Donald Tovey’s piano playing is brought to life

Posted by Susan Tomes on 11 January 2019 under Books, Inspirations  •  1 Comment

One of my Christmas presents was a memoir, ‘Divided Loyalties – a Scotswoman in occupied France’ by Janet Teissier du Cros. It was written by an Edinburgh-born woman who married a Frenchman and spent the years of the Second World War in the Cévennes region of France during the German occupation.

In her Edinburgh years, the author was a talented young pianist who studied with Donald Tovey, then professor of music at Edinburgh University. Tovey is now remembered mainly for his essays on musical analysis, but he considered himself a practising musician first and foremost. In fact, many of his essays started life as programme notes for concerts which he himself conducted. He was also a composer and a fine pianist who played recitals with many leading international performers (Casals, Jelly d’Aranyi) when they visited Edinburgh.

Janet Teissier du Cros gives a wonderful portrait of Tovey’s piano-playing which evokes it more vividly than I’ve seen elsewhere. I am a fan of Tovey’s writing on music, but hadn’t really grasped what a superb performer he was:

‘To say that he unwittingly bewitched me with his playing, as Othello bewitched Desdemona with his story-telling, would be an understatement. It was something even beyond that. I believe that no-one who heard Tovey play when he was at the height of his powers will ever forget the experience, or cease to feel that there was something there which no other pianist possessed. Not only had he the great executant’s powers; he understood the whole genesis of what he was playing, it spoke to him in the language he best understood and initiated him into the composer’s inmost thoughts, those he could never express in words.

‘Both his understanding – not the cerebral appreciation of the musicologist, but the re-creation of a fellow artist – and his emotion were things he succeeded in transmitting more directly than any other player I ever heard. For as long as he played he made you a person far superior to what in fact you were, and the language became intelligible to you too, which before had simply been intoxicating sound.

‘Every now and then at a crucial moment, it might be some unexpected modulation that cut the ground from under your feet and plunged you reeling and giddy into the fourth dimension, or a blazing forth in the major mode of some tragic minor theme, its message of hope no sooner uttered than you were cast down again by a return to the minor key; whatever it was, you were always warned to the tiptoe of attention by a fleeting glance of blue fire from Tovey’s wide-apart eyes, and for a brief moment you were absorbed into him and understood not with your own heart and mind but with his.’  Janet Teissier du Cros, ‘Divided Loyalties, p11

TLS review of ‘Speaking the Piano’

Posted by Susan Tomes on 5 January 2019 under Books, Reviews  •  1 Comment

The Times Literary Supplement of January 4 has a lovely review of my book ‘Speaking the Piano‘.

Because of the subscriber paywall, only a snippet of the review is publicly accessible online, but here’s a photo of the review as it appears in print.

And here’s an excerpt:

‘Tomes is a celebrated classical pianist, renowned for her communicative musicianship and her engaging writing on music. This, her fifth book, explores the role of teacher and pupil in mastering this grandest and most bewitching of musical instruments, ‘with its enormous bulk and its heroic air of solitude.’ Part manual, part memoir, part philosophical treatise on the intellectual and emotional rigours of musical performance, the book darts back and forth in time as Tomes recounts her musical journey. …
Fascinating … Tomes is at ease with the paradox of writing about music, that most ineffable of art forms.’

The reviewer, writer Kate Wakeling, was kind enough to tweet that ‘It was a joy to write about Susan Tomes’s wise and gentle book for the TLS.’

Getting dark as you play


Scotsman preview of 2019’s concerts

Posted by Susan Tomes on 3 January 2019 under Concerts  •  Leave a comment

The year got off to a flying start with a mention of Winterplay in The Scotsman‘s preview of concerts to look forward to in 2019.

After talking about the Edinburgh International Festival, it goes on to say:

‘On a far smaller scale, though just as rewarding, is pianist Susan Tomes’s Winterplay mini-festival, which returns to Edinburgh’s Queen’s Hall on 16 February. With a children’s music and movement workshop, a piano and literature afternoon with Tomes and novelist Janice Galloway, and finally a starry trio performance with Tomes, violinist Erich Höbarth and cellist Philip Higham, Winterplay is a bold, brilliantly broad-ranging addition to the capital’s festivals.’

In addition to the events mentioned in The Scotsman, there’s also a pre-concert talk (free to ticket-holders) at 6.30pm by Robert Philip whose previous talks have drawn a large audience.

Winterplay is on Saturday 16 February 2019. Tickets are available online or through the Queen’s Hall box office (0131 668 2019). Join us for this celebration of chamber music!

The dark days of February have been indelibly brightened by Winterplay’. The Scotsman, 2018

A New Year wish for musicians everywhere

Posted by Susan Tomes on 31 December 2018 under Inspirations, Musings  •  Leave a comment

The last live music I heard in 2018, outside my home, was some excellent jazz in a city bar (pianist Brian Kellock and bassist Kenny Ellis). The bar was buzzing with people enjoying long lunches and toasting the end of the year. Crockery clattered and the coffee machine hissed. The music was merrily applauded, but naturally not everyone was there for the music.

The musicians were on great form. It struck me that if I’d had some high-quality recording equipment about my person, I could have captured something that would please jazz fans anywhere.

In classical music, when you play in public you’re usually on a stage with a good piano and an audience trained to listen. Everything’s arranged so that music is paramount and the performer is seen and heard.

By contrast, for a serious musician it is no easy matter to play in a dark corner, keeping your spirits high while people troop in and out, letting in a blast of cold air with each swing of the door. Some pay attention, others sit with their back to you and tell jokes. The players could simply coast along, making musical small-talk.

But week after week these musicians, and others like them in other bars, create a bubble of concentration and give the music their all. I don’t mean they play loudly; I mean they think creatively and intensively. There’s a risk that their most glorious phrases may be lost in the hubbub, but they keep the faith. And with luck there are usually people in the crowd who are keenly aware of what’s going on and grateful that it is.

So here’s to all musicians who, no matter what the surroundings  are, find a way to keep making real music. Happy New Year.

Limelight review of Speaking the Piano

Posted by Susan Tomes on 21 December 2018 under Books, Reviews  •  Leave a comment

Australia’s leading arts magazine, Limelight, carries a review of my book Speaking the Piano

‘Tomes offers warm, thoughtful insights into the art of teaching’

‘Speaking the Piano explores more than simply the nuts and bolts of mastering an instrument – it tries to harness the ineffable magic of making music, and the ways in which that magic can be transmitted or made accessible to others.

This is Tomes’s fifth book. Her previous publications all explored the life and work of a professional musician, but here she tackles the more egalitarian issues of teaching and learning, whether for an aspiring concert pianist or an amateur musician playing for the pleasure of it. … In warm, elegant prose, Tomes contemplates topics from how to inspire musical imagination to how to get a handle on the subtleties of different musical styles, taking a conversational tone with plenty of demonstrative anecdotes thrown in.

… Tomes’s wide-ranging book is thoughtfully written, with a lot of heart. It doesn’t provide definitive answers to many of the questions it (and indeed the art and craft of learning to play music) throws up – in many ways it’s more memoir than methodology. But what it does offer is plenty of food for thought, new ways in, and different angles born of experience and careful observation. A worthwhile read for music teachers, students and anyone looking for ways to enrich their own musical journey.’

Angus McPherson, Limelight magazine, Australia