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The best thing ever written about music in our language


If I had a teenage child with a passion for serious music, I would not hesitate to give him or her "Essays in Musical Analysis" by Donald Francis Tovey.

Tovey-Donald-Francis-03Donald Francis Tovey
This is a formidable work. The first volume is on symphonies, the second on symphonies, variations and orchestral polyphony, the third on concertos, the fourth on illustrative music and the final volume on vocal music. There is also an index volume which includes a valuable glossary, and the general introduction provides a dazzlingly clear explanation of such basic concepts as key, tonic, dominant, tonality and sonata form. There are copious musical illustrations throughout. You say a teenager is not going to wade through six volumes of uncompromising gravity. Not true. I discovered Tovey for myself in the school library when I was 15, and read him virtually all through. It provided me with the basis of my musical education, and much of what he said lodges in my mind to this day. I recently read some of him again, and found him as fresh, captivating and revelatory as when I was a boy. These are books, covering most of the concert repertoire, which you cannot put down if you love music.

Who was Tovey? He was born in 1875, the same year as Ravel; Tchaikovsky wrote his notorious first piano concerto and Bizet's Carmen had its premiere; Rachmaninov was two years older, Casals a year his junior. Tovey came from Eton, son of a master at the school. He never went to school but was educated entirely by Sophie Weiss, a passionate musicologist and headmistress of a girls' school, though he also had lessons in counterpoint from Sir Walter Parratt, organist at St George's Chapel, Windsor. He was composing systematically by the age of eight, and at 13 was thought promising enough to be taken up by Parry, whom he called 'my master'. When he was 18 he went to Balliol with a music scholarship (like Ted Heath later). Being a pianist of exceptional skill, memory and resource, who could play anything in the orchestral repertory at sight, he was soon performing in public and could have made a brilliant career as a concert pianist. As it was, he had the opportunity of working and playing with Casals, Henry Wood, Suggia, Lady Hallé, the Bosches and, above all, Joachim, who pronounced him the most learned musician who had ever lived. However, he was asked to do the musical entries to the famous 11th edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, probably the most distinguished work of reference ever published, and in complying he discovered a talent and delight in writing which he found even more exciting than playing.

He was in fact a polymath. His essays are dotted with parallels and citations ranging over vast areas of literature and science. He also had what is so rare among musicologists (or art scholars for that matter) — a tremendous sense of humour, an engaging self-deprecation and a highly infectious sense of enjoyment.

However, when in 1914 he was made Reid Professor of Music at Edinburgh he was able to do both, for there he founded the Reid Orchestra, composed of students and professionals. Over the next quarter-century they played the entire classical repertoire, as well as many novelties by Elgar, Vaughan Williams, Hindemith and Walton, and he integrated the band, which he always conducted himself, with his revolutionary and inspired methods of teaching music to his undergraduates. The orchestra was underfunded and never large, and Tovey often had to work frantically re-arranging the scores to enable his slender forces to tackle the great canonical symphonies. But this gave him a valuable insight into the often desperate exigencies to which 18th-century composers like Handel, Haydn and Mozart were put by limited means, as well as a profound empirical knowledge of what every instrument in the orchestra could do, alone or in combination.

Moreover, for his concerts he supplied regular programme notes, which formed the basis of his Essays. These conveyed not only his profound knowledge of what music tries to do, how it is composed, played and conducted, but also his excitement and enthusiasm. His parents gave him a fine grounding in English literature and at Oxford he expanded his range to take in philosophy, astronomy, higher mathematics and physics. He was in fact a polymath. His essays are dotted with parallels and citations ranging over vast areas of literature and science. He also had what is so rare among musicologists (or art scholars for that matter) -- a tremendous sense of humour, an engaging self-deprecation and a highly infectious sense of enjoyment.

All these qualities make Tovey one of the three greatest writers on music in English. The other two are Ernest Newman, another idol of my youth when the Sunday Times was part of my adolescent education, and in our own day the great David Cairns, whose two volumes on Berlioz are a model of how to write a musical biography and whose most recent work, Mozart and His Operas, is a delight and my Book of the Year 2006. (I should also mention the American critic Jay Nordlinger.) Of all these writers, Tovey is the greatest because of his combination of originality, authority (based on his enormous knowledge) and nerve.

It is characteristic that he begins his wonderful analysis of all the Beethoven symphonies with the sentence, 'Beethoven's first symphony, produced in 1800, is a fitting farewell to the 18th century.' One is conscious in all his writings of a strong sense of history and a firm framework of chronology. There is also the sense of the mechanics of producing sublime sounds. His analysis of the last three symphonies of Mozart — 39, 40 and 41 — composed in six consecutive weeks, begins by examining what instruments in the normal orchestra are absent or present. He notes, with feeling, for his own experience was similar, that 'Mozart's material resources would mean starvation to any but the most spiritual of modern composers'. But each of the three symphonies has its own special colouring nonetheless. In the 39 there are no oboes but the clarinets have a splendid time, for 'Mozart was the first to appreciate the true importance of the clarinet both in chamber music and in the orchestra', and in 39 he uses the instrument in all possible ways. In 40 he first reversed the procedure and used only oboes. 'But he afterwards rewrote the oboe parts, giving all their softer and less rustic utterances to the clarinets, and it is a great mistake not to accept his revision.' The C-Major or Jupiter Symphony, 41, has no clarinets 'and no room for them in its scheme'. Tovey concludes that 'the whole orchestra is affected by these differences of scheme; and an intimate knowledge of these three scores is the foundation of a fine sensibility towards the possibilities of modern orchestration'.

The word 'intimate' is the key. Tovey not only had all the academic knowledge you could possibly require, he also had the intimacy of the rehearsal room, the concert platform, the earnest, sometimes heated discussion between conductor and players and soloists. Reading Tovey, you smell the Brasso with which players polished their horns and trombones, you hear the timpanist tightening his drums and the snap and whine of a broken violin string. You hear Bach grumbling in his organ loft, Beethoven hammering his stricken piano, and Haydn (who came to be Tovey's favourite, as he is mine) joking with the Prince of Wales about his cello-playing. Tovey also wrote a short book on Beethoven, a Companion to his piano sonatas, and one on The Art of Fugue. His Britannica articles were collected and published and I believe there is a recording of some of his radio talks. But the Essays are his masterpiece, his monument and his achievement, without parallel in the history of music in Britain.



Paul Johnson. "The best thing ever written about music in our language." The Spectator (January 13, 2007).

This article is from Paul Johnson's "And another thing" column for The Spectator and is reprinted with permission of the author.

The Author

Johnson7 johnson4Paul Johnson, celebrated journalist and historian, is the author of many books, including Socrates: A Man for Our Times, Churchill, George Washington: The Founding Father, A History of the American People, Modern Times, A History of the Jews, Intellectuals, Art: A New History, and The Quest for God: Personal Pilgrimage. He also produces brief surveys that slip into the pocket, such as his popular The Renaissance and Napoleon. He is a frequent contributor to the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Spectator, and the Daily Telegraph. He lectures all over the world and lives in Notting Hill (London) and Somerset.

Copyright © 2007 Paul Johnson
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