Donald F Tovey

Picture of Donald F Tovey

Dr. W. Gillies Whittaker was the newly appointed music professor at Glasgow University, and we thought it only right, as a matter of policy, to open our first season with a programme of his music. Whittaker - a noted Bach scholar - was really no great shakes as a composer and he resented our band of young musical hooligans leading the musical life of Glasgow under his nose. On more than one occasion he threw a spanner in our works, and so, though lip service was paid to the incumbent of the Gardiner Chair of Music, there was no love lost between us. South Africa owes him a grudge, too, for it was he who told me of a vacancy at Cape Town University, and urged me to apply for it - I see now, to get me well out of his operational territory.

We turn now to his opposite partner in the Glasgow-Edinburgh Axis; Donald Tovey was at Edinburgh University, and the honorary president of our society, so having done our duty by Dr. Whittaker and Glasgow University, the second series of concerts opened with a programme of Tovey works.

Tovey, without doubt the most distinguished musical scholar of his generation, was an exceedingly busy man, and we appreciated his travelling 80 miles to attend some of our more important concerts. He also came to most of our opera performances (all the Berlioz operas and "Idomeneo") and altogether took a friendly and encouraging interest in our musical goings-on, the reverse of his colleague, Whittaker's "sour grapes" attitude. Tovey’s only rival in the musical field was Professor E.J. Dent of Cambridge, although a near rival was Ernest Newman.

At the Glasgow performance of "Les Troyens" both Tovey and Dent dined at my house: it wasn’t our most successful party for although the two great musical scholars were civilised enough to hide their - I suppose you would call it - rivalry, an undercurrent of gentle hostility could be felt. The pre-dinner conversation centred round the recitatives in "Figaro" and "The Don" to use harpsichord or piano?- to play plain chords or to embellish? (as Tovey did so beautifully in his piano playing;) to have or have not appoggiaturas? to add extra bars to accommodate the action ? and so on. Tovey and Dent could only bring themselves to half agree with the other. After a wining and dining of some consequence, Tovey asked me if I would show him where - as the saying is - he could wash his hands. As I led him away he said "You know, Chisholm, Dent is really very knowledgeable on Mozart but I get the feeling, however, that he doesn’t like me very much". Half an hour later, Dent also asked me to take him "a place", "You know, Chisholm, Tovey is certainly a very fine musical scholar: we get on all right but I get the feeling he doesn't like me very much".

'As a lecturer and writer about music, Tovey was certainly without a rival’ - wrote R.C. Trevelyan, and it has been said by the Professors of English Literature, of Classical Culture and Pure Mathematics at Edinburgh University that Tovey could have taken over their chairs at a moment's notice, and no questions asked. He probably knew more about the creative labours of Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms than these composers ever knew themselves: I have heard him keep his end up discussing topics so outlandish as the orbits of Jupiter's satellites with Dr. Sampson the Scottish Astronomer Royal. He read everything, and remembered everything he read. Yet he could unbend and it is not the first time I have seen him off at Glasgow Queen Street Station with a bundle of what he called his "il-literature", books like "The Beano", "The Magnet" [Billy Bunter), "Boys' Own Paper", "The Gem" (Tom Merry & Co) and the like, picked up at random from the station bookstall.

Tovey is best remembered to-day by his six volumes of analytical essays and the reprints of his Encyclopaedia Britannica articles - all of them classics of their kind. These essays began their life as programme notes for Tovey’s own Reid Orchestral Concerts, and were dictated to his secretary by Tovey from memory, in between lectures. Tovey was a born lecturer - at his best when speaking ex tempore. His lectures to his students were altogether far too meaty affairs to be absorbed at one hearing: it is a great loss to English musical literature that none of the students (including myself) who came week after week to sit at the feet of the Oracle had the common sense to bring a tape recorder into the class, which would have preserved these indescribably brilliant outpourings of our learned and well-beloved Professor. With eyes roving up to the ceiling, pacing up and down like some restless caged animal, heching and peching, Tovey would hold forth explaining, demonstrating, digressing, digressing from his digressions, ramming home his arguments with endless musical examples [ne’re a book opened]; no let-up until the full cycle of a brilliant rhetorical discourse had finalised and completed itself.

Tovey was the kind of professor who lectured all the time; even his conversations were in modo lecturo. For years I travelled most Tuesdays to Edinburgh to attend his lectures and rehearsal practices with the Reid Orchestra. These latter were unique in the history of musical education in Britain. Ever so often Tovey would interrupt his rehearsals to draw the attention to his student audience, armed with a miniature score of the work being rehearsed, to various points of interest in the instrumentation - and repeat the passage for our benefit. His orchestral rehearsals and concerts could be very curious affairs; he would find out that say- the scherzo of Schubert's second symphony had never quite been interpreted according to the requirements of the composer: he would then proceed to spend 9/10th of all rehearsal time on this one movement, leaving the rest of the symphony and the programme to take care of itself at the performance. After the rehearsals he would walk me across Nicholson Street ("The only exercise I get, do you mind?") to Lower High Street, passed John Knox's house, on to Holyrood Palace and with our feet treading on heavenly grass across the Braids, until we reached the noted example of Georgian architecture, the semi-circular Royal Terrace, where Tovey lived at No 39. All the time we walked, he never ceased talking discoursing at Encyclopaedia Britannica level, (the 12th edition edited by another Dr. Chisholm). Lunch included a glass or two of wine, after which we would go to the music room with it’s two concert-grand pianos, an Emmanuel Moor double keyboard piano and miles of shelves lined with definitive editions of the classics. Tovey would look at some of my work-compositions of mine - which only served as a peg for the Professor to hang another lecture on. Its not the first time that under the soporific effect of the wine, I have dozed off, to awaken even three quarters of an hour later, and find the unsuspecting Tovey talking happily away to himself.

Tovey was every inch the absent-minded Professor. On one occasion, after waiting impatiently for the best part of an hour for the arrival of his wife so we could begin lunch, Tovey finally pressed a button and summoned the maid, saying "Do tell Lady Tovey we are waiting for her". "Lady Tovey?" exclaimed the maid looking blank "Yes, Lady Tovey" replied Tovey with some irritation. I have to be back at the school at 3, you know. "But Sir" exclaimed the astonished maid "Have you forgotten that Lady Tovey went to visit her sister three weeks ago?" With "Oh's, Ah's and Ers" spluttering from Tovey we sat down to a two-some lunch.

Tovey was the protégé of a quite extraordinary character, a Miss Weisse, who took charge of his musical and general education when he was a child of four, and was his guardian angel - and the opposite-throughout his life. "Both my parents" wrote Tovey 50 years later, "were and remained completely unmusical. Miss Weisse developed my musical capacity in the face of constant opposition. I remember my first piano lessons from her, comprising some "This little piggy went to market" finger exercises which eventually turned out to be fundamental composition in Deppe’s 5 Pianoforte Method which, in its turn, was the foundation (by coincidence or influence) of Tobias Matthay's method, now the Athanasian Creed of British Pianists. Until I was about 12, Miss Weisse had to deal with some scepticism as to whether I was really musical, some doubt as to whether I was "all there" and strenuous opposition to every step she took in my education."

I met Miss Weisse on only one occasion; at a party at Tovey's house. She certainly was a highly charged, domineering and very possessive old dragon who obviously adored her famous pupil but whose crass tactlessness and general bossiness on more than one occasion nearly ruined Tovey's professional career; to everyone else but him she was a pain in the neck. Tovey's second "wife" was a Miss Clara Wallace; Tovey had known her from childhood, for they had both been pupils at Miss Weisse’s private school. "Imagine my horror", Miss Weisse confided to me, (and to how many more besides?) "Imagine my horror, Dr. Chisholm, when I heard that my most brilliant pupil, Donald Tovey, was about to marry Clara Wallace, my very worst pupil."

Tovey was a stupendous pianist, with a large following of admirers. What he may have lacked in delicacy and subtlety of nuance, was amply compensated by great intelligence and breadth of conception. I remember being in London in the late 20’s, when he announced a series of ten historical recitals at the Wigmore Hall. When I went along leisurely to Keith Prowse to buy a season ticket, I found the whole series had been sold out in 24 hours.

I was present on the memorable occasion when Tovey lectured on, and then performed, The Diabelli Variations (which play for 50 minutes) at a meeting of the Incorporated Society of Musicians. The audience - mostly professional music teachers - were most enthusiastic about the brilliant, erudite and amusing lecture they had been listening to; and later became even more so about Tovey’s playing. There was thunderous applause which went on and on, until at last the lady president approached Tovey saying to him sweetly "Won’t you please play something more for us?" "With pleasure" replied the Professor and sitting down at the piano repeated the whole Diabelli Variations, including repeats. Fifty minutes later, the applause was enthusiastic but guarded.

I find that some German musicians object to Tovey’s irrepressible sense of humour getting, they say, in the way of brilliant analytical writings, but after Tovey's death, Arthur Schnabel sent me a letter in which he said "They just don’t make musician of Tovey’s calibre any more."

In her biography of Tovey, Dr. Mary Grierson who was his senior lecturer at Edinburgh for many years is given to gloss over some of the less ennobling episodes of her hero’s life. One of these episodes was when Pablo Casals, the world’s greatest male cellist, and Donald Tovey came to blows over Guilhermina Suggia, the world’s greatest female cellist and Casal's young and very beautiful wife. Casals and Suggia possessed more than their fair share of temperament, and Tovey had as hot a temper as the Spaniard. Apparently Suggia flirted outrageously with Tovey who responded as best he could. Catching them together, Casals, in a blazing moment of bull-fighting rage, tore into Tovey who put up his mitts and retaliated. It was all most distressing and would have been a calamity if the estrangement had become permanent. All this happened before the First World war the outcome of the matter was that someone whispered to Casals that his friend was not really interested in his wife, nor in any woman at all, for that matter (Tovey’s first marriage was annulled) and the Englishman and the Spaniard each had a big laugh and became the closest of friends again. Tovey's last work. his cello concerto, is dedicated to Casals, who gave it its first and subsequent performances, and Tovey’s picture still hangs above the famous cellist’s desk in Prades, where he has been a voluntary political exile since the Spanish Civil War. "He was the greatest musician we had" says Casals, with tears standing in his eyes.

Tovey was an exceptionally kind, gentle and sympathetic person, he had endless patience with his students, some of whom commenced working for their music degree with only the scantiest of musical backgrounds. His examination questions were not always orthodox however. Take this one for example:

Set the following as a three-part round for equal voices:
There was a young lady of Rio
Who tried to play Hummel's Grand Trio
But her pace was so scanty
She took it Andante
Instead of Allegro con brio

As an outstanding personality, and a multi-gifted musician, it was Tovey's misfortune, - if misfortune is the right word - to be surrounded by groups of loyal and devoted but quite uncritical admirers: a fate which overtook, among others, Busoni, Schnabel and Casals, in our time. This hero worship of a great man can have a nauseating effect and create antagonism in those who are not of ‘the clique,' and perhaps it is as well that, from time to time, some good, honest debunking of the "Holier-than-Thou" should occur. As long ago as 1907, an article called "The Most Holy Kingdom of Tovey" appeared in "Vanity Fair", beginning:

"Mr. Donald Tovey" (he was then 32) "notwithstanding his comparative youth, is undoubtedly one of the most learned musicians in Europe. But to the writer he is interesting primarily as a symbol: for there have gathered around him a band of the elect, few in number, but not devoid of social importance, who have formed a sort of monastic order, holding themselves haughtily aloof from the rest of the musical world, despising their enemies and praying for them with about equal earnestness. These reactionary purists have enthroned Mr. Tovey as their King, and their Pope. His authority remains unquestioned. His infallibility is established by divine right of the Joachim succession. Now the Capital of this State is, of course, at Oxford, where else possible? - but from time to time we heretical barbarians in London receive missions to convince us by personal example of the hopeless levity of our ways. At the present time, there is a nunciature extraordinary established at the Chelsea Town Hall, where every Wednesday, the Great Man himself instructs us how to play Beethoven, Brahms and Mozart. After all, London might reform Oxford, Oxford has reformed us so often!" The article is anonymous, but had it appeared in 1927 and not 1907, its author might well have been Constant Lambert, who always became frightfully bad-tempered whenever he thought or spoke or wrote about Tovey.

Sir Donald Tovey at Hedenham Lodge, August 1935, the beautiful little Queen Anne house in Norfolk, where Tovey spent many summers and did most of his composing
Casals and Tovey in Barcelona
Casals and Tovey in Barcelona, in the same year. Casals had created an orchestra of his own there, and invited Tovey to conduct his Cello Concerto with Casals as soloist. At a second concert, Tovey played the Beethoven G major concerto with Casals conducting. Later Tovey's hands became severely crippled with arthritis, and he found the effort of piano playing very painful. I remember he used to present a tentative finger in place of a hand-shake
On the left is Albert Schweitzer; Donald Tovey on the right, and Casals centre - 1934. Schweitzer was in Edinburgh delivering the Gifford lectures in theology, Casals to play Tovey's Cello Concerto. Both Schweitzer and Casals had previously received D Mus. degrees in absentia, from Edinburgh: this is the first time they had assembled and Tovey took the opportunity of dressing them up in what he described as their "spangles and tights" to have this photograph taken