The One That Started It All

On her About page, Miss Mussel acknowledges the influence of Sir Donald Francis Tovey. The real truth is that he is the reason this blog got started in the first place. Well, that and writing about reverse mortgages really tends to destroy rather than nourish Miss Mussel’s soul. Here’s how it went down:

One day in during the Spring of 2004, Miss Mussel was minding her own business in a practice room when her concentration suddenly slipped. Saint-Saens’ Morceau du Concert had lost what little appeal it had and her mind started to wander. Seeing nothing but grey skies and dreary concrete outside her window, Miss Mussel instead began to stare absently at the items in her little bubble. An empty bookshelf, the remnants of the previous occupant’s snack and a beat-up desk determined to soldier on for another fifty or so years, the broken drawer and deeply scratched top merely flesh wounds.

As she approached the bookshelf, Miss Mussel spotted an orange book likely left by some absent-minded pianist. It was the ABRSM edition of the Beethoven piano sonatas with annotation by one Sir Donald Francis Tovey. Here’s some of what he had to say about Piano Sonata Op 10 No.3 in D major.

“In some early editions, a very silly person inserted a crescendo leading to a fortimisso end. If people still exist who do not see the point of a pianissimo arpeggio without pedal and with an exact final crochet, why consider their interests?”

The words were like heaven. A perfect blend of cantankerous wit and joy. It was enough to show Miss Mussel that it was possible to talk about music without having her head stuck up her own ass. A critic could be funny and still credible. Even be knighted.

The wit and good humour of mid-century music books is largely absent from the much more serious (and, of course, more important…yawn) volumes written by late century commentators. Miss Mussel has a fairly large vocabulary but wading through Adorno or Said is impossible without all twenty volumes of the Unabridged OED open and at the ready.

Blogs, of course, have changed the scene entirely. Mischief makers such as Soho The Dog and Jeremy Denk regularly entertain as well as illuminate.


  1. I think I have the same edition of the Beethoven. From the notes for op. 26:

    “The custom of taking the variations in different tempi is bad…. A player who cannot find one tempo that suits the theme and all its five variations is like a princess who has not been trained to walk with royal self-possession over a wide space in front of her.”

    My very Russian piano teacher, incidentally, thought this was nonsense. But even he laughed.

  2. Pete Tindall

    Miss Mussel is right! Compare George Bernard Shaw in his alter ego as music critic (the nom de plume escapes me but you can read him in “GBS on Music”) with most modern criticism and see what a difference a little wit makes. One can even forgive his hagiography of Richard Wagner, a composer whose works are best enjoyed on Bugs Bunny cartoons.

  3. Pingback: The Omniscient Mussel on Classical Music & Culture » On The Other Hand

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