Beethoven and the Zipper

December 15, 2010 Agencies
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Musica Viva is the largest entrepreneurial chamber music organisation in the world…its origins lie in the realised dreams of a Viennese Jew who fled war-torn Europe  to Sydney and made his fortune from zippers.

Academy Award winner Suzanne Baker has written “Beethoven and the Zipper” currently being distributed only to Musica Viva members but scheduled to go on general sale early next year.

Adrienne Jones has written a review for J-Wire

Scene 1.  Vienna, March 14, 1938: Richard Goldner, Romanian-Viennese Jewish viola player listens to Vienna Radio’s usual programming interrupted by Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony: the prologue to what will follow – the drone of 300 German bombers and the rattle of German tanks on Viennese cobblestones.

At the Vienna Chamber Orchestra’s next rehearsal Goldner finds all except three of its members in black SS uniforms, including the conductor, “resplendent like a General”. The VCO’s second bassoonist tells him: “Goldner, don’t you know what’s happening? You cannot play with us any more.”

Scene 2.  Vienna, a small flat on Kleinne Schiffgasse, near a synagogue, 1938:  Six players from the Simon Pullman Ensemble, a Viennese string orchestra, are playing their hearts out – their passion culminating in the sombre, spine-chilling glory of Beethoven’s Great Fugue, finale to Opus 130, one of Beethoven’s five late quartets, a composition that greatly preoccupied the composer in the last two years of his life.

Outside, German cattle trucks rumble past rounding up the Jews. Periodically one of the players walks to the window to check the detail. “Not for us,” he says, and the players play on.

Scene 3. Warsaw, Poland, July 22, 1942: Violinist Simon Pullman, the Russian- Jewish leader of the Simon Pullman Ensemble, three other conductors, and the Jewish Symphony Orchestra, are trapped in the sealed off precinct of Warsaw in the wake of the German takeover of Poland. Pullman and his players are again performing the Great Fugue. The Gestapo arrive to break up the performance. Pullman and his ghetto orchestra are deported to Treblinka for Auschwitz.

Richard Goldner

Scene 4. Sydney Conservatorium of Music, Australia, December 8, 1945, during a national strike and power blackout: The front of the Conservatorium is floodlit by the headlights of cars, and the foyer and stalls by hurricane lamps and usherettes with torches, for the inaugural performance of Sydney Musica Viva, Australia’s first full chamber music ensemble.  The ghostly sounds of Beethoven’s Great Fugue alternately soothe and terrify aficionados and new recruits alike, linking history and culture between the Old World and the New in shared grief and triumph.  This is Musica Viva founder Richard Goldner’s retribution: his triumphant tribute to his mentor Simon Pullman, played for the first time in the free world by a string ensemble created in his image and his honour.

Like a narrative film forever synched to a haunting soundtrack, these random scenes from European -Australian history are immutably joined by the music of Beethoven’s Fugue – music that haunted the late Richard Goldner for most of his life, as it obsessed and comforted Simon Pullman and his players in their final hours in the Warsaw Ghetto, and, perhaps, as it tormented Richard Wagner, who once described it as “the music of lost souls.”

If the Fugue became the leitmotif of Goldner’s lifelong commitment to chamber music, and symbolically his adopted musical narrative for the flight of thousands of music-loving refugees from Nazism, it is also the sub-text to an astonishing story of Musica Viva told by Australian journalist and Acadamy-Award winning film-maker Suzanne Baker in Beethoven and the Zipper, from which these scenes are taken.

If only for its interpretation of the evocative power of the Fugue, in both the pre-history and the still- evolving contemporary history of Musica Viva, it is a tale that reveals how music both shapes and reflects history, and vice versa.

It is a complex story with unavoidably sombre undercurrents, suggesting perhaps that Central European (Jewish) music and high culture were both the incitement and the final victors in Hitler’s catastrophic anti-Jewish purges – and the founding and evolution of Musica Viva, 65 years later the largest entrepreneurial chamber music organisation in the world, the ultimate triumph of good over evil.

That story is big, but this is a multi-layered history: not only of Musica Viva from its terrible provenance to its glorious contemporary identity, but also of the interleaving of European and Australian history and the parallel evolution of Australia’s post-War cultural identity, so greatly enriched by the influx of European refugees and their cultural and intellectual baggage.

The pageantry of international celebrity synonymous with Musica Viva’s history is legendary among music lovers.  It includes among many others the Menuhins – violinist Yehudi and his sister Hephzibar, and their Australian marriages  – Yehudi to Nola Nicholas, and Hephzibar to her brother Lindsay, a Victorian grazier whose property Terinallum became the Victorian hub for Musica Viva concerts providing solace to traumatised Jewish survivors in the late 1940s. (Krona, a ‘salon’ among the gumtrees of outer suburban Sydney, served the same purpose in New South Wales.)

But as its title implies, Beethoven and the Zipper is also a lightly quirky take on Australia’s war-time social history, through the posthumous prism of an “enemy alien” – Jewish-Austrian refugee and Musica Viva founder Richard Goldner.

As well as being a world-class musician, Goldner was a self-described “crackpot inventor” who couldn’t help “making things”: along with his brother Gerard, a “born artisan”, he countered his new Australian exile as a “bloody refo” by designing and manufacturing women’s belts and brooches.  Their Sydney factory Natty Novelties soon churned out 25,000 brooches a week, including five different sizes of the blue bird of happiness, and a lady’s belt with fox-terrier cut-outs made of casein, a pre-plastic material commonly unobtainable in Australia.

Despite being officially designated “enemy aliens”, the brothers became regular celebrities on Cinesound newsreels – until one sad day when Natty Novelties was declared a non-essential industry. Then just as the Goldners prepared to shut up shop, they answered a knock on the door from an airman on a mission from Canberra: in search of a genius to invent a three-dimensional zipper that wouldn’t stick in mud.

“Wrong man,” Enemy Alien Goldner told the airman, he didn’t know the first thing about zippers. He woke one night in spite of himself to improvise a non-stick zipper from a piece of soft copper wire. The brothers were then ordered NOT to quit their factory, but to go into mass production with their Zipper.

It would spoil the story to reveal the relationship Beethoven has to the Zipper, but if Enemy Aliens hadn’t made the Zipper, Musica Viva wouldn’t have made the music that makes this such a ripper yarn. Suzanne Baker says she was driven to write it because the story was irresistible – and because it is now Australian history.

“Australians are very keen now to own their own history so I wanted to write the story to appeal to people who are not just insiders of the classical music scene. Richard Goldner’s memoirs gave me the key dramatic elements which I wove into other historic elements about the music itself – and then set that in the context of Australia from the 1930s through to the 1970s.

“This is an Australia that is growing towards a greater maturity thanks to the refugees from war and poverty who come here.”

Beethoven and the Zipper is self-published by Suzanne Baker, author of a best-selling book based on her international documentary film series The Human Face of China, and recipient of an Academy Award for the film Leisure. The author is donating profits from sales of the book to Musica Viva.

The book is available from or Musica Viva’s website


One Response to “Beethoven and the Zipper”
  1. Barbara Cail says:

    Beethoven & the Zipper is an outstanding story, beautifully written and shoud be in every school library which has music as part of its curriculum. Not only does it tell an important story of a love and complete focus on musical creativity, it gives us glimpses of history we should never forget. It also gives us an intimate view of Sydney in the 1940’s. I thoroughly recommend it not only for schools but for people who have a love of music and who will appreciate the whole story.

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