Sunday, July 14, 2013

Sir Donald Francis Tovey

In these days when we have rather a different kind of musician being knighted, I'm thinking of Sir Paul McCartney and Sir Mick Jagger, it is worthwhile recalling when a musicologist could be honored in this way. Sir Donald Francis Tovey (1875 - 1940) was perhaps the greatest English musicologist. Musicology could be defined as covering all study of music other than performance and composition. Both music historians and theorists are musicologists. In order to obtain your doctorate in musicology you normally have to sit exams that require a near-comprehensive knowledge of music.

Sir Donald Francis Tovey

There is the story of the Oxford don who, while traveling in Italy, was told about a statue of the Virgin Mary that wept tears at certain times of the year. He was taken to the alcove of the church where the statue stood and shown a small puddle of moisture at its base. Leaning down, he tested the liquid with his tongue and after a few moments thought stated very clearly: "bat urine!" It is this kind of astonishing expertise shown by the older generation of British intellectuals that I associate with Donald Francis Tovey. His red-jacketed Essays in Musical Analysis devoted to various genres used to be found in most bookstores. But now most of his writings are out of print. The essays began life as very knowledgeable program notes to his own concerts conducting the Reid Orchestra in Edinburgh in the 1930s. I suppose I feel a certain kinship with him because I spend a certain amount of time writing program notes for two different concert series.

Tovey's career in musicology predates the current model. In his day musicology was not so much a career as a cultural calling. But now we have hoards of professional musicologists who are anything but broadly cultural and whose knowledge is narrowly specialized.

One of the best collections of his writings is available online here. Unfortunately all the musical examples are missing so sometimes you have to fill in the blanks. But still it is well-worth reading. I will  put some quotations below that seemed particularly interesting to me as I was browsing through the essays. Here is a passage in which he describes how the string quartet grew out of the street music of the mid-18th century:
Though all the important chamber music before Haydn was designed on the continuo hypothesis, it would be a mistake to suppose that Haydn started without experience of what could be done by instruments unsupported by keyboard harmony. Such experience was familiar to him in the music of the streets. Serenading was a favourite pastime, enjoyed as much by listeners as by players. One of Haydn's boyish practical jokes consisted in arranging for several serenade parties to perform different music in earshot of each other, to the annoyance, not only of a respectable neighbourhood, but of an adjoining police station. Serenade music consisted naturally of dance tunes, marches, and lyric ariosos.
Regarding Schubert:
Schubert's masters at the ... court-chapel choir-school, have been severely blamed for neglecting his education and allowing him to compose without restraint. One of these masters left on record the honest remark that when he tried to teach Schubert anything, he found the boy knew it already.
Regarding the very young Schubert's setting of "Gretchen am Spinnrade" from Goethe's Faust:
Gretchen am Spinnrade is a far more astonishing achievement for a boy of seventeen than Erlkonig. If, for the sake of argument, we summon up the naive impertinence to ask where this shy choir-boy, absorbed incessantly in writing and only just out of school, could have obtained the experience, not of Faust, but of the victim of Faust and Mephistopheles, the answer is not easily guessed; for Faust, though published, had not yet been presented on the stage. 
 Regarding tonality:

Music, which often combines the symmetry of architecture with the emotional range of drama, has the misfortune to be accurately describable only in technical terms peculiar to itself. Chiaroscuro, values, perspective, are experiences in the ordinary use of human eyes, apart from the art of painting which turns them to its own artistic purposes. Architectural concepts are deeply rooted in the minds of persons innocent of technical knowledge : the human being knows his own size, and the intellect of Macaulay is not severely taxed by the discovery that nothing could be more vile than a pyramid only thirty feet high. But with music a conception so elementary and vital to the art of Beethoven as classical tonality is
utterly unidentifiable by anybody without some practice in actually reading music...
If I could translate this somewhat Victorian English into a more modern form, Tovey is here pointing out that the basic concepts of architecture are fairly easily described, but not so the basic concepts of musical architecture: tonality. They can only be described with the music itself and with technical terms directly related to the music.

Let me end with a performance of that song by the seventeen year old Franz Schubert: "Gretchen am Spinnrade" sung by Kiri Te Kanawa accompanied by Richard Amner:

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