Sunday, 4 March 2012

By way of a prelude

As you might have gathered, I do like reading about music as well as listening to and writing about it. In my younger days I would often toddle off to Lancaster Library and borrow any book on the subject, however fusty its appearance. My favourites were the dustily-titled Essays in Musical Analysis by Donald Francis Tovey. The six volumes of what were essentially programme notes covered symphonies, variations, concertos, programme music and vocal music, containing some once-famous tours-de-force on the Beethoven symphonies. A seventh on chamber music was published as an appendix. I loved them. They have fallen into severe neglect in recent decades, even going out of print, though piano students might possibly recognise the name and come under its owner's influence from the Associated Board of the Royal College of Music's Complete Beethoven Piano Sonatas series, where Tovey's wise words still introduce each and every sonata. I read some review recently (in the All Music Guide) describing Tovey, in passing, as 'over-rated' and felt my blood pressure shoot up. Yes, he may be prone to purple passages (like me?), but his pioneering way of looking at music was highly influential. Perhaps he does appeal to autodidacts, such as myself, but his cultured (rather that drily academic) approach to writing about music, above all music he loved, is surely more what those who want to read about music would prefer, writing that isn't dumbed-down but can be approached with a bit of effort by non-specialists?

Anyhow, all this is merely a prelude to a prelude - namely the Prelude to Tovey's opera The Bride of Dionysus. Yes, Tovey was also a composer. You would hope that someone who writes so well and with such authority on music would also be able to compose good music and I think this short prelude provides some evidence of that. It is noble in character and its paragraphing is expertly handled in a seamless structure of strongly contrapuntal writing, coloured with the warmth of Brahms and sharing something of the mood of the glorious Transformation Scene from Wagner's Parsifal, ever-evolving through thematic development and harmonic adventure, achieving radiance at its climax and ending with a solo violin's song. Beautiful. 

Among British composers, his soundworld seems closest to that of his friend, Hubert Parry (of Jerusalem and Wills and Kate's Wedding fame). There's only one more Tovey video on YouTube. It an Air for Strings from his Air and Variations in B flat, Op.22 and shows the same warmth and craftsmanship as, say, Parry's English Suite  or Lady Radnor Suite 

Yes, Donald Francis Tovey is a Neglected British Composer who I'd like to hear a lot more of. Time for a trip to Amazon with a credit card then!

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