Donald Francis Tovey

born on 17/7/1875 in Eton, England, United Kingdom

died on 10/7/1940 in Edinburgh, Scotland, United Kingdom

Donald Francis Tovey

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Sir Donald Francis Tovey (17 July 1875 –10 July 1940) was a British musical analyst, musicologist, writer on music, composer and pianist. He is best known for his Essays in Musical Analysis.


Tovey began to study the piano and compose at an early age. He eventually studied composition with Hubert Parry.

Tovey became a close friend of Joseph Joachim, and played piano with the Joachim Quartet in a 1905 performance of Johannes Brahms' Piano Quintet. He gained some moderate fame as a composer, having his works performed in Berlin and Vienna as well as London. He performed his own Piano Concerto under the conductorship of Henry Wood in 1903 and under Hans Richter in 1906. 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 began to teach music at the University of Edinburgh and there he founded 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.

Tovey began to compose and perform less often later in life. In 1913 he composed a symphony, in 1935 he wrote a Cello Concerto for Pablo Casals and he also wrote an opera, The Bride of Dionysus. 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.

Tovey made several editions of other composers' music and in 1931 produced a completion of Johann Sebastian Bach's The Art of Fugue. His edition of the 48 Preludes and Fugues of Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier, in two volumes (Vol. 1, March 1924; Vol. 2, June 1924), with fingering by Harold Samuel, for the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music, has been reprinted continually ever since.

Tovey was knighted in 1935. He died in 1940 in Edinburgh.

Tovey as a theorist of tonality

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, as well as in more technical and extended writings. 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 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 aesthetic that can be deduced from the internal evidence of the music itself has influenced subsequent writers on music.


  • The recording of The Art of Fugue with the Roth String Quartet (1934-1935) has Tovey's conjectural completion of the work, played by Tovey on the piano.
  • There is an acoustic recording of Beethoven's 10th Violin Sonata in G major, Op. 96) played by the violinist Adila Fachiri, with Tovey at the keyboard, made for the National Gramophonic Society (NGS-114-117) during the early 1920s.[1] This is the celebrated recording in which, during the first movement, after playing the exposition, the musicians stop playing and Tovey calls out 'Return to the beginning of the record. Second time...' (and then resumes playing), so that the listener shall (literally) have the da capo.
  • Symphony in D, Op. 32 (1913): Reid Orchestra, cond. Donald F. Tovey, rec. 25 February 1937. SYMPOSIUM #1352; also:Malmö Opera Orchestra, cond. George Vass - with
  • The Bride of Dionysus - Prelude. TOCCATA #TOCC 0033
  • Piano Concerto in A, Op. 15: Steven Osborne, piano; BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, cond. Martyn Brabbins, HYPERION #CDA 67023
  • Cello Concerto, Op. 40 (1935). Pablo Casals, BBC Symphony Orchestra. rec. 1937. SYMPOSIUM #1115; also: Alice Neary, Cello, Ulster Orchestra, cond. George Vass TOCCATA #TOCC 0038
  • Elegiac Variations for cello and piano, Op. 25, Alice Neary (cello) and Gretel Dowdeswell (piano) TOCCATA #TOCC 0038
  • Cello Sonata in F, Op. 4, Rebecca Rust (cello) & David Apter (piano), MARCO POLO #8.223637


  1. R. D. Darrell, The Gramophone Shop Encyclopedia of Recorded Music (New York 1936), 45.

Selected publications and links

This page was last modified 26.07.2009 06:24:23

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