Sunday, July 17, 2011

D. F. Tovey

Sir Donald Francis Tovey (17 July 1875 – 10 July 1940)

Still over 135 years after his birth, few, if any, have written about music with as much love, sagacity, and good humor as Donald Francis Tovey. His modestly titled "Essays in Musical Analysis" is in fact a six-volume collection of his program notes for the concerts under his baton at the Reid Orchestra in Edinburgh. Since publication in the thirties they have become the model for concert notes aiming to do what they ought to: prepare as quickly as possible anyone who picks them up to appreciate the piece. With them Tovey aimed not to "vex with grammatical minutiae" but rather be "counsel for the defence," to tell you what a work is trying to do and suggest it is successful enough that you ought to keep your seat.

Their author suggested they don't make for good continuous reading and he's probably right, but they are fine preludes to any pieces Tovey deigned to comment on. I say deigned for these notes brim with his character. First, the reflections themselves bear out his taste, a taste moved by Schubertian songfulness as Bachian contrapuntal density. In his mind and character there was room for the Olympian and the urban and throughout these notes one sees as much love for a spiky chord of Beethoven as a chattery piece of Mozart. On the one hand we have sober appraisals like, "The vulgar popular author often does not know that literature and art contain higher thoughts than his own" and on the other, old world parables: "the centipede whose inspiration was paralyzed by a malicious snail, who asked him which leg he put down first."

Tovey's love and reverence for this music is today sometimes seen as uncritical. Arthur Hutchings, whose admiration and reverence for Tovey is clear from his own notes, hit the correct note when he said that to Tovey, to mention weakness in one of the classics was to be "perky."  What a compliment. Should you find a misplaced phrase, a clunky line, thin plots, cheats, or stock bits, do make note and, in the fashion of a good gentleman scholar, enjoy the rest. Must one comment on such trifles? What will doing so teach about, say, Mozart? Yet Tovey's softness is overstated. He can call a phrase trivial, point out (often contra common suppositions) who owes what to whom, and so forth. Yet there is a disposition rooted as much in classical education as humane perspicacity and cultivated by years of pruning away thorny habits from a genteel deportment, that yields a pious, and grateful, temperament. By all means criticize this phrase from Beethoven, or Shakespeare for that matter, but to remember their successes is to see how small the imperfections.

We mentioned a "classical education" and seldom have the joys which spring from it and only it been on fuller display. What else would have permitted analogies between the 18th century Viennese music and Aristophanes, be it likening the croaking chorus of the Frogs to a phrase from Mozart or seeing in Haydn's treatment of a theme the debt-ridden, sleepless Strepsiades: I'm being bitten through the bed clothes by a b-b-b-b-b-bailiff.

Deficiency would mark this essay if we passed over Tovey's charming turns of phrase, turns Wikipedia impenetrably refers to as "Humpty-Dumptyish." Regardless, if saying that, "Haydn never produced a more exquisitely bred kitten" doesn't crack you a smile, then perhaps Papa H. isn't for you in the first place.

Humor aside, the essays brim with scholarship and for their variety demonstrate a surprising interconnectedness. Yes, Tovey can speak about the "Beethovenian sonata" because he has in fact been through every bar of every Beethoven sonata but it is not so much overt research and arguments that come through, or even his lively literary characterizations of the musical gestures but the, often rather oblique, discussions of style. This phrase or development is very Mozartian insofar as. . .  Such and such could never have written this. . . Whose style anticipates whose, who had whose procedures in mind, whose subject resembles whose, who perfected his use of the orchestral ritornello. . . Nearly every essay is littered with throwaway observations and comparisons. Observations and comparisons which could only be made by someone who spent a lifetime studying, playing, and loving music. Many such observations could be turned into volumes of their own and the dutiful student will be rewarded by pulling out scores and following Tovey's prompts to follow up a discussion. 

So cast aside the flashy irreverence of modern criticism and the gobbledygook of contemporary scholarship. Too cast aside Tovey's own modesty about these enlivening and invaluable volumes and seek them out. Born before the premier of Parsifal, Tovey was of the musical tradition he wrote about. For someone who heard Joachim himself play those famous cadenzas to the Beethoven Violin Concerto Tovey is more approachable, more near to us, than we could ever expect. He bridges the world between the living culture of classical music and today. We may only look back at, but he would be happy, delighted, to introduce you to the "elaborate mystifications" of Carnaval and the "eternal laughter of Mozart," though you'll make a few stops, and jokes, along the way.

Some Classic Tovey

On Mozart's Piano Concerto in B-flat, KV.450
The raillery is continued even more quizzically. But soon Mozart, though refusing to leave the tonic chord, plunges into the usual forte theme which comes to the usual half-close. Then, thinks the usual theorist, we have the usual second subject. But, as we have seen before, it is impossible to tell which, if any, of the themes of a Mozart tutti is going to belong to the second group. Another tutti theme, beginning with a conspirator's crescendo, leads to the cadence-figure of the whole ritornello. On the state this would imply a ribald gesture addressed to deluded husbands. See Figaro, Act IV, No. 26 'gia ognuno lo sa'.
On Verdi's Requiem
The language of the theater was Verdi's only musical idiom; and our musical culture, resting secure on its foundation on Bach and Beethoven, can derive nothing but good from realizing that to object to the theatricality of Verdi's Requiem is about as profane to point out that Beethoven lacked the advantages of a university education.
On Haydn's The Creation
Asbestos is not in common use as material for writing or printing, and so I cannot express my opinion of the cuts sanctioned by tradition in performances of Haydn's Creation.
 On Bach's Jesu, Meine Freude
The ninth movement, the fifth verse of the chorale, is oneo f Bach's great choral variations; not, this time, in the free declamatory style that so effectually disguises the structure of hte third verse, but in a stupendously complete and clea rform which only Bach has achieved, though his examples of it are so numerous that they are believed to be normal specimens of academic music. (The first chorus of the Matthew Passion is one.) The essence of this form is that, while one voice or part sings the chorale phrase by phrase, with pauses so long between each as to stretch the whole out to the length of a long movement, the other parts execute a complete design which may or may not have some connexion with the melody of a chorale, but which in any case would remain a perfectly solid whole if the chorale were taken away. . . we may confidently say that before Bach it was hardly known, and that it has never been attempted since. 


  1. Thanks for your thoughtful appreciation of these volumes. I included a link to this page at a Goodreads "review," so to speak, I just posted, at

  2. Thanks so much for reading, commenting, and of course linking to us! I enjoyed your thoughts on Tovey's writing also. Reading them is like talking with a charming and brilliant friend before the show whereas reading most program notes is like cramming before a test.

    It is good news OUP has these volumes still in print. I am quite attached to these hardcover volumes they put out in the mid-sixties. They're well bound and aging with grace.

    Also, I already scanned in for my own digital catalog the covers of all of these volumes. Can users submit images to GoodReads?

    Thanks so much again!