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Sir Donald Francis Tovey (1875–1940)

by Peter R. Shore
Donald Francis Tovey: An Introduction
Sir Donald Francis Tovey, the Reid Professor of Music at Edinburgh University from 1914 until his death in 1940, is best remembered as the author of a series of Essays in Musical Analysis. But Tovey regarded himself first and foremost as a musician: making music was the real business of his life; everything else was secondary. Yet he was not content to be a pianist, conductor and composer; as an editor, writer, broadcaster, scholar and teacher, his aim was to bring his knowledge and love of music to a much wider audience.
Born on 17 July 1875 at Eton, Tovey was the younger son of the Reverend Duncan Crookes Tovey and his wife, Mary. At the time of Donald’s birth his father was assistant master of classics at Eton College but he eventually became rector of the parish of Worplesdon in Surrey, just north of Guildford. Neither of his parents was musical, but their elder as well as their younger son had, to different degrees, a gift for music. The extent of Tovey’s musicality was recognised not by his family but by a Miss Sophie Weiss, a piano-teacher and general musical educator who ran ‘Northlands’, a fashionable school at Englefield Green, near Windsor, and who took him as a pupil when he was five. She became his ‘musical mother’, and their association was to last for the rest of his life, with Miss Weisse acting first as tutor and then mentor. This relationship was to prove both a blessing and a curse. Although the Reverend Tovey was a master at Eton College Miss Weisse succeeded in preventing the young Donald from going to public school at all. When his father became the Rector of Worplesdon he received private tuition from Miss Weisse, obtaining from one source or another the substance of a proper school education, as well as first-rate pianoforte training from Miss Weisse herself. His education was completed with an undergraduate career at Balliol College, Oxford, on a scholarship designed to give promising musicians advanced training in the history philosophy, and literature of ancient Greece, particularly the works of Plato, a course known as the Literae Humaniores or ‘Greats’. Tovey was awarded a third-class degree after a compromise between the historians among the examiners who wanted to give him a fourth-class ranking and the philosophers who considered him a clear first-class candidate.
When Dr Walter Parratt, organist of St George’s Chapel at Windsor, gave Tovey – then thirteen years old – his first instruction in counterpoint, it became almost instantly obvious that he was a born contrapuntist. Although Tovey was deeply attached to Dr Parratt, he had a lifelong affection and admiration also for his two later teachers, James Higgs, who taught counterpoint at the Royal College of Music, and Sir Hubert Parry, with whom he began to study composition at the age of fourteen. Tovey was considered for the Royal College of Music but the authorities there were faced with a dilemmaas he would have started at a point far beyond that at which most of their students finished their formal musical education. In 1892, for example, at the age of seventeen, he wrote a counterpoint exercise consisting of thirteen bars combining a six-part canon on a cantus firmus with imitative treatment of three other counterpoints, twenty parts in all. This compositional dexterity was combined with an increasingly phenomenal memory, which laid the foundation of the comprehensive knowledge of classical music for which he became famous. He was also distinguishing himself as a performer: in 1891, at Northlands, he had performed such works as the Schubert B Flat Trio, violin sonatas by Beethoven and Brahms (then still very much a living composer) and the ‘Waldstein’ Sonata, and had accompanied Marie Fillinger (a friend of Robert and Clara Schumann) in Schubert and Brahms songs.
Tovey had met the great violinist Joseph Joachim (a personal friend of Brahms, whose Violin Concerto was written for him) on a visit to Eton College when Tovey was only twelve; they were to remain friends until Joachim’s death in 1907. Their first public concert together – which took place in the Albert Institute at Windsor on 15 March 1894, three months before Tovey’s nineteenth birthday – opened with Brahms’ G major sonata for piano and violin and closed with Beethoven’s ‘Kreutzer’ Sonata.
Miss Weisse had many contacts with wealthy and fashionable members of society in the last years of Queen Victoria’s reign, which helped to enhance Tovey’s career as a concert-pianist and composer. She also financed the publication of the Piano Concerto in 1903 and much of his chamber music between 1906 and 1913. Tovey made his London debut in 1900 and the next year made London and the Home Counties his base until the First World War. He appeared regularly as a concert pianist and chamber musician. His concert repertoire was dominated by German music, the ‘Goldberg’ and ‘Diabelli’ Variations and ‘Hammerklavier’ Sonata often featuring in his concerts. He also played Scarlatti and Chopin, and he performed in Debussy’s Cello Sonata at one of the New Reid Concerts in 1916. He wrote articles and reviews for The Times Literary Supplement – and he composed. His Piano Concerto (dedicated to Miss Weisse) was written in 1903 and his Symphony in D in 1913; four trios were composed between 1900 and 1910, a piano quartet in 1900, two string quartets in 1909 and a piano quintet in 1900. In 1907 he began work on The Bride of Dionysus, an ambitious three-act music drama in three acts based on the Theseus-Ariadne-Phaedra triangle drama; it was completed in 1918.
Tovey’s private life, though, was unhappy. He had married in April 1916, but it was apparent very early on in the marriage that his wife suffered from severe psychiatric problems, and the marriage ended in divorce in 1922. The effects of this deteriorating relationship – combined with the drain on his energies of being such a visible and charismatic professor – brought the flow of his compositions to a virtual standstill. The position was not helped by the realisation that, as a composer, he had little in common even with the contemporaries he admired, like Sibelius and Holst, let alone the ones he didn’t (the atonal Schoenberg, Stravinsky after Petrushka). When in 1925 Tovey married Clara Wallace, who had been a pupil at Miss Weisse’s school, Weisse at first made a semblance of approval but remained to the end unreconciled to the marriage – and there were many other instances when Tovey felt that Miss Weisse was interfering in his personal and professional life.
On the strength of his writing he was invited to contribute to the Eleventh Edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, obliging with around fifty major entries on musical forms and the achievements of the great composers. His relations with Miss Weisse had become tense and in 1912 his friendship with the cellist Pablo Casals and his wife Guillhermina Suggia went sadly wrong. Guillhermina Suggia was a very attractive young woman as well as a musician and her husband may have, unjustly, become jealous of the innocent attention shown towards her by Tovey. Tovey could be as hot tempered as his Spanish friend and the ensuing quarrel, however unfounded, caused a rift between them, which lasted until 1925.
In 1914 the Chair of Music in Edinburgh University fell vacant. Tovey successfully applied for the position and was to hold the Reid Professorship from then until his death in 1940. For six months of the year he taught the history of music, analysis, orchestration and interpretation, and organised concerts for the university as well as for the people of Edinburgh in general. For the rest of the year he wrote, edited the musical classics and continued his concert tours. Perhaps his finest achievement in Edinburgh was the formation and maintenance of the Reid Symphony Orchestra. The Reid Orchestra gave its first concert in 1917 in the Usher Hall in Edinburgh, conducted by Tovey, and continued to perform eight concerts a year for the rest of his life – with his characteristic analytical essays in the programme notes. In spite of setbacks in his personal life (the break-up of his first marriage among them), and though he was recurrently troubled with bouts of ill heath because of arthritis and high blood-pressure (from which only practical music-making was guaranteed to lift his spirits), Tovey found himself elevated to the status of Grand Old Man. In 1925 he began his first series of broadcast keyboard talks – but as a broadcaster he was unpredictable: at best, he was natural and fluent; at worst, when he was troubled by time limits, or by the fact that he could not walk up and down as he discoursed, it was hesitant and discursive; however interesting, it was technically bad broadcasting.
He gave several prestigious university lectures, among them eight on Beethoven in Edinburgh in 1922. The ten Cramb Lectures, Music in Being, were delivered at Glasgow University in 1925, the year in which he added Boston and New York to his list of recital venues. In 1929 he was at last able to conduct the premiere of The Bride of Dionysus (the décor by Charles Ricketts). In 1931 he published important editions, alone or in collaboration, of Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas and Bach’s ‘48’ and The Art of Fugue. This last, for which Tovey wrote a conjectural ending to Bach’s unfinished concluding Contrapunctus XIV, was a significant factor in persuading the then Master of the King’s Musick, Edward Elgar, to recommend him for a knighthood, and he was duly dubbed Sir Donald in 1935. Hubert Foss of Oxford University Press persuaded (and then actively helped) him to collect, edit and revise a large number of his ‘essays in musical analysis’ so as to make up the famous six-volume set published between 1935 and 1939; ‘looking it up in Tovey’ became an entertaining and instructive activity all over the music-loving English-speaking world.
There was a double irony behind the success of the Essays in Musical Analysis, which remained popular from the late 1930s through to at least the 1960s. First, Tovey’s musical ideas, which had seemed so radical at the beginning of his career, had been unable to adjust to the revolutionary musical and social changes going on around him: William Walton and Paul Hindermith were among the few inter-War composers he was enthusiastic about, and even with Hindemith it was less the music and more the man’s all-round musicianship that appealed to him. Second, to be remembered as a writer of perceptive and beguiling analytical-descriptive essays was an odd kind of fame for a musician who considered himself first and foremost an active musician and, privately, even more a composer. There was to be one more tour de force with the writing in 1934 of the Cello Concerto (it is an ambitious hour in length), which was conceived for Casals, who was proud to give it its first performance on 22 November 1934.
Tovey died in Edinburgh on 10 July 1940. His death passed largely unnoticed by press and population, whose thoughts were pre-occupied by the turmoil of the Second World War. Fortunately the memory of Tovey was kept alive not least by the publication in 1952 of Mary Grierson’s biography, which has been an important source of information for this essay. Tovey’s writings then in print were editions (for the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music) of Bach’s Wohltemperirtes Klavier (1924, with Harold Samuel) and of Beethoven’s piano sonatas (1918, with Harold Samuel), joined in 1931 by his A Companion to Beethoven's Pianoforte Sonatas as well as the Essays in Musical Analysis and A Companion to ‘The Art of Fugue’ (1931). His articles from the Encyclopaedia Britannica and a book about Beethoven, both edited by Hubert Foss, were published posthumously in 1944 by Oxford University Press. It was to be half a century before the next publication associated with Tovey was to appear: in 2002 Oxford University Press brought out Donald Francis Tovey: The Classics of Music – Talks, Essays, and Other Writings Previously Uncollected.
© Peter Shore, 2010

See also

Tovey's The Bride of Dionysus Recording Session
Tovey's The Bride of Dionysus Synopsis with musical examples



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