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.

This transformation goes hand in hand with the emergence of his later style, in which the early stodginess is leavened and made more supple by his teaching at Edinburgh. The move into colloquial spontaneity recalls the easy naturalness of Johnson’s Lives of the Poets, coming at the end of a lifetime of conversation, compared with the studied constructivism of the Rambler and Idler. Though he is not built on the same scale, there is something of the Great Cham about the later Tovey. All this is shown in the most valuable and important sections of the new volume: its elaborate reconstruction of two lecture series delivered in the 1920s, together with a selection, by way of appendix, of his 1930s broadcast talks.

Even so, the second of the lecture courses (Glasgow, 1925) begins with the fussy garrulousness that gives hostages to his detractors. Especially irksome is the continued recourse to the same examples. Yet the series almost visibly improves as it proceeds. By about the sixth lecture (out of ten) it takes wing, as he defines, then – above all – demonstrates at the piano with masterful memory, technique and relevance, the textures, procedures and underlying grammar of some of the basic musical shapes. Its upshot, that such things are more a matter of phrase-length, proportion and key-relationships than of themes and their evolution, has never been more clearly put. And from here on he is on course, with an excellent account of the balance, and contradiction, between form and content, and a persuasive description of how what would have seemed puerile to Bach becomes the Ursprung of Haydn’s material, where its handling is so far from childish. Here he anticipates Charles Rosen’s Classical Style, which has always seemed to be a brilliant codification and tidying up of the rich overview implicit in Tovey’s sprawling oeuvre, in which extraordinary hints and insights are thrown out to left and right in the most hurried and occasional contexts. And the penultimate stretches, concerning, inter alia, the power of a composer, of an idiom, of music itself, in parvo – the Miserere of Victoria, Mozart’s commercial dance music turned out by the yard – are new as well as good. Despite beginning in huff and puff the series ends on a high, even though nothing is tied up and perhaps couldn’t be.

The same reservation applies to the sampling from Tovey’s talks for the BBC. He had difficulty in staying within the allotted time (and keeps tediously saying so): his voice, manner, tendency to a rush of hot air and – alas – the advancing rheumatism that furred the once pellucid mastery of his piano exemplification, evidently became liabilities. At their start these 20-minute talks show an admirable grasp of the tone and level best suited to a radio audience. His impassioned fundamentalism answers questions that occur to all music-loving ‘laymen’ – recognisability and intelligibility of tonal relationships without technical knowledge or perfect pitch; how memory functions and hence why recapitulations work; the functioning of counterpoint, but why classic polyphony is ‘unmemorable’. Then the verbal fussing sets in, its high-flown diction affording ammunition not just to Tovey-dislikers but to more general anti-intellectual prejudice.

The first of these lecture courses, eight on Beethoven delivered (probably in Edinburgh) in 1922, is on a different plane, full of new matter on the composer central to Tovey’s sense of what music essentially is and is essentially for, and already the subject of much of his previously available work (there is some overlap). Outstanding here, amid much else, is the comparison in the second lecture between Beethoven and Schumann (with its unusual emphasis on the lyric and epigrammatic aspects of the Thunderer); the discussion of tonality and key-relationships in the third; and in the eighth, of the absoluteness of Beethoven’s musical language and the compellingly clear-cut account of the how/why intrinsicness of music’s way of being and doing what it is and does. These precede and follow on from the climax of the series, the titanic go at the Eroica first movement that occupies most of the seventh. Truly evoking the physical, intellectual and emotional power of what it describes and indeed explains, this lecture must have left its audience flabbergasted, not so much like a great performance of the symphony as a naked encounter with the same forces that brought it into existence. By way of an encore come a couple of further pages devoted to another of Beethoven’s miracles with ‘contradictory keys’, this time tender and intimately expressive rather than muscular and heroic, in a local rather than ‘global’ context: a single changed harmony in the final variation of the Archduke Trio’s slow movement, and its wonderful consequences. ‘These mighty passages in Beethoven are really amongst the most sublime things that have ever been achieved in music, and we must leave them at that.’ It is the glory of Tovey that he can make this bald assertion of defeat after bringing his listener/reader close to the mountain top through faithful observance of the small steps whereby sublimity is brought about. The offbeat ending to the last lecture, opening up into that awkward stumbling-block Fidelio, is so pregnant in suggestion as to make one wish for another eight given over entirely to opera.

The volume ends touchingly, with Tovey’s ardent advocacy right at the end of his life for Haydn’s authorship of a newly discovered symphony. An editorial footnote on the very last page condoning the ‘excess of zeal’ with which he rushed to make the mistaken attribution (the great Joseph wrote only the finale, the rest was by his middling younger brother Michael), and adding the testimony of a German refugee doctor to whom the by now mortally sick Tovey confided his favourite composer (‘he became serious and concentrated on what he was going to say: and he said – “The older I grow, and especially recently, I feel more and more it is Haydn”’), is typical in its elegance, scrupulousness, erudition and generosity of the overall approach of this edition. Tovey’s Edinburgh successor Michael Tilmouth had put it together, with introductions and annotation almost complete, before his own death in 1987: two colleagues have taken another 12 years to carry it through to publication; and Oxford has produced it beautifully.

Tovey’s musical universe is hardly a ‘forgotten planet’, but it can appear forbiddingly remote. The humanistic stance and the vocabulary with which it is expressed are alien to today’s thinking and speech. Although the music he values as without question the best remains timelessly vital and his illumination of it perpetually relevant, perceptions have shifted. Yet whatever later commentators might add by way of amplification, sophistication or repudiation, Tovey’s grasp of the essential homogeneity of what he deals with remains paramount. Every other comparable writer – Schenker, Keller, Rosen – notwithstanding individual flashes or sustained flights of equivalent insight, seems partial after Tovey, whatever his deficiencies. No one reaches so deep down into the wellsprings of music itself.

So what does Tovey miss; where is he limited, and possibly flawed? For obvious reasons the modern epoch is the main absentee – not because he died in 1940, but for reasons of temperament and culture. A spiritual child of Brahms and Joachim would by definition be unable to follow the radical directions of pre-1914 Paris, even when Debussy, Ravel and the Stravinsky of the early Diaghilev ballets were already positively popular. Nor was there comfort from the contemporary strains in the Austro-German culture that formed his natural habitat. I’ve already noted his doubts about Strauss (even before Salome and Elektra). How would it be for Ewartung and Pierrot lunaire?

Webern figures in the index of this book, but only as an early musicologist, one of the three editors of the Isaac edition consulted to write the 1915 article on German music. Schönberg and Scriabin occur once, en passant, unnamed but identifiable, where three suspect moderns, the first being Strauss, are hit by one stone (‘names his works after Nietzsche, claims his inspiration from theosophy, even writes a harmony book’). Ravel elicits a few non-committal remarks in a note for the BBC orchestra’s visit to Edinburgh with the second suite from Daphnis in the programme; some facetious remarks by Satie are quoted with misplaced scorn, without attribution (save the editor’s); Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Bartók, Janáček, Berg, all of whom had peaked, and in some cases died, well within Tovey’s lifetime, are absent. The permitted moderns, here and in his writings in general, are Sibelius above all (held to have solved the problem failed by Bruckner of reconciling Wagnerian size with classical momentum); Vaughan Williams and Hindemith for their robust practicality and manifest aversion to meretricious mod cons; Walton – once juvenile sauciness mellows via Hindemith into classic craft, via Elgar into warm romanticism – occasions real enthusiasm, missing in the dutiful promulgation of Dame Ethel Smyth (probably exacted at umbrella-point). Otherwise, his heart is in Bantock, Röntgen and Adolf Busch.

The maddening thing is that we’d willingly exchange most 20th-century ‘specialists’ for a few paragraphs of Tovey-type commentary on, for an obvious start, the classicising works of Bartók and Schönberg in the 1920s and 1930s; then (admittedly, a difficult leap of the imagination) Stravinsky’s neo-classicising works from the same epoch. Maybe a time will come when this music is grasped as Tovey grasps Bach-to-Brahms, but it hasn’t happened yet. And what would this sane, forthright, grammar-wielding yet poetic mind make of Britten, Messiaen, Nancarrow, Ligeti? He’d surely be able to sort out the tangle of ideology, biography, fire slag and ash in Shostakovich? Tovey on Adams, Stockhausen, Birtwistle? We need it.

His limitations in earlier epochs are also those of his culture and generation, though compared to their norms he emerges as relatively enlightened. Archaic, ancient and ethnic musics leave him largely indifferent. He understands the Greek system of course, and shows a fine sense of the qualities of folksong and plainchant, and positive relish for Sumer is icumen in: but there is no awareness of the riches from Africa, America, Oceania, Asia. Overall, it’s Dark Ages until the burgeoning of vocal polyphony, with Josquin as ‘the first unmistakably great composer’ (it took originality and percipience to print, entire, Josquin’s lament for Ockeghem in a general encyclopedia in 1906). He is ardent in appreciation of the Golden Age, literate and learned (the footnotes testify to his vigorous annotations throughout volume after volume of collected editions), yet way ahead of his time in practical application, preparing his own versions for a choir in Edinburgh especially to bring out the cross-rhythmic life of the lines.

This informed advocacy precedes his only real deaf spot, a blankness towards the entire epoch of seconda prattica emanating from Monteverdi, so out of tune with its present-day status as to be quite disconcerting. Again and again the same viewpoint is voiced and varied: in the Britannica entry for Monteverdi himself, again in Gluck’s, again in one of the accounts of how tonality evolved, again in the account of what ‘progress’ in music means, finally in the essay on German music. His principal scorn is vented on mannerism and bizarrerie; thus Gesualdo receives short shrift, as also anything perceived as perverse, malformed, incoherent – precisely what later generations have come to love for its bold peculiarity. But the whole epoch until the next classic peak of Bach and Handel is for a grammarian like Tovey a chaos in which language gropes in darkness and disarray. He compares it with the confusions arising out of late Wagner, the recklessness of Strauss in particular, and prophesies the slow birth of a new coherence towards the end of the 20th century. It’s a cogent point of view, consistent with the centralising normalcy of his grasp of modality, then tonality. (Is it so wildly wrong?)

Tovey’s high baroque is decidedly deficient, too. He is always marvellous on Handel and Bach; other masters of the epoch are only shadowy. The Britannica entry on Couperin le grand is kindly but patronising: it mentions the superior genius of Rameau but he’s not referred to elsewhere, and the wonderful Charpentier was not yet recovered. (Tovey’s love of Purcell shows that this stylistic terrain was by no means inaccessible to him.) Then one realises that the triumph of the baroque, from the tiniest pièce de clavecin to the most monumental opéra-ballet, the restitution of Vivaldi, Scarlatti, Telemann, Lully (to name but four) – above all, Monteverdi’s Incoronazione di Poppea and the radical revaluation of Handelian opera – has been the greatest adventure in taste and awareness since the Second World War. One can return from it with an enhanced sense of classic tonality as understood by Tovey, more exactly defined in itself, and more interestingly and variously related to wider ramifications of artistic endeavour that needn’t be outside the pale.

In later styles his deaf spots are more apparent than actual. It’s odd to read in the Berlioz fan-literature of Tovey’s supposed antipathy, when one remembers the balance of humour, acute observation and sheer relish with which he copes with a maverick genius whose output will by its nature remain forever divisive. Such figures are better served by judicious astringency than vacuous hype, and the proximity in Berlioz of absurdity and ineptitude to unique strokes of poetic delicacy or power has never been better handled. Bruckner is a different case. Full awareness of his astonishing sizes and shapes has grown slowly, producing a reversal whereby what was first seen as incompetent, even impotent, is now what is most revered. Tovey’s few notes for this composer always recognise the innate sublimity even while, conditioned by Brahmsian terseness on the one hand, and on the other by Wagner’s self-evident control of a new vastness, he inevitably fails to measure originality – bolder than either, and perhaps greater – that seemed at first merely cranky. He was so sympathetic to Schubert for facing and partially solving the problems of classic procedures expanding under the pressure of new expressive content that one feels he ought to have got Bruckner right. Which he certainly, surprisingly, managed for Mahler. The long introduction to the Fourth Symphony (in one of the familiar programme-note books) pays warm-hearted tribute to this work’s riotous inventiveness; Tovey’s canny recognition of its interdependent contradictions – elegant and tasteless, rustic and urban, sentimental and exalted, copious and economical – make an important pioneering contribution to a universal Mahler-mania which he couldn’t possibly have foreseen.

Other outsiders to his main Teutonic line are often treated with special sensitivity. Dvorák, of course, as Bohemian country cousin to Brahms; Chopin, Tchaikovsky, Verdi are highly and accurately valued too, with many points of individual illumination the more telling for coming at an angle. Elgar has never been so lovingly etched in. And there is sometimes a particular felicity in coping with composers or works for which he confesses a soft spot despite their clear shortcomings. The essay on the Franck symphony is a favourite example: the indulgence of its lapses, the intuitive sympathy for its struggles, the generous endorsement of what’s noble in it, the ability to draw, from all this, aesthetic generalisations full of human insight, show a perfect command of tone.

With the absence of other 19th-century nationalists, Mussorgsky especially, the threshold of the 20th is reached, where it is clear that his universe comes to its outer edges. The feeling for the beauty of Debussy is keen, the apprehension of what he does technically is highly suggestive, but whatever it is in L’Après-midi d’un faune that caused Boulez to say ‘modern music begins here’ passes Tovey by. Later stages of the Franco-Russian revolution by which the Austro-German hegemony was demoralised, dissolved and disintegrated leave him cold, and leave him out. Nor did he know, nor could he have known, that this is what was happening. What with hindsight is absolutely obvious was for him, there and then, simply not possible within the scope of what he understood and loved. He couldn’t have seen in the 1920s that Röntgen, Busch and indeed he himself in his own compositions no longer possessed what they had seemed to, and that Stravinsky, Schönberg, Bartók had it instead, or something else, or both.

Its many insights and some sustained stretches of brilliant illumination make this new volume indispensable despite a proportion of chaff, gas, replication and ponderous laying down the law. Even so, the supreme things in Tovey, all of them contained in the long out of print 1949 Essays and Lectures on Music (Oxford should be urged to make it available again), are not matched here. For all the excellence of his impromptu style, formal writing-up at maximum pressure suits him better still: such fully elaborated pieces as the essay on ‘Some Aspects of Beethoven’s Art Forms’ and the two on Schubert are in my ‘deliberate but not dogmatic’ opinion the most outstanding writing on music there has ever been.

Particularly as his reputation has sunk into depression, and since (despite reassuring evidences of a turning tide) this kind of writing on the arts in general has become so unfashionable, it’s worth trying to say why. Big woolly words like wisdom, humanity, depth, breadth, poetic sensitivity, spiritual insight etc should answer, but have become debased. And supposing them restored to gold-standard, what have they to do with the notes? Everything and nothing. Even if a purist reaction rejects the humanistic paraphernalia as otiose, sentimental, unquantifiable, what remains chez Tovey is the antithesis of waffle. On his chosen ground, by common consent ‘the best that has been thought and said’ in the art, he is a great master – via total understanding, expressed with masterly cogency, of its grammar and language – of music’s how.

The principal comparison is with Heinrich Schenker (his elder contemporary who died in 1935, aged 76), the celebrated arch-classicist analyst whose theories and methods cowed American academe, thence British, from the 1950s onwards. Schenker undoubtedly probes more intricately the workings of harmonic structure in tonal music. His notorious limitation is neglect of the detailed surface, of the way the fundamental processes are enlivened by caprice, invention, surprise; and of the rhythmic parameter that makes them breathe, their articulation in time. Far more disabling is his implicit snobbery, which, selecting only accredited ‘masterworks’ for examination, refuses to distinguish and evaluate quality; and the quasi-scientific rigour which declines to acknowledge and accommodate emotional content. Here, in just what matters most, in just what is so difficult to discuss usefully that the purist makes it out to be beside the point, is where Tovey, acknowledging the power of the big woolly words, transcends the technical supremo. As well as the how Tovey aims to reach the what of music: what it is; what it’s saying; what it means; why it’s good. He aims to reach the emotional core, expressed in a coherent organic/ grammatical structure, embodied in a medium of sensuous physical immediacy and superimposed on/counterpointed with real time in a time-scape of its own: all the complex interdependent actuality of a communicative experience so important to music-lovers that we want more and more of it again and again, always the same, yet different, infinitely renewable.

It’s not a matter of rules (though no one has understood them better). Creative freedom, with Schenker, is imperilled by theoretic rigidity which, if obeyed as compositional goal, could only result in idle and sterile pedantry. With Tovey the rules emerge from within the composition itself: there are no generalisations, everything is specific to the unique expressive and technical life and the chosen matière of the individual work of art, whether it is one of dozens or a one-off.

In the end the greatness of Tovey’s work is the greatness of the man: the two are fitful, fugitive and inextricably fused. Again Dr Johnson comes to mind: they share a darkly serious view of the Vanity of Human Wishes, equipoised with an exalted or utopian hope for the life to come. Also Johnsonian are Tovey’s weight within the superficial ponderousness, lucidity behind superficial tortuosity, wit and humour within superficial facetiousness, warmth behind shyness. All these qualities are scattered throughout his copious pages, sometimes in such surprising contexts that it’s difficult to remember how to locate them, so intimately intertextured is his view of life, humanity, art, with the here-and-now details of a particular work’s workings. And whatever the ultimate fate of Tovey’s actual compositions (I fear, for all one’s desire that they be as good as he deserves, that they remain, like Irene and Rasselas, noble still-births), it is surely because his principal ambitions were creative that, together with the powerful verbal and conceptual gifts not normally granted to creative artists and not normally needed by them, he was able without vainglory to achieve feats of empathy with the greatest musical creators.