As with his Essays in Musical Analysis, my thoughts on which are here, Sir Donald Francis Tovey's writing in this collection can reward even the lessAs with his Essays in Musical Analysis, my thoughts on which are here, Sir Donald Francis Tovey's writing in this collection can reward even the less well-informed among his readers, which includes me. Generally he relies on an understanding of basic concepts, but here and there he outlines them for the sake of clarity. So, for instance, before launching into an essay on tonality in Schubert, he offers a very simple explanation of what he means by tonality, which remains the best analogy I've come across: he calls it "the harmonic perspective of music," and he means it in a rather exact way. He goes on to explain that "In the classical harmony which comprises Handel's and Schubert's aesthetics the key of a piece is like the point of view, or the vanishing point, of a picture." Of course, that requires you to understand the meaning of perspective in the pictorial arts, but if you don't you should.
As I said in the review linked above, Tovey is simply a fine writer. He can give you a feel for much of the richness, variety, and intricacy of music, even if the details escape you, and he can elegantly teach you a good deal of what you don't already know....more
The essays in this collection were originally written as program notes for concerts conducted by Sir Donald Francis Tovey. Exceeding in length, linguiThe essays in this collection were originally written as program notes for concerts conducted by Sir Donald Francis Tovey. Exceeding in length, linguistic flair, and use of score excerpts anything commonly published as program notes nowadays, they're valuable just for those reasons. As the origin of these volumes suggests, Sir Donald didn't intend the complete set to be read straight through, but rather piece by piece, as occasion proposes, and that's how I used them when I obtained the set some years ago.
I believe I still have them in storage elsewhere but can't refer to them now. Some of its insights remain with me, though. He wrote of Beethoven's last symphony (I recalled this nearly verbatim but confirmed it independently) that "half the musical miseducation in the world comes from people who know that the Ninth Symphony begins on the dominant of D minor"--in fact, the key isn't immediately clear, and the initial ambiguity is important. His remark that "The great composers can’t show you how to get out of a corner, because they never get into one," may have been somewhere in these volumes as well, though it may have come from another book of his I intend to list, The Main Stream of Music and Other Essays.
A much better appreciation of Tovey's collection than I can provide is online here. Incidentally, the original hardcovers are out of print but still available from resellers, and OUP has reissued this material with what I think is extra essays (including chamber music) as a three-volume paperback set. I'm a schlub when it comes to reading music, but I managed to make out at least some of the score excerpts Tovey quotes; similarly, I'm poorly educated when it comes to terms like "ritornello" or entire forms such as the chorale, but Tovey's glossary, in Volume 6, helps. If you have a grasp of some of the principles and are willing to learn more, you can gain much from Tovey, in part because he knows music from the inside and in part because he's simply a fine writer....more