Donald Francis Tovey

Donald Francis Tovey

Sir Donald Francis Tovey (17 July 1875 – 10 July 1940) was a British musical analyst, musicologist, writer on music, composer and pianist. He is best known for his "Essays in Musical Analysis".


Tovey began to study the piano and compose at an early age. He eventually studied composition with Hubert Parry.

Tovey became a close friend of Joseph Joachim, and played piano with the Joachim Quartet in a 1905 performance of Johannes Brahms' Piano Quintet. He gained some moderate fame as a composer, having his works performed in Berlin and Vienna as well as London. He performed his own piano concerto under the conductorship of Henry Wood in 1903 and under Hans Richter in 1906. During this period he also contributed heavily to the music articles in the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica, writing a large portion of the content on music of the 18th and 19th centuries.

In 1914 he began to teach music at the University of Edinburgh and there he founded the Reid Orchestra. For their concerts he wrote a series of programme notes, many of which were eventually collected into the books for which he is now best known, the "Essays in Musical Analysis".

Tovey began to compose and perform less often later in life. In 1913 he composed a symphony, in 1935 he wrote a cello concerto for Pablo Casals and he also wrote an opera, "The Bride of Dionysus". In illustrated radio talks recorded in his last few years, his playing can be heard to be severely affected by a problem with one of his hands.

Tovey made several editions of other composers' music and in 1931 produced a completion of Johann Sebastian Bach's "Die Kunst der Fuge". His edition of the "48 Preludes and Fugues" of Bach, in two volumes (Vol 1, March 1924; Vol 2, June 1924), with fingering by Harold Samuel, for the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music, has been reprinted continually ever since.

Tovey was knighted in 1935. He died in 1940 in Edinburgh.

Tovey as a theorist of tonality

In his essays, Tovey developed a theory of tonal structure and its relation to classical forms that he applied in his descriptions of pieces in his famous program notes for the Reid Orchestra. His aesthetic regards works of music as organic wholes, and he stresses the importance of understanding how musical principles manifest in different ways within the context of a given piece. He was fond of using metaphors to illustrate his ideas. A quotation from the Essays (on Brahms' Handel Variations, Tovey 1922):

"The relation between Beethoven's freest variations and his theme is of the same order of microscopical accuracy and profundity as the relation of a bat's wing to a human hand."

Tovey's belief that classical music has an aesthetics that can be deduced from the internal evidence of the music itself has influenced subsequent writers on music.


*The recording of Die Kunst der Fuge with the Roth String Quartet (1934-1935) has Tovey's conjectural completion of the work, played by Tovey on the pianoforte.
*There is an acoustic recording of Beethoven's 10th violin sonata (G major, op 96) played by the violinist Adila Fachiri, with Tovey at the keyboard, made for the National Gramophonic Society (NGS-114-117) during the early 1920s. [R.D. Darrell, "The Gramophone Shop Encyclopedia of Recorded Music" (New York 1936), 45.] This is the celebrated recording in which, during the first movement, after playing the exposition, the musicians stop playing and Tovey calls out 'Return to the beginning of the record. Second time...' (and then resumes playing), so that the listener shall (literally) have the "da capo".


Selected publications

* Sir Donald F. Tovey (1936) — "Normality and Freedom in Music" The Romanes Lecture Delivered In The Sheldonian Theatre 20 May 1936. Oxford, At the Clarendon Press.

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