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Geoffrey Peter Tozer (1954–2009)

by Robin Usher

Geoffrey Tozer, by Loui Seselja, 2001

Geoffrey Tozer, by Loui Seselja, 2001

National Library of Australia, 22647452

For someone who has made headlines for criticising Melbourne, the renowned pianist Geoffrey Tozer gives every indication of an enduring fondness for his home town.

"It is a paradox, but the feeling of the town hasn't changed since I came here more than 40 years ago," he says.

"It still looks and smells the same. Even all the building in the city reminds me of what it used to be like."

Tozer is speaking on the eve of a national tour celebrating his 40 years of public recitals. It includes an appearance on Thursday at the Melbourne Concert Hall, where he performed the venue's inaugural concert in 1982.

Tozer has long put behind him the stir he created seven years ago when he declared that he was relocating to Europe because Melbourne was "just a remote, provincial, large city".

But he never really left, and still lives in the same suburban house, flying overseas up to 10 times a year to meet commitments.

Tozer likes to go walking around the city's back streets with a camera, collecting pictures of buildings, some of which have since been demolished.

When he lived in Canberra in the early '90s, he found its spirit was close to that of Melbourne: "Everything happens on the inside just like here, not the outside," he says, adding that people from Sydney didn't like the national capital at all, and those forced to live there spent every weekend driving away from it.

The row in 1997 over Tozer's views on Melbourne was his second involvement in controversy, following an outcry after he received two consecutive grants, worth more than $500,000, from former prime minister Paul Keating's Australian Artists Creative Fellowships in the '90s.

They were directly linked to his art and prodigious talent - he has made 39 recordings for the English Chandos label and would most likely have passed unnoticed if he had not been a friend of Keating's.

These controversies are ancient history now. Now his attention is focused on his six-month tour, which began last week in the Latrobe Valley.

After performing in Warrnambool on February 25, he leaves for Manhattan, before returning to continue his tour in Ballarat on March 18.

"I have long wanted to do something like this," he says. "I find it amazingly stimulating."

The spur for the tour is the 40th anniversary of his first concert as a prodigy with the Melbourne Symphony when he was eight.

The Victorian Arts Centre and the Sydney Opera House invited him to perform anniversary recitals, which are the core appearances for the tour organised by entrepreneur Jim McPherson.

"Something like this is not really big compared to what the old troopers like Nellie Melba used to undertake," he says.

"An old Australian tradition used to be to put a piano on a truck and just take off."

He is going to New York to take part in a festival with three other pianists celebrating the Russian composer Nikolai Medtner, whose work he has long celebrated and recorded.

"He was unknown for years and you couldn't buy his work. But now it seems everyone wants to explore this huge new repertoire," he says.

"To have seen this explosion from absolutely nothing makes me really happy."

Tozer has a personal link with Medtner through his mother, whose friend, the Prince of Mysore, was Medtner's patron.

Tozer's mother lived much of her life in India. She moved with her husband to Tasmania after Indian independence in 1949, only to have the marriage fail.

When pregnant with Geoffrey, she set out for England, but stopped half way and settled again in India in the Himalayan hill station of Mussoorie where Tozer spent the first four years of his life. He says he vividly remembers the snow and the rhododendrons.

One of his mother's friends, the Prince of Mysore, heard Medtner play his music on a Voice of America short-wave broadcast during World War II and decided to sponsor his recordings when the war ended.

"Medtner was a lonely emigre living in London where Rachmaninov helped to support him. This princely patronage made the end of his life more bearable," he says. "It is such an improbable story it has to be true."

Tozer also champions another Melbourne prodigy, pianist Noel Mewton-Wood, who died in 1951.

"He was the most stimulating and intellectually powerful pianist Australia has ever produced," he says. "He had been completely forgotten before his work reappeared on CD and everyone realised how revolutionary his playing was."

Tozer first heard of him when he prepared to play Bach and Beethoven as a seven-year-old for Mewton-Wood's former Melbourne teacher, Waldemar Seidel.

"I played a few bars and he jumped up shouting, 'Noel's come back'. I had never heard of him, of course. But, after listening to his records, I realised it was the greatest musical compliment I've ever received."

Tozer says people are wrong to think the present is the best of all possible worlds: they fail to realise how vibrant music-making used to be.

He points out that Igor Stravinsky's 1962 recital at the Palais in Melbourne was the same program that the Russian composer performed on his triumphant return to Moscow a few weeks later.

"It is vividly remembered by a few," he says. "The past was just as wonderful as the present is now."

But Tozer is not a Luddite. He enjoys modern communications, which he believes allow people to express their individual personalities.

"People are able to be much more eccentric, whether they are friends or just those you meet in everyday life," he says.

"People think I'm eccentric because I don't drive and use a wind-up gramophone as well as CDs." He stopped himself from adding that he also plays the piano extremely well.

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Citation details

Robin Usher, 'Tozer, Geoffrey Peter (1954–2009)', People Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 17 April 2024.

© Copyright People Australia, 2012

Geoffrey Tozer, by Loui Seselja, 2001

Geoffrey Tozer, by Loui Seselja, 2001

National Library of Australia, 22647452

Life Summary [details]


5 November, 1954
Mussoorie, Uttaranchal, India


21 August, 2009 (aged 54)
Malvern, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Cause of Death

liver dysfunction

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.