Donald Tovey

Sir Donald Francis Tovey (17 July 1875  10 July 1940) was a British musical analyst, musicologist, writer on music, composer, conductor and pianist. He had been best known for his Essays in Musical Analysis and his editions of works by Bach and Beethoven, but since the 1990s his compositions (relatively small in number but substantial in musical content) have been recorded and performed with increasing frequency. The recordings have mostly been well received by reviewers.


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

He became a close friend of eminent violinist, and friend of Brahms, Joseph Joachim, and played piano with the Joachim Quartet in a 1905 performance of perhaps Brahms's most highly regarded chamber work, the F minor Piano Quintet, Op. 34. He gained moderate fame as a composer, to the point of having his works performed in Berlin and Vienna as well as in London. He performed his own Piano Concerto under Sir Henry Wood in 1903, and under Hans Richter in 1906. During this period he also contributed heavily to the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica, writing many of the articles on music of the 18th and 19th centuries.

In 1914 he began to teach music at the University of Edinburgh, succeeding Frederick Niecks as Reid Professor of Music; 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.

As he devoted more and more time to the Reid Orchestra, to writing essays and commentaries and to editing his editions of Bach and Beethoven, Tovey composed and performed less often later in life; but the few major pieces he did complete in his latter years are on a large scale, such as his Symphony of 1913 and the Cello Concerto completed in 1935 for his longtime friend Pablo Casals, of Mahlerian length. He also wrote an opera, The Bride of Dionysus. In illustrated radio talks recorded in his last few years, his playing is severely affected by a problem with one of his hands.

Tovey made several editions of other composers' music, including a 1931 completion of Bach's Die Kunst der Fuge (The Art of Fugue). His edition of the 48 Preludes and Fugues of Bach's The Well-Tempered Clavier, in two volumes (Vol. 1, March 1924; Vol. 2, June 1924), with fingerings by Harold Samuel, for the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music, has been reprinted continually ever since. His completion of the (presumed) final unfinished fugue in The Art of Fugue has nothing of pastiche about it, and in fact has often been recorded as the final piece of the set.

He was knighted in 1935, reportedly on the recommendation of Sir Edward Elgar, who greatly admired Tovey's edition of Bach.

He died in 1940 in Edinburgh. His archive, including scores, letters, handwritten programme notes and annotations in the scores of others, is housed in the Special Collections Unit of the University of Edinburgh library. In 2009 Richard Witts created a simple catalogue of the archival material available from the University on-line.


Tovey as a theorist of tonality

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

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, as well as in more technical and extended writings. His aesthetic regards works of music as organic wholes, and he stresses the importance of understanding how musical principles manifest themselves in different ways within the context of a given piece. He was fond of using figurative comparisons to illustrate his ideas, as in this quotation from the Essays (on Brahms' Handel Variations, Op. 24, 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.

Similarly in his book on Beethoven, dictated in 1936 but published posthumously in 1944:[1]

We do not expect a return to the home tonic to be associated with a theme we have never heard before, any more than we expect on returning from our holiday to find our house completely redecorated and refurnished and inhabited by total strangers.



  1. D.F. Tovey, Beethoven, with an editorial preface by Hubert J. Foss (Oxford University Press, London 1944), p. 29.
  2. Pristine Classical Recorded Music
  3. R. D. Darrell, The Gramophone Shop Encyclopedia of Recorded Music (New York 1936), 45.

Selected publications and links

External links

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