a devastating cancer. Tributes to him came in from his partners in music-making: the soprano Victoria de los Angeles, who was to have made another concert tour of Australia with him next month; and Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, who had made music with him so memorably in the past.

Their feeling about him was widely shared among greats with whom he had worked. The American soprano Roberta Alexander said to me after working with Geoffrey for the first time in Australia in 1992: "He's simply the best." Geoffrey would have been pleased with such tributes from friends, but embarrassed a little, too. We remember the great singers with whom he enjoyed close partnerships not to reflect their glory on him, as they would be first to acknowledge. The performance of songs with piano is a duet, and many of Geoffrey's most rewarding hours, on and especially off the concert platform, were spent with a companion, in a joint exploration of great music.

There are many fine pianists (and Geoffrey was one), but very few really fine accompanists. Not only does the accompanist's piano technique have to be equal to the demands of the composer's writing, but this technical mastery has to be expressed in complete accord with another musician.

Accompanying singers requires two other great skills: singers' instruments are their bodies and an expression of their personalities, fascinatingly individual and temperamental, subject to moods and physical changes. The accompanist requires an almost instinctive sensitivity, developed by long experience. Anyone who heard Parsons working with a singer marvelled at the way he was always there, to just the right extent, never upstaging the singer, yet underplaying nothing important in the piano part.

This support and uncanny anticipation were what singers appreciated so much: Geoffrey liked to get to know them as people. The accompanist also needs to match or surpass the singer in knowledge of song texts, in many languages, which must become second nature. This understanding demands not just a high literary culture, but a knowledge of the ways of the human heart.

The Australian singer Marilyn Richardson said yesterday of Geoffrey: "He knew why, and how, singers breathe; he knew the songs and languages so deeply himself that one didn't have to explain why one was colouring a note or emphasising a word; and he certainly knew how to play the piano." For those of us whose musical awakening coincided with the blossoming of Geoffrey's career, we were to discover the art of song through his partnerships with great singers. For me the revelation came with Elisabeth Schwarzkopf's recitals with Geoffrey in Sydney in 1967, and above all in the songs of Hugo Wolf. A completely different, but no less symbiotic, relationship was with that more spontaneous artist, Victoria de los Angeles.

Geoffrey knew that his art was true partnership, and was quick to tell me, when I reminded him that Victoria de los Angeles sang her last encore to her own guitar accompaniment, that she only did so because impresario Sol Hurok had insisted and the public had come to expect it. She would have preferred to end as she began: accompanied by Geoffrey.

Geoffrey Parsons was born in Ashfield in 1929. He grew up in a family of musical instincts and ability. His father had a fine voice, often in demand for oratorio solos in churches. Geoffrey's mother and his brothers, Ross and Frank (who survive him), sang in the choir of the Summer Hill Congregational Church. My father was the minister there in the years when Geoffrey was choosing his career. It was a difficult decision then for a young Australian, no matter how talented, to opt for music as a livelihood, and John Garrett well remembers the family discussions as Geoffrey considered giving up architecture studies at Sydney University. He had studied at the Sydney Conservatorium under Winifred Burston, and played the first movement of Brahms's Second Piano Concerto in B flat as a winner of the ABC Concerto Competition in Sydney in 1947.

Geoffrey remembered how, as the only pianist in the family, he used to accompany all the sing-songs and ballads around the piano: "We had an old family friend who was the accompanist in Sydney, and through this I eventually got to accompany Essie Ackland — she was one of the last of the old ballad singers. I played a few solo items as well but afterwards I thought, I liked the accompanying bit much more than the solo bit. And that was it." The family friend was G. Vern Barnett, who, according to Geoffrey's brothers, helped him identify his talent and influenced his choice of accompaniment as his speciality.

Not entirely surprising, really, that Australia, with a disproportionate number of fine singers, should also have produced one of the greatest singers' accompanists. Recommended to the great Australian baritone Peter Dawson, in 1950 Geoffrey accompanied him in England, where Dawson was bringing to an end a great and long career and Parsons was beginning another.

From English ballads to German lieder and the French melodie, the deepening of the accompanist's art required intense study and the passing on of experience. Gerhard HuEsch, the German baritone whose recording of Schubert's The Winter's Journey had been the standard, was one of the singers with whom Geoffrey worked in England, performing that cycle with him in London in 1955.

In 1956, he went to Munich, where he studied with HuEsch and with the pianist Friedrich WuEhrer. In 1961, Geoffrey worked with Elisabeth Schwarzkopf for the first time. In that year, Gerald Moore, the most celebrated of singer's accompanists, whose reminiscences, The Unashamed Accompanist and Am I Too Loud?, helped put the accompanist on the map for the general public, mentions Geoffrey as one of the finest artists in his field. Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau said of Moore: "It is quite apparent how new and unique the type of accompanist is which he represents". After Moore's retirement from the concert platform, Parsons became the leading singer's accompanist recognised as such.

Fortunately Geoffrey Parsons's art is well documented on recordings, in particular his work with Schwarzkopf, Christa Ludwig, Victoria de los Angeles, Dame Janet Baker, and most recently Olaf Baer, recognised by many as the successor to Fischer-Dieskau as the interpretation of German lieder. Together they made two visits to Australia, in 1989 and 1993, and another was planned for 1996.

Geoffrey, who based himself in London, returned more than 30 times to Australia, usually for ABC recitals, beginning with a tour accompanying the tenor Richard Lewis in 1957.

Geoffrey was always deeply interested in Australia's musical life and the development of its musical talent. He often performed and recorded with leading Australian resident singers. He also taught and gave masterclasses, in association with such close friends as the Sydney Conservatorium singing teaching Elizabeth Todd, and the famous vocal coach who was his companion, the late Erich Vietheer.

In 1993, during Geoffrey's tour with Olaf Baer, I spent a memorable day at a masterclass for singers and accompanists in Canberra: it was in these circumstances that his enormous authority was clearly evident.

The life of an internationally celebrated musician can be a lonely one — this was tempered for Geoffrey by the warmth and naturalness of his friendships, both artistic and personal.

The concerts with Australian artists he gave in the 1980s, in London and Sydney, under the title Geoffrey Parsons and Friends symbolised this, as well as the encouragement he gave to younger Australian musicians, including singers such as the late Susan Kessler, Yvonne Kenny, Jeffrey Black, Elisabeth Campbell, and accompanists Guy Noble and Sharolyn Kimmorley. They will all remember him fondly and with reverence, and miss him, as he left in his prime, with years of performing and teaching ahead.

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Citation details

David Garrett, 'Parsons, Geoffrey Penwill (1929–1995)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/parsons-geoffrey-penwill-29611/text37072, accessed 28 November 2021.

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