Sir Donald Francis Tovey
“All Art contains Conflict”

Sir Donald Francis Tovey

Sir Donald Francis Tovey

Throughout the 20th century, Donald Francis Tovey (1875-1940) was probably one of the most widely read music critics in English-speaking countries. He launched his career as a pianist, composer, and writer of music in London, and was immediately identified as a conservative. A critic from the Manchester Guardian snidely commented, “his total misapprehension of what is called the modern spirit in music is simply astonishing.” Tovey’s musical aesthetic was shaped by his close personal relationship with Joseph Joachim, who had made his English debut under Felix Mendelssohn in 1844. Both Joachim and Tovey believed that the great classical musical tradition had ended with Brahms. Clearly, this did not make Tovey the most popular critic on the planet, and Joseph Kerman suggests, “His work has been attacked, it has also been bypassed and tacitly contradicted.” Nevertheless, his extensive writings on music have never lost their broad appeal.

Tovey believed that everything of importance in music lay within the province of the “naïve listener.” This imagined personality had no specialist training, only a willing ear and a ready sensibility. Nevertheless, even the untrained ear could intuitively recognize the genius in the masterworks of Bach, Beethoven and Brahms. For Tovey, that genius could be glimpsed via music analysis, and it figured prominently in his program notes from the very start. However, London concert audiences were certainly not prepared for his 47-page essay on the Goldberg Variations! His Essays in Musical Analysis were eventually collected into a series of books, and he contributed decisively to the Encyclopedia Britannica of 1911 and to subsequent editions. As the “Reid Professor of Music” at the University of Edinburgh, Tovey wrote major essays on Gluck, Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert, and Brahms. In addition, he prepared a number of performing editions, including a 1931 completion of Bach’s Kunst der Fuge. His annotated edition of the WTC had been reprinted countless time, and on the recommendation of Sir Edward Elgar, Tovey was knighted in 1935.

Sir Donald Francis Tovey: Cello Concerto, Op. 40
Although highly esteemed as a music critic and writer, Tovey was also acknowledged as a capable pianist and composer. In 1894 he appeared together on stage with Joseph Joachim, and his regular performances with the Joachim Quartet included a 1905 concert featuring Brahms’s Op. 34 Piano quintet. In a series of chamber music concerts in London, Tovey presented several of his own works, and he gave similar concerts in Vienna and Berlin. He played his Piano Concerto in 1903 under Henry J. Wood, and in 1906 under Hans Richter. His Symphony was completed in 1913, and eventually followed by the opera The Bride of Dionysus. In 1925, Tovey made his debut in the United Stages as a pianist, and he continued to actively contribute to the concert series in Edinburgh. His Cello Concerto was written for his friend Pablo Casals in 1932/33. Tovey suggested that it contained “much of the juiciest music I have yet composed.” Situated between Brahms and Elgar, it is a highly dignified and lyrical composition, and its release was accompanied, as you might well imagine, by an extensive set of program notes!

Air for Strings

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