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Donald Francis Tovey (Composer, Arranger)

Born: July 17, 1875 - Eton, England
Died: July 10, 1940 - Edinburgh, Scotland, UK

The eminent English music scholar, pianist, and composer, Sir Donald (Francis) Tovey, began to study the piano and compose at an early age. He studied privately with Sophie Weisse (piano), Parratt (counterpoint), and James Higgs and Hubert Parry (composition) until 1894, when he won the Nettleship scholarship at Balliol College, Oxford; graduated with Classical Honours (BA, 1898).

Donald Francis Tovey became a close friend of Joseph Joachim, and in 1894 appeared as a pianist with him. Subsequently he performed regularly with the Joachim Quartet, including a 1905 performance of Johannes Brahms' Piano Quintet. He gained some moderate fame as a composer. In 1900-1901 he gave a series of chamber music concerts in London, at which he performed several of his own works, and in 1901-1902 he gave similar concerts in Berlin and Vienna. He played his Piano Concerto in 1903 under Henry J. Wood and in 1906 under Hans Richter. Then he was an active participant in the concerts of the Chelsea Town Hall and of the Classical Concert Society. 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 succeeded Niecks as Reid Professor of music at the University of Edinburgh, and in 1917 founded there 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. He made his USA debut as a pianist in 1925, and in 1927-1928 presented a series of concerts with renowned guest artists in Edinburgh. He began to compose and perform less often later in life. 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. In 1935 he was knighted.

Though highly esteemed as a composer, Donald Francis Tovey was most widely known as a writer and lecturer on music, his analytical essays being models of their kind. 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 J. 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.

Besides much chamber music and several piano pieces (a sonata, Balliol Dances for 4-hands, etc.), Donald Francis Tovey composed an opera, The Bride of Dionysus (Edinburgh, April 23, 1929); Symphony (1913); Cello Concerto (Edinburgh, November 22, 1934, Pablo Casals soloist, composer conducting). Tovey made several editions of other composers' music and in 1931 produced a completion of J.S. Bach's Die Kunst der Fuge (BWV 1080).


(All published in London)
A Companion to the Art of the Fugue (1931)
Essays in Musical Analysis (6 volumes, 1935-1939)
with G. Parratt, WaIter Parratt: Master of Music (1941)
A Musician Talks (1941)
H. Foss, editor: Essays in Musical Analysis: Chamber Music (1944)
idem, editor: Musical Anicles from the Encyclopaedia Britannica (1944)
idem, editor: Beethoven (1944)
A Companion to Beethoven's Piano Sonatas (1948)
H. Foss, editor: Essays and Lectures on Music (1949)

Source: Baker’s Biographical Dictionary of 20th Century Classical Musicians (1997); Wikipedia Website
Contributed by
Aryeh Oron (July 2007)

Donald Francis Tovey: Short Biography | Piano Transcriptions: Works | Recordings

Links to other Sites

Donald Francis Tovey (Wikipedia)
Sir Donald Francis Tovey (Edinburgh University)
Sir Donald Francis Tovey (Encyclopaedia Britannica)

Donald Francis Tovey Biography (Naxos)
Donald Francis Tovey (1875-1940) (Karadar)


M. Grierson: Donald Francis Tovey (London, 1952)

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