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Sir Donald and His Ideal Listener 

Wednesday, Jun 26 2002
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Sir Donald Francis Tovey changed my life -- for the better, I like to think.

I was 20, as hapless a premed as ever walked along ivied walls. Somebody in physics lab showed me a slim volume he‘d just acquired: Essays in Musical Analysis by Sir Donald Francis Tovey. The title was forbidding; the prose was warm, welcoming and congenial. They weren’t ”musical analyses“ as I understood the term -- first movement in the tonic, modulating to the dominant via enharmonic bridge, etc. They were, instead, program notes about specific pieces that Sir Donald would conduct with his Reid Orchestra in Edinburgh. ”This is what I plan to conduct,“ they told his good Scots readers, ”and these are my thoughts to take the music closer.“ In my friend‘s book (one volume of a set of six), I read about Antonin Dvorak’s particular kind of sublimity, ”which trails clouds of glory not only with the outlook of the child but with the solemnity of the kitten running after its tail.“ I read about one of the crabby tunes in the Cesar Franck Symphony ”striding grandly, in its white confirmation dress.“ I read, spellbound, through 45 pages of glowing, adoring prose about why Beethoven‘s Ninth Symphony is what it is. This, I decided, is what I want to do, and to hell with ”my son the doctor.“

What Tovey wrote about was not only the structure of a piece of music; his focus was on the aura that forms in and around a piece of music after it leaves the printed page and makes contact with the listener out front. His ideal listener, he proclaimed time and again, was the person not necessarily trained in music, but endowed with a willing ear to accept a musical experience and examine the results. He enlisted the dangerous allies of simile and metaphor to make and to illustrate his points, but he used them as convincingly as any writer about music before or since his time, including -- dare I say it? -- our own Lenny. To my dying day, perhaps beyond, I will not get past a certain spot in the Beethoven Ninth without hearing Tovey’s ”flashes of red light“ from the trumpets. They‘re there.

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And now, 62 years after Tovey’s death, he is with us again in astonishing plenitude, in The Classics of Music, a volume huge in girth (864 pages) and in price ($95), a treasury of never-before-published Tovey: more Essays in Musical Analysis, formal lectures, radio talks, reviews, even an account of a newfangled piano that could play quarter-tones. An editor at Oxford University Press, Michael Tilmouth, persuaded the Tovey archive at the University of Edinburgh to make its contents available for publication; after Tilmouth‘s death, his work was completed by David Kimbell and Roger Savage. The result is a compendium so wise, so friendly, so essential as to heap further disgrace on the sorry pile that has in recent years come to clutter the far corner of my worktable -- ghastly small tomes with titles like Who’s Afraid of Classical Music, or Getting Opera. On every page, amid essays on Haydn Quartets, Mozart arias and Tovey‘s own piano concerto, amid a set of Beethoven lectures and another set with the prickly title ”Music in Being,“ and a broadcast talk called ”Music and the Ordinary Listener,“ Tovey’s importance lies in his wise love of his art and his uncanny skill at sharing it.

Tovey (1875--1940) composed, and enjoyed a fair career as a pianist. His A-major Piano Concerto (available on Hyperion) isn‘t a bad academic exercise, and there’s a clarinet sonata that‘s even prettier. By 1905 his writing career had taken hold, and he was asked to contribute major articles -- including one, extraordinary, called ”Music“ -- to the great 11th edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica. These have been published by Oxford from time to time but are probably no longer easy to find. (The good news here is that the entire 11th Britannica is now available for download: www.1911encyclopedia.org.)

From Tovey I learned to bear blatant prejudices as a badge of honor. The violinist Joseph Joachim was his close friend, and certainly shaped Tovey’s strong bias toward the music of Brahms and, consequently, away from the Wagnerian camp. On a single page among the ”Essays,“ Tovey manages to demolish the whole line -- Wagner to Bruckner to Mahler -- with a couple of pen strokes. There follow eight pages of kindly encomium vested upon two orchestral ”poems“ -- The Riders of the Sidhe and Springtime on Tweed -- by a certain William Beatton Moonie, on whom obscurity has cast its pall. Then come some 30 pages of exquisite insights into the inner workings of a sheaf of Mozart works in which at least two -- the last piano concerto and the violinviola concertante -- are dealt with briefly but with heartwarming insight; ”galloping at his laziest,“ we read, ”Mozart never allows his square rhythms to fall into monotony.“

Tovey the critic fought the same battles that we fight today, with only the names changed. Before the legendary Arthur Nikisch, the glam conductor of his time, Tovey stands forth in mingled admiration and horror: ”a splendid interpreter of all that is obviously dramatic, his mind is almost a blank on matters of quiet poetic intensity of feeling.“ He wrestles mightily with the looming specter of the upstart Richard Strauss. ”There is nothing unusual,“ he grieves, upon the advent of Ein Heldenleben, ”in the spectacle of a man of genius associating his own finest art with all that is pretentious and undignified.“

As befalls every observer of the cultural scene, Tovey witnessed an occasional cloud across his crystal ball. Visiting the inventor Emanuel Moor to observe the ”duplex-coupler“ piano that could switch between tunings, Tovey ventured the prophecy that ”the ordinary pianoforte will be extinct as the Dodo in ten years.“ On the other hand, a report on the problems of maintaining a symphony orchestra (his own Edinburgh ensemble) -- funding, adequate rehearsal time, the livelihood of the players -- might have appeared in yesterday‘s headlines.

So, for that matter, could the very spirit that infuses this remarkable, indispensable, unaffordable musical ”witness for the defense“ (his words). The introduction to the first volume of Tovey’s Essays, the book that caused my pathway to swerve nearly six decades ago, ends with a statement of faith: ”While the listener must not expect to hear the whole contents of a piece of music at once, nothing concerns him that will not ultimately reach his ear either as a directly audible fact or as a cumulative satisfaction in things of which the hidden foundations are well and truly laid.“ Funny, but I still believe that.

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