Donald Tovey’s piano playing is brought to life

11th January 2019 | 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

1 Comment

  1. Mary Cohen

    Now I understand better what a pianist friend meant when talking about her own teacher being ‘of the Tovey School of Playing’!


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *