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Goh Soon Tioe is a key figure of Western classical music in Singapore. A violinist, conductor, teacher, and impresario, he was one of Singapore’s earliest music teachers, teaching a generation of musicians. The Goh Soon Tioe String Orchestra consisted of his students, some of whom went on to become established names and important figures in the Singapore music scene. He also formed and led the Singapore Youth Symphony Orchestra (now Singapore National Youth Orchestra), in their rapid growth into an internationally acclaimed ensemble. In 1963, Goh received the Pingat Jasa Gemilang (Meritorious Service Medal) for his contributions to music in Singapore.
Born in 1911 in Padang, Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia), Goh Soon Tioe grew up the 10th child in a family of 11 children. A boisterous and mischievous boy, Goh was sent to Singapore to live with his elder brother and attend the Anglo-Chinese School at the age of 13. It was in Singapore that a 17-year-old Goh—hearing his cook’s son playing the violin every night—started to be intrigued by music. Soon, he started taking violin lessons.
Deciding that he wanted to make a career out of music, he tried to persuade his family to allow him to go overseas to study music, but was instead made to work in the family’s trading business. However, a visiting Swiss pianist heard Goh play and convinced Goh’s elder brother to send him overseas, and a young Goh set off for Switzerland to audition at the Conservatoire de Musique de Genève in 1932. However, it was to be a rude awakening for Goh as he was brusquely rejected by the audition board.
He promptly started studying under violinist Maggie Breittmayer, practising up to 10 hours each day, determined to improve his violin playing skills. Six months later, he auditioned again, and was admitted directly into the second semester of the second year of the course. Goh became a top student at the Conservatory, finishing each year with a Premier Prix distinction. He also played in the Conservatoire Orchestra.
Goh ran into financial difficulties in 1935 when his family could no longer support his music studies. His friend, Alfred Vidoudez—a violin maker he had come to know in the course of his study—introduced him to the virtuoso Spanish guitarist Andrés Segovia, who offered to teach Goh the guitar for free in Barcelona, Spain. In Spain, Goh came to know the violinist Francisco Costa, who provided Goh with lodging and violin lessons. His time there though was short-lived as the Spanish Civil War broke out, forcing Goh to flee to Belgium.
In Brussels, Belgium, Goh studied under Alfred Marchot for free at the Royal Conservatory of Brussels through a recommendation by Vidoudez. However, his financial situation grew direr, leaving Goh with no money for food. Malnourished, he lost the use of three fingers on his left hand over the years, dashing his hopes of being a concert violinist. But he continued to persevere and learn from Marchot.
In 1939, Marchot passed away. With an impending war on the horizon, Goh returned home to Singapore. The next year, he began teaching violin in a small studio in Oldham Lane, and gave French language lessons to supplement his income. This was brought to an abrupt halt at the end of 1941 when the Japanese army invaded Singapore, and Singapore came under Japanese Occupation for the next three years. Goh—being an able-bodied young man—came close to losing his life during this time, but fortune was on his side. Goh also regained the use of his three paralysed fingers during the war.
In 1943, Goh got married and moved back to Padang away from the war the following year with his wife and baby daughter. They returned to Singapore in 1947 and Goh—with his fingers fully recuperated—began to establish himself again musically. He gave violin recitals at the Victoria Memorial Hall, and became a joint leader of the Singapore Musical Society Orchestra in 1950, eventually becoming its sole leader. He performed with the orchestra at private gatherings and charity events around Singapore.
He also began teaching music, giving violin and cello lessons to young children in a music studio at the front of his house. Goh was a passionate and stern teacher who was both feared and loved by his students, whom he and his wife treated as if they were their own children. A kind-hearted and generous musician, he taught needy students at lower fees or free of charge. Every Saturday, Goh would hold orchestra rehearsals on his verandah involving all his students and his children Sylvia, Vivien and Patricia. Soon, Goh became a household name known both for teaching and for performing.
In 1954, Goh formed the Goh Soon Tioe String Orchestra, consisting of his students who playing either in his junior or senior orchestra. Goh had a lot of faith and belief in his students’ abilities and under his guidance, his students—many of them not even in their teens—would lead orchestra performances and perform solos regularly.
Goh would go on to conduct the orchestra for several performances in Singapore and Malaysia for the next 20 years, inviting internationally acclaimed musicians to perform as soloists with the orchestra. He was a demanding and exacting orchestra leader, and his high standards paid off as the orchestra grew in fame and reputation for its quality performances.
The members of the Goh Soon Tioe String Orchestra benefited greatly from Goh’s passionate leadership and their frequent performances with professional musicians. A number of them went on to become established and significant musicians in their own right, including Choo Hoey, Kam Kee Yong, Lee Pan Hon, Seow Yit Kin, Melvin Tan and Lynette Seah.
Besides his teaching and conducting work, Goh also began a career as an impresario in 1954, presenting arts performances in Singapore. He would go on to present over 100 concerts, inviting and bringing in international artists such as the NHK Symphony Orchestra, the José Limón Dance Company and the Vienna Academy Chorus.
In 1963, Goh received the Pingat Jasa Gemilang (Meritorious Service Medal) for his contributions to music in Singapore.
In 1970, the Ministry of Education invited Goh to form and lead the Singapore Youth Symphony Orchestra (now Singapore National Youth Orchestra) for the purpose of participating in the International Festival of Youth Orchestras the following year in Lausanne, Switzerland. Goh immediately set to the task, and assembled a youth orchestra with a string section entirely made up of his students from the Goh Soon Tioe Orchestra. In seven months, the orchestra made its official debut in Switzerland. The orchestra continued after the festival and—as with his own orchestra—Goh led the Singapore Youth Symphony Orchestra in performances in Singapore and overseas, building up its reputation with every performance.
Goh’s health deteriorated in 1975, impairing his ability to teach and lead his orchestras. He was forced to take a break from his musical activities. Whenever he felt better, he would immediately call up students to get them to come for lessons, and he would also visit the music studio to instruct his daughter Vivien’s students as well. But he would not regain his health and vigour, and ceased his musical activities completely.
Goh passed away in 1982 at the age of 71, his legacy living on in a generation of Western classical musicians in Singapore. His daughter, Vivien, took over his reins as the conductor of both the Goh Soon Tioe String Orchestra and the Singapore Youth Symphony Orchestra.
Vivien wrote and published the memoir Goh Soon Tioe: One Great Symphony in 1992 in memory of her father. For Goh’s birth centenary in 2011, she gathered former members of the Goh Soon Tioe Orchestra to come together once again and perform as the Goh Soon Tioe Orchestra Alumni for One Great Symphony: Goh Soon Tioe – Celebrating 100 Years at the Singapore Chinese Orchestra Concert Hall.
Vivien also established the Goh Soon Tioe Outstanding Performer Award in 2011 for the biennial National Piano and Violin Competition. In 2012, she and his former students established the Goh Soon Tioe Centenary Award to encourage future generations of musicians.
Reference: Goh Soon Tioe: One Great Symphony, Vivien Goh, 1992.
Born in Padang, Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia).
Moved to Singapore.
Attended Anglo-Chinese School, Singapore.
Began violin lessons.
Attended Conservatoire de Musique de Genève, Switzerland.
Moved to Barcelona, Spain.
Studied guitar with Andres Segovia and violin with Francisco Costa.
Moved to Brussels, Belgium.
Studied music with Alfred Marchot at the Royal Conservatory of Brussels.
Moved to Singapore.
Set up music studio. Taught music and gave French language lessons.
Moved to Padang, Dutch East Indies.
Moved to Singapore.
Joint leader, Singapore Musical Society Orchestra.
Leader, Singapore Musical Society Orchestra.
Founder, Goh Soon Tioe String Orchestra.
Conductor, Goh Soon Tioe String Orchestra featuring violinist Maurice Clare, Victoria Memorial Hall, Singapore.
Conductor, Goh Soon Tioe String Orchestra.
Singapore representative, Regional Music Conference of Southeast Asia, UNESCO, Manila, Philippines. With Paul Abisheganaden as other representative.
Toured Malaysia with Goh Soon Tioe String Orchestra.
Toured Venice, Italy on Italian government grant.
Toured England on British Council grant.
Toured USA on USA government grant.
Founding charter member, Impresarios Association of the Far East.
Received Pingat Jasa Gemilang (Meritorious Service Medal) for contributions to music in Singapore.
Toured England on British Council grant.
Conductor, Singapore Youth Symphony Orchestra.
Conductor, Singapore Youth Symphony Orchestra, Festival of Youth Orchestras, Lausanne, Switzerland.
Received Golden Robe, Singapore Indian Fine Arts Society.
Toured Hong Kong with Singapore Youth Symphony Orchestra.
Toured Germany on German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) grant.
Conductor, Goh Soon Tioe String Orchestra featuring Lee Pan Hon, 21st Anniversary Concert, Singapore Conference Hall.
Toured Jakarta, Indonesia with Singapore Youth Symphony Orchestra.
Retired from musical activities.
Passed away at age 71 in Singapore.
Goh Soon Tioe: One Great Symphony published by Vivien Goh.
Goh Soon Tioe Outstanding Performer Award established by Vivien Goh for the biennial National Piano and Violin Competition.
One Great Symphony: Goh Soon Tioe – Celebrating 100 Years featuring Vivien Goh conducting the Goh Soon Tioe String Orchestra Alumni, Singapore Chinese Orchestra Concert Hall.
Goh Soon Tioe Centenary Award established by Vivien Goh and former students.
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Goh Soon Tioe (third row, arms crossed) in a class photo in Anglo-Chinese School, Singapore. c. 1920s.
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Goh Soon Tioe (right) with Spanish violinist Francisco Costa and his wife in Barcelona, Spain. 1936.
TributeSG celebrates the arts community’s most senior members, and those who have made a lifetime of contribution to the arts. These artists, administrators, educators, patrons, and champions include many Singapore arts pioneers who laid the foundations of the vibrant arts and cultural scene we enjoy today. The many profiles in TributeSG let us into the minds and worlds of these pioneers, and help us understand our shared arts heritage. When we revisit their works and rediscover their journeys, we learn where we came from and how we came to be. Collectively, their stories tell the tale of the making of a nation’s artistic identity.
In putting together this collection, the TributeSG team consulted an external advisory panel, consisting of Arun Mahiznan, Choo Thiam Siew, J. P. Nathan, K. K. Seet, Kwok Kian Chow, and Iskandar Ismail. Those selected to be profiled in TributeSG met one of the following criteria: they were at least 60 years of age as of 12 Oct 2016, or deceased, or had received national recognition in the form of the Cultural Medallion. This journey of arts archival officially came to a close on 12 Oct 2016, after four years of extensive research, interviews and collation of information graciously provided by the TributeSG pioneers, their families and peers. TributeSG also benefited from enthusiastic help from like-minded friends and organisations who supported Esplanade’s cause—to remember, honour and celebrate Singapore’s arts pioneers.