in praise of sir donald

Donald Francis Tovey, that is. Know him? He was a musicologist and composer, active in the UK during the first third of the twentieth century. But that potted description doesn’t do justice to his writings about music: always perceptive, insightful, erudite — and witty. Here’s a DFT classic, on Beethoven:

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.

Beethoven, Oxford University Press 1945.

I first made my acquaintance when, early in my teens, I bought a copy of the Associated Board edition of the Bach’s 48 Preludes and Fugues: the Well-Tempered Clavier. Each Prelude and Fugue is preceded by a short essay, describing the musical and technical challenges, form and interpretation, and including such bon mots as this:

The old reading that adds a low B-flat octave in an additional bar is perhaps the most Philistine single printed chord in the whole history of music.

The tempo is lively enough for the last four bars to give considerable trouble, however they are fingered.

both from Forty-Eight Preludes and Fugues, J. S. Bach, Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music, in print since 1924.

And I haven’t even mentioned his Companion to Beethoven’s Pianoforte Sonatas, or the best essay ever conceived on the piano concertos of Mozart. Sir Donald was writing 100 years ago, with knowledge and humility: a potent combination.

practising beethoven with a dog in the house

waiting for Beethoven

You know the old joke: “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” “Practice, practice, practice.”

We musicians have a strange relationship with practising: we know it has to be done, but we develop a wide range of strategies not to do it. Procrastination is one of the most effective, but anxiety over the fast-approaching performance is usually sufficient to overcome the inertia. Strangely, the gift of an empty day with ‘nothing to do but practise’ is sometimes less productive than a concentrated hour or so snatched from a busy schedule.

Gary Graffman, the concert pianist, wrote a memoir called I Really Should be Practicing. I recently saw a flow chart posted near a music studio— a sort of list of activity choices. No matter what you chose, the result was the same: “Go practise.” Artur Rubenstein was well known for choosing partying over practising; and Fritz Kreisler had to be ‘encouraged’ by his wife and friends to open his violin case. He sometimes said he’d check, shortly before a concert, to make sure it still had four strings on it. Jascha Heifetz was more disciplined: “If I don’t practise for a day, I notice; two days, the critics notice; three days, everybody notices.”

I have a partner in my practising: our resident Border collie/Australian shepherd. At first he seemed only to notice violin music, but now he’s expanding his repertoire. Just about any music, but particularly Beethoven, provokes not only howling, but warbling, keening and vocalizing of impressive range. I can hear him warming up ahead of his favourite passages.

It doesn’t stop me from practising, and I sometimes feel a responsibility to keep both of us in shape. For more about dogs and Beethoven, see Billy Collins’ hilarious poem Another Reason I Don’t Keep a Gun in the House.