The Remarkable Life of Richard Goldner

Our 2017 concert season opens on 3 March 2017 with a concert by the Goldner String Quartet.  There is an inspiring story behind the quartet's name. 

Richard Goldner, the man in whose honour the Goldner String Quartet is named, came to Australia to escape from the rise of the Nazism, made a fortune then spent it to establish a chamber music orchestra at a time in Australia when very little chamber music was performed. As a musician and teacher he helped to foster a greater cultural awareness and artistic appreciation of music in Australia. He met the challenges of life with courage, hard work, generosity and resourcefulness, driven by a passion for music.


                                   Richard Goldner


He was born in 1908 in Romania and began learning music at an early age. As a young man he studied music at the New Vienna Conservatorium. His instruments were the violin and the viola. He was a student of Simon Pullman, a visionary musician, whose teaching and exacting standards would inspire Goldner for life. As a professional musician he later joined the Simon Pullman Ensemble, eventually becoming Pullman's assistant and closest friend.

For Goldner, 1938 was a momentous year. Germany annexed Austria. As an artist, his life became severely restricted. He applied to emigrate to Australia. Suzanne Baker describes the way that while waiting for an opportunity to leave Austria  “… in hiding, he and fellow musicians continued to play together, their need for music outweighing the risk.” 

He arrived in Sydney in 1939 and very quickly received an offer from Sydney Symphony Orchestra to take up the position of principal viola; unfortunately it was an offer he was barred from accepting. He was not a member of the Musicians Union and could not become a member until he became a naturalized Australian citizen. Life then took a very  unusual turn for the resourceful and inventive Goldner. He joined forces with his brother to establish a successful women’s accessories and costume jewellery business.  

After World War Two began, Goldner began an unlikely project to improve the zip fastener. A humble but essential part of military kit, its deficiencies and poor performance in field conditions were of concern to the Australian Military. Goldner patented a new fastener design and established a company to produce zippers for the Australian Armed Services, and later for Allied Services.  At the same time as he was making this very practical contribution to the war effort and working for the Army Inventions Directorate, Goldner was classified as an enemy alien. His travel was restricted and each week he was obliged to report to his local police station. This continued until 1944, when he was naturalised.  

After the war, Goldner’s zipper manufacturing business continued to grow and prosper. He was then in a position to swap zippers for Beethoven and return to his first great love, performing music.

With extraordinary generosity, he  funded the creation of a seventeen-member chamber orchestra. He named it  ‘Richard Goldner’s Sydney Musica Viva,’ as a tribute to  Hermann Scherchen, who had conducted an orchestra named Musica Viva in Vienna. The creation of the orchestra was tinged with personal sadness for Goldner; it had been his dream to establish an Australian orchestra in partnership with his Viennese teacher and friend Simon Pullman. In 1944, he learned that Pullman had died in the Treblinka concentration camp.  

The orchestra’s first concert was in Sydney, on 8 December 1945, the day of a Sydney-wide electricity black out. Goldner was able to organise a generator for concert hall lighting, hurricane lamps for the foyer, torches for the usherettes and car headlights for the concert hall entrance. This first concert was ambitious; it included two demanding Beethoven works, played in tribute to Simon Pullman - String Quartet Op 131 and the Great Fugue Op 133. The concert with its unusual lighting effects met with thunderous applause. 

Over the next five years, Goldner and his orchestra performed extensively, including tours to Melbourne, Adelaide, and New Zealand. Musicians such as Yehudi and Hephzibah Menuhin played with Musica Viva. The pressure of this workload affected Goldner’s health and finances. In 1951, Musica Viva performances were suspended until a better way of managing concerts and supporting performers could be found. In 1953, Musica Viva re-emerged, this time as a concert agency rather than a performing ensemble; it would eventually grow to be the largest not-for-profit chamber music organisation in the world. Goldner became the organisation’s Music Director, a position he held until 1969.

Gradually, Goldner’s passion for teaching became the focus of his life.  He taught violin and viola privately from the early 1950s, and later at the Sydney Conservatorium. He was known as a hard taskmaster with high standards, who always showed great generosity towards his students. In 1966, he went to the United States of America, and in 1968 became professor of music at Duquesne University, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Between 1977 and 1987, although largely retired, he taught privately and was for a time chair of the department of music at Western Washington University, Bellingham.

He returned to Australia in 1987 and after a sudden illness died in 1991. His life is an inspiring story.  Amanda Lynch described it as “…more complex in its twists and turns than a television mini-series or perhaps even a Shakespearean play. Each story or episode is part of the larger picture — there is tragedy, hope, and despair, but no bitterness. His life has been remarkable.”

And the Goldner String Quartet? Dene Olding, Irina Morozova, Dimity Hall and Julian Smiles had each known or studied with or were friends with Richard Goldner. When they formed the  quartet in 1995 they chose to honour his memory in their name.


This article was written by  Charmain Boyakovsky as a summary of information from two sources: