Robin Holloway

  • The Classics of Music: Talks, Essays and Other Writings Previously Uncollected by Donald Francis Tovey, edited by Michael Tilmouth
    Oxford, 821 pp, £60.00, September 2001, ISBN 0 19 816214 6

The name Donald Francis Tovey (always rather pompously in full) used to typify, before career musicology swept all before it, the broadly cultured rather than narrowly scholarly writer on music, sometimes browbeating and always unashamedly didactic, avid to improve his readers’ minds, popularising without condescension or dumbing down.

He had begun as a pianist of outstanding gifts in an alternative late 19th-century tradition of high seriousness as opposed to bravura; and remained all his life an aspiring composer, keeping up mainstream Teutonic forms, procedures and idioms with Quixotic ardour, in a world eroded (as he saw it) by feckless and meretricious experimentation. But he was best known in his lifetime and after for the seven volumes of programme notes, preponderantly on standard classics, six of which were published from 1935 onwards as Essays in Musical Analysis; the seventh was on Chamber Music. These notes range from elaborate early pieces (whose mandarin density caused resentment or mockery at the time), written as much to inform taste as to introduce the works in his own youthful London concerts, to casual affairs dashed off for the orchestral seasons given mainly under his own baton with the band he founded on taking up the Chair of music at Edinburgh in 1914.

In the mid-decades of the last century no music bookshelf would have been without these volumes, in which occasional bursts of facetiousness and patches of Edwardian-Georgian man-of-letters fustian run alongside intellectual strenuousness and extraordinary powers of explanation and illumination. It is sad to realise that his is no longer a (middle-class) household name. This popularising suggests in flickers what his more formal essays, decidedly not written for the general music-lover, achieve with mastery: an overview of the language and workings of classical tonality that remains unequalled in lucid profundity for all that it was never extended into lengthy volumes.

Tovey’s musical universe is founded on a line from the summit of baroque (Bach, Handel); to Viennese classicism, the triumph of tonality and the sonata principle (Haydn, Mozart, culminating in Beethoven); its expansion and decline alongside wonderful new possibilities in Schubert; its dilution and academicisation in Mendelssohn; new romantic and affective impulses from Weber and (mainly) Schubert, into Schumann; their fusion with classical models in Brahms. To this long line can be added a preliminary, in his profound appreciation of the golden age of polyphony from Josquin to Victoria and Byrd; and a coda in an equally profound appreciation of the superficially subversive and unassimilable musical aims and language of Wagner. As my initial quotations suggest, far from being simply historical, his feeling for all this is charged with an almost familial sense of belonging: a matter of inheritance over and above mere nationality and blood-ties, of immediacy irrespective of the passage of time, of idealism almost religious in its fervour.

Such writing can never date. Its ramifications – historical, technical, stylistic – can be and have been drawn out at length; it has to be extended to cover epochs unknown to him, or alien, or inimical, or (inevitably) subsequent. But its golden core ensures Tovey’s permanent place as one of the greatest of all writers on music. And because his more accessible work, despite a tincture of jocularity and oracularity, never descends into middlebrow simplification, it is charged with the same quality.

All this can be readily ascertained from his already published output; so what does this stout new collection of ‘talks, essays and other writings previously uncollected’ add to Tovey’s scope and standing? Some 250 pages of programme notes can now join the seven familiar volumes, plugging conspicuous gaps and extending coverage of the great masters, alongside surprises – ‘Casta Diva’ from Norma, Walton’s Crown Imperial march, exquisitely appreciative introductions to Debussy’s L’Après-midi d’un faune and Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder (the prose résumés of Rückert’s poems bring tears to the eyes); a few characteristic lost-cause dead ducks; a handful of long forgotten Celtic Twilighters performed in local piety (The Riders of the Sidhe; Springtime on Tweed; Caristiona); some misplaced efforts at accommodating alien modernity (including a wildly incongruous rhapsodie nègre).

Of least value are book reviews, tributes, obituaries, marginalia (sometimes virtually hackwork), from the span of Tovey’s working life. One wearies of the coercive propaganda on behalf of a conservative aesthetic already moribund even as he wrote – Julius Röntgen, the ‘Dutch Brahms’; the repressive figure of Joachim – though it does help one to understand the shock-waves caused by Richard Strauss, rocking the boat with solecisms, crudities, reckless infringements of instrumental propriety, general vulgarity and callowness, and troubling Tovey the chaste grammarian and self-appointed guardian of the sacred Teutonic flame. (But he doesn’t follow through the consequences of his rueful acknowledgment of Strauss’s overriding compositional energy.)

Some passages from this mainly dull material are well worth revival. The composer entries for the Encyclopaedia Britannica, which were omitted from the 1944 volume which collected his masterly genre-definitions for the Encyclopaedia (including the classic 40-page piece on ‘Music’), have their moments. An attempt in ‘Permanent Musical Criteria’ to define the meaning of ‘progress’ in six extremely different composers from Monteverdi to Wagner provokes reflection. The date – 1915 – of a long account of ‘German Music’ points to an unspoken cultural wastage alongside the human carnage, equally tragic for both sides in a conflict between enemies with so much held richly in common. Some passages deserve to become standard: for instance, the encapsulation of Germanic Innigkeit (‘inwardness’), from Schütz to Tristan, that quality so strongly sensed but almost indefinable, more fundamental than the conventional divisions of baroque/classic or classic/romantic (and, indeed, romantic/modernist). The essay exhibits command of a wide historical sweep that Tovey never again attempted, though it is implicit in the fluency of later dashed-off writing, and justifies its magisterial offhandedness.

Tovey’s prewar style had been stodgy, even constipated. Its habitual effortfulness recalls still more youthful striving: ‘it was one of my naive undergraduate ambitions to make a contribution to aesthetic philosophy by a systematic review of music.’ And from one of these earlier efforts comes a severe dictum that puts the tone in a nutshell: ‘the key to musical and all artistic experience is the maintaining of a correct attitude concerning the works of a mind greater than your own.’ His italics, his priggishness, his impossible self-abasement and impossible highmindedness! Such inordinate goals, and their inevitable disappointment, are the indispensable basis for all his subsequent achievement. In the course of this new volume, as in his previously available work, we can chart the growth from this stiff juvenile idealism into a mature humility that nevertheless remains conscious of its own powers and not merely obsequious in the proximity of greatness.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

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