1945 The zipper that made music live
In a friend’s Viennese living room, Richard Goldner and five other members of the Simon Pullman Ensemble are rehearsing. Outside, cattle-trucks are rounding up Jewish citizens and Hitler’s impending takeover will render this their last ever rehearsal together. The power of the friendships formed in this room would be the foundation of the Musica Viva we know today.
Richard Goldner was born in 1908 in Craiova, Romania, during a family visit from Vienna. The family returned to Vienna within six months of his birth. Despite low socio-economic conditions, the Goldner parents were determined to prepare their sons for better lives than their own and insisted the boys learn stringed instruments. At five years old, Richard took up the violin, and the course of his life was set.
At the New Vienna Conservatory he studied under Simon Pullman, a seminal figure in Richard’s life and in the development of chamber music in Eastern Europe. Goldner continued to study both violin and viola for the following years, playing professionally with chamber ensembles and orchestras, and over the years he became very close friends with Pullman.
A FRESH START IN ANOTHER LAND
In 1938 all Jewish musicians were swiftly dismissed from the Vienna Chamber Orchestra in the wake of Austria’s annexation to the German Reich. Before things got worse for Jewish citizens, Richard, his brother Gerard, and their wives fled Austria for Australian shores, alighting in Sydney in 1939 during the Great Depression.
Considered an enemy alien and not yet a ‘naturalised Australian’ he was unable to accept the first violist position offered by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra or any other professional music post.
Fearing long-term unemployment, the Goldner brothers developed a plan to design and produce women’s jewellery, a niche industry in Australia at the time. With Richard’s design background and his brother Gerard’s craftsmanship, the Goldners opened Natty Novelties on the 4th floor of the Strand Arcade, Sydney. Within months they had 60 employees under their management and were producing 25,000 brooches a week.
Yet once again, the war put an end to the Goldner brothers’ stability and success – women’s jewellery was declared a non-essential luxury industry and they were told to shut down the company.
A ZIPPER SAVES THE DAY
In a stroke of good fortune, that same week Flight-Lieutenant Russell Shepherd Robinson from the Australian War Office arrived at the Natty Novelties workshop. Working on a secret project, and having heard about the creativity and resourcefulness of Richard Goldner, Robinson came with a challenge. He needed Richard to design a three-dimensional zipper that could survive war-time conditions and would be unaffected by sand and mud.
After initially advising Robinson that he was an out-of-work musician making hand carved costume jewellery and knowing nothing about zip fasteners, Richard came up with a workable design of a zipper in a dream. The zipper was then adopted by the Australian and subsequently the allied war effort and was used in various military applications such as parachutes and pilot flying suits.
Natty Novelties was renamed Triflex Pty Ltd and mass production of the Triflex Fastener began, both here and abroad, keeping the Goldner brothers and their employees safe from wartime unemployment.
After the declaration of war in 1939 the Goldners were designated as ‘enemy aliens’ which required weekly reporting to the local police station and a prohibition on travelling in private vehicles. Richard Goldner was ‘conscripted’ into the Directorate of Army Inventions to work on other projects to assist the war effort.
Richard’s invention of the Triflex Fastener was acknowledged in the official history of Australia’s war effort, and at the end of the war the brothers sold the Triflex zipper patent to a British company for a significant amount of money. In the coming years these funds would be used to found Musica Viva.
A SAD INSPIRATION
Sitting in a doctor’s waiting room in 1944, Richard picked up a copy of The Jewish Forum. Goldner himself describes this pivotal moment in his life – ‘I browsed through it and suddenly, unbelievably, I saw the name Simon Pullman. And then I read the whole paragraph and my world collapsed’. In a Warsaw Ghetto, Pullman had been leading an orchestra performance. During Beethoven’s Grosse Fugue, the Gestapo and SS stormed the concert and arrested the entire orchestra, taking them to Treblinka concentration camp where they were all executed. Only Jack Goldman survived, hiding under the stage. Simon Pullman was dead.
Encouraged by his first wife, Richard sought to honour his great friend and mentor by setting up the same kind of string ensemble in Australia that Pullman had pioneered back in Vienna. Pullman’s dream had been to produce multiple string quartets that could be melded into one large dynamic ensemble. Goldner felt a commitment to honour this dream, and thus ‘Richard Goldner’s Sydney Musica Viva’ began, consisting of 17 players: four string quartets and a double bass.
The date for the inaugural Musica Viva concert was set for 8 December 1945 at the Sydney Conservatorium. But nothing in Richard’s life was smooth sailing, and on the day of the concert there was a total power blackout in Sydney. Richard appealed to Charles Moses, an ex-army colonel and the General Manager of the ABC. Sympathetic to Richard’s plight, and keen to see the concert go ahead, Moses suggested lighting the auditorium entrance with car headlights parked in front of the Con. ‘Pretty girls’ with torches as ushers, and an Army generator powering tiny lights for the music stands, were organised and the concert was on again.
The crowd descended, bringing an electricity of their own. Before long the venue had reached capacity – yet more people filed in, standing in any space they could find. The atmosphere was palpable. Of the concert, Richard enthused, ‘It is quite amazing how special inspiring circumstances can elevate a performance to undreamt-of heights! We…felt it was a string sound that most likely had never been heard before in Sydney’ .
THE START OF SOMETHING GREAT
At the urging of numerous members of the audience, and because of the success of the concert, Richard was inspired to establish the Musica Viva Society as a non-profit cultural organisation to promote chamber music across the country. It was funded primarily by income from the zipper and supported by others with a similar zest for music, including pianist Hephzibah Menuhin and in particular by fellow refugee and musical aficionado Walter Dullo. A demanding touring schedule ensued, taking the ensemble 40,000 miles a year, performing more than 180 concerts.
Demand for Musica Viva grew rapidly and a subscription series was soon established. The government denied support to the company and Richard continued to carry a substantial financial commitment, along with growing donor and corporate backing. The Jewish refugee community offered great support, keen to recreate the social networks they had enjoyed in Europe.
Soon the touring commitments grew too much for the ensemble and the idea of introducing overseas musicians was proposed. The Pascal Quartet from France became the first international touring ensemble for Musica Viva in 1955, the cost of which was subsidised by Fred Turnovsky, the Chairman of the Chamber Music Federation of New Zealand.
GOLDNER’S COMMITMENT CARRIES ON
In 1955 the company was incorporated but Richard remained as Artistic Director for a further 17 years. In 1966, when Musica Viva was 20 years old, he left Australia for America where he was appointed Professor of Music at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh. He returned to Australia in 1981 and died 10 years later in Balmain, aged 83.
Today, 70 years on, Musica Viva is Australia’s oldest independent professional performing arts organisation. Acknowledging the ingenuity, ambition and unconditional determination of a man so committed to the promotion of chamber music, Michael Shmith describes him as ‘a musical Moses, leading people of postwar Sydney out of the darkness of doom and into the age of enlightenment’ . Richard Goldner’s impact on the growth of chamber music in Australia cannot be understated, and his legacy is sustained by a vibrant and expanding company committed to inspiring all Australians through music.
Eleanor Bücher is Musica Viva’s Marketing Manager, Concerts
To read more about the history of Musica Viva, Suzanne Baker has written a wonderful account aptly titled Beethoven and the Zipper which is available in book stores or at beethovenandthezipper.com
 Baker, Suzanne. Beethoven and the Zipper, 2010. P 49
 Baker, Suzanne. Beethoven and the Zipper, 2010. P 57
 Musica Viva Australia – The First Fifty Years, 1996. P 4
This article also borrowed from the National Library’s Oral History and Folklore: Interview with Richard Goldner, 7 November 1966 and Richard Goldner’s unpublished memoirs, care of his son Peter Goldner.