The Eulogy (Australia)


SUNDAY 20 JUNE 10.00 am
TUESDAY 22 JUNE 8.15 pm
RUNNING TIME 98 minutes


The experienced documentary maker Janine Hosking sets out to discover if the scathing and controversial eulogy given by Paul Keating for the Australian pianist Geoffrey Tozer is true.


On October 1, 2009 at St Patrick’s Cathedral in Melbourne, Paul Keating gave the eulogy for the pianist Geoffrey Tozer after he had died alone and practically destitute at 54. His death was a national tragedy, said Keating, as great a cultural loss for Australia as the death of Glenn Gould for Canada.

Keating outlined Tozer’s achievements as a concert pianist, his rise as a child prodigy, his competition wins in Europe in the 1960s, his stellar recordings through the later decades. Keating then unleashed a targeted but unprecedented attack on the Sydney and Melbourne symphony orchestras. “Their indifference and contempt towards him left him to moulder away, largely playing to himself in a rented suburban Melbourne house. The people who chose repertoire for those two orchestras and who had charge in the selection of artists during this period should hang their heads in shame at their neglect of him. If anyone needs a case example of the bitchiness and preference within the Australian arts, here you have it …”

The eulogy was beyond controversial, as intended. But was it true? Janine Hosking, an experienced documentary-maker (My Khmer Heart), decided to find out. The result is a film that paints a much darker picture than Keating allowed in his speech and one that raises wider questions about the frailties of the gifted.

Tozer’s troubles went way beyond his relationships with the Australian musical establishment of the time. Some of them answer Keating directly in the film, pointing out that they tried to work with Tozer as he spiralled into periods of unreliability, exacerbated by serious alcoholism that Keating probably never knew about. Worse, as brilliant a pianist as he was, Tozer became unpredictable in performance, improvising passages and confusing the orchestra that was supposed to accompany him. “Just like Mozart,” says Tozer’s brother Peter, making a withering point. Have our orchestras become too institutionalised?

In a wider sense, Keating also has a point: it’s probably true that Australia does not love its artists enough. As Treasurer, Keating first heard Tozer play in 1986 at St Edmund’s College in Canberra, where Tozer was working for a small wage as a music teacher to make ends meet, even while touring internationally. Keating instituted the Australian Artists Creative Fellowships to assist established artists in mid-career. Tozer received several of these grants, which then became a stick for the opposition to beat Keating with. John Howard discontinued the grants when he became prime minister.

Hosking tells her story through a clever device: the much-loved music educator Richard Gill becomes our guide and the film’s interlocutor. Gill asks the questions, visits the sacred places and offers skilled appreciation of Tozer’s recordings. He takes us through the mysteries, trying to fathom what happened. It’s part of the sadness of the film that both Tozer and Gill are no longer with us.

And there are many questions to answer. Clearly, Tozer’s mother Veronica was a major influence as his first important teacher and then as manager of his early career. Just as clearly, she was part of the reason that Tozer grew up with very few life skills beyond the piano. He couldn’t drive or pay his own bills. Nor could he admit that he was gay, although the film remains somewhat opaque about when he finally figured that out. Did that help to make him a drinker? Hosking interviews the one man with whom he had a significant and lasting relationship. Others among his friends cite the breakup of that relationship as one of the key points in his unravelling. Who can say?

Tozer was far from the first great pianist, here or in any country, to die before his time. I’ve reviewed a number of films over the years that examined whether the pressures of competition and performance might have hastened so-and-so’s demise as a pianist/guitarist/singer. One of the most haunting lines in the film is an extract from Tozer’s diary in 1973 when he declares that he “has no love” for the piano: “Nothing except the fear of it.” Hosking does Tozer and us a service by broadening our understanding, both of what made him great and of what might have brought him to such a point.

Source: Paul Byrnes 4/10/2019 (accessed 6/2/2020).