Ronald Stevenson - pianist, composer, Scot.

January 3, 2016

On the evening of Monday 2nd November 2015 I gave an informal talk on Ronald Stevenson’s work for the Salisbury Recorded Music Society.  The SRMS are an interesting bunch of people enthusiastic about classical music and, more to the point, broadening and deepening their knowledge of the same through hearing ‘old favourites’ through different recordings (in a sort of live ‘CD Review’ type seminar), or works new to them entirely.  The talks are given by members of the society, or guest speakers who tend to be either fellow enthusiasts, or experts in a particular field.  Among their number include the likes of the former president of the International Elgar Society, to give you an idea of the kind of expertise among them.

Given my ongoing interest in the classical music of Scotland, and my unstinting belief that much of it just isn’t heard enough outwith its borders (I wonder how true this might be of small countries generally?), I figured it would make sense to talk about a figure who has become a bit of a musical hero of mine - Ronald Stevenson.  You can read my blog post for Toccata Classics in tribute to Stevenson on the Toccata blog (https://toccataclassics.com/christopher-guild-ronald-stevenson-legacy/) to see how I stumbled upon his work and how it piqued my interest in all that he achieved, and possibly will continue to achieve posthumously.  What struck me when I announced my plans for the evening to Ed Tinline, the SRMS secretary, was how few people had heard of Stevenson in Salisbury.

So off I went, and what follows now is a more refined version of the talk I gave that evening, complete with YouTube links to the recorded extracts I played.  It in no way tries to be the ultimate, comprehensive introduction to Ronald Stevenson (see Colin Scott-Sutherland’s symposium on the man published by Toccata Press for that - or the Ronald Stevenson Society website), but at least tries to give an idea of him primarily as a composer, as I currently perceive him.

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Introducing Ronald Stevenson

Passacaglia on DSCH (PARS PRIMA: Sonata Allegro)

 

This seems like a good place to start when introducing Ronald Stevenson to an audience which is widely listened, but might have only an inkling as to who he was.  Stevenson is famed for a few things in particular, but possibly mostly the work in question: his mighty Passacaglia for solo piano comes in at 80 minutes in length and is the longest, single continuous movement work in the repertoire.  Four recordings exist of it: two by Ronald Stevenson himself, one by the Australian-based Mark Gasser (whose PhD dissertation on Stevenson’s pianism is fascinating and free to download here: http://ro.ecu.edu.au/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1695&context=theses) and one by the young pianist James Willshire which you heard via the link above.  

Marjorie (Ronald’s widow) has said from the outset that this work, mostly written between 1960 and 1962, contains everything Stevenson knew about the piano.  Even just flicking through the score makes this evident: just about every musical style imaginable finds its way in to the work, including the use of extended techniques (playing inside the piano, directly on to the strings).  Shostakovich was one of the many contemporary musicians Stevenson greatly admired and this is a tribute to him; the work was dedicated to Shostakovich and the score was presented to him during his visit to the Edinburgh International Festival in 1963.

Something worth remarking on is that Stevenson’s literal representation of a revered figure by means of their initials in musical notation (D = D; S = Es or E-flat; C = C; H = B) is something he did in a lot of his works.  It’s not a new idea.  Bach ‘signed’ his own works with his initials (B(B-flat) - A - C - H(B-natural)), Liszt and Busoni among countless others have borrowed this same theme, and Stevenson paid homage in several of his works to his ‘master in absentia’ Ferruccio Busoni (F-B - see ‘Keening Sang for a Makar’ from A Scottish Triptych for solo piano, or Carlyle Suite for solo piano where this pops up discreetly).  It’s interesting to see the ways in which these very simple, but somehow monumental, little themes can be used as the basis for some fascinating musical development and it’s a great way to hold a gigantic work such as Stevenson’s Passacaglia all together.

Of course, this idea of borrowing an idea and using it for ones own original composition comes close to what one would define as transcription, and (to be brief) this is the other thing which Stevenson is famed for.  Although the Passacaglia is the most famed work of his, the most often played works would include the Peter Grimes Fantasy (obviously: utterly fantastic music known to the majority of concert-going audiences, and when condensed in to less than ten minutes it’s a great concert item for pianists - have a listen: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pSdrSeRbTqI).  Or, perhaps the Sonata Serenissima which, like the aforementioned, is dedicated to Britten.  

And, let’s be aware that Stevenson was a fine pianist.  That puts it mildly.
 


From the beginning: first major influences.

Born on 6th March 1928, Stevenson was the son of a Kilmarnock family relocated to Blackburn, Lancashire.  His father, a railway fireman, was Scottish, and his mother of Welsh descent.  Ronald was always “keenly aware of his Celtic heritage”, and from an early age was influenced by his father’s fine tenor singing voice.  He took piano lessons locally and, through connections of his teacher, auditioned for and successfully gained a place at the Royal Manchester College of Music at the age of 17.  He studied with Iso Ellinson, himself a student of Felix Blumenfeld who taught Vladimir Horowitz among others, and had the chance to meet fellow student John Ogden - the two were to remain lifelong friends and musical collaborators.  

The first big moment in Stevenson’s musical development, and which was to ultimately define the musical direction of his career, came one evening in 1947 as he settled himself in to a chair in an unoccupied train carriage compartment.  It was at a station in Manchester and the fog was thick outside.  In his bag he carried a copy of Busoni’s Doktor Faust, not a work nor a composer he had come across.  He opened it and began to read through it, and, as he himself told me in August 2013, he knew that it would be his life’s work.  This is what he heard (Sinfonia):

 

It’s easy to imagine how it would have gripped him, and also with the enhanced effect of the ghostly setting that night.

Stevenson took his leave from Busoni, from then on.  Composer, pianist, and transcriber of other people’s music.  This puts Stevenson very much in the mold of classical musicians of 100 years ago and further back, where the musician was much less specialised (narrow?) than what many of us have become.  Colin Scott Sutherland describes him as like the “Janus-headed artists of the past” in his symposium.  Having passed away only in March 2015, Stevenson was a musician out of his time partly for this reason, and partly for what he did within that general description.  In the mid-twentieth century, to write and perform music which takes its leave from Busoni, Liszt, Alkan, Paderewski (Paderewski!) was a tad anachronistic, and I wonder whether that’s partly why Stevenson didn’t achieve the kind of fame which I believe he deserved.  But, Stevenson approached his work always with a forward-thinking, revolutionising mindset.  John Ogden’s comment, in the foreword to the first edition of Stevenson’s Prelude, Fugue and Fantasy on Busoni’s ‘Faust’, is

    “Stevenson demonstrates Busoni’s concept of the essential oneness of music by unifying     apparently diverse strands of his musical thought.  Busoni’s musical philosophy was sometimes ambivalent since he combined respect for tradition with interest in experiment.  Mr Stevenson directs his own thought into classically-orientated forms, as if to prove that the future of music lies in the transformation of the past [...].  Its pianism is brilliant and sensitive, and its counterpoint holds one with a glittering eye.  The work is conceptually felt, yet its impulse is controlled analytically and its music symphonically organised.”

Just as Busoni took certain aesthetic principles of 19th century music and pushed them as far as he could, Stevenson did, in his own way.  It has to be noted that he held great disdain for modernist composers, claiming that melody in music reigned supreme.  (His hatred - not my choice of word - of Stravinsky is no secret, and he intensely disliked the music post-WWII which he felt wasn’t grounded in any kind of compositional technique.  There is a story somewhere that in his youth, he’d rise at 6am each morning and complete a set of counterpoint exercises before breakfast).

Through Stevenson’s original compositions even from the earliest years one can detect an individual voice.  In 1949 he wrote his Chorale Prelude for Jean Sibelius, and indeed sent Sibelius the score.  Sibelius wrote back, expressing how he liked it.  As I’ve said elsewhere online, the letter is available for all to see in the National Library of Scotland, Edinburgh.  It’s recorded here by the late Sheena Nicoll, and is now the second in a set of three shortish works called 3 Lyric Pieces. 

 

They are among the best works of Stevenson’s youth.  The album, ‘Rhapsody: Lyric Music of Ronald Stevenson’ is readily downloadable on iTunes, and elsewhere, but difficult to come by as a physical CD nowadays.  Try here, should you wish: https://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/B005G124X4?ie=UTF8&*Version*=1&*entries*=0

Iso Ellinson wasn’t quite the influence on Stevenson one might expect (given Ellinson’s musical pedigree), but one thing he did do was show the young student an example of recent British music which in some way was influenced by Celtdom.  I’ve already said how Stevenson remained faithful to his own Celtic heritage, so it must have been inspiring to see how Celtic culture could have in some way found its way in to the realm of art music.  The piece in question which opened another important door here was the Piano Sonata No.4 of Sir Arnold Bax.  Bax is a huguenot name (thank you to Curt Koenders for pointing this out to me!), but the family were descendants of wealthy Dutch businesspeople who had settled in Stretham, South London, at the time of Arnold’s birth.  Later in life Bax took a great interest in Irish culture, and its literature in particular (the poet Dermot o’Byrne?  Arnold Bax’s literary pseudonym!), and he spent much time at Morar, near Mallaig, W. Scotland, usually orchestrating many of his sketches.  He’s not a fashionable composer, and hasn’t been since his death I don’t think.  Stevenson championed unfashionable composers: if it was good music, it was good enough for him, regardless of who wrote it, and that’s partly what made his concert programmes so fascinating.  Here is the first movement of Bax’s fourth Sonata, given an exhilarating performance by Ashley Wass on Naxos:

 

 

 Towards maturity.

In the 1950's there was a brief spell spent in County Durham before Stevenson, with Marjorie (the couple had recently married) found teaching work in Edinburgh.  At this stage they found a handsome old house at the foot of the town of West Linton, Peebleshire (about 40 minutes or so south of the Scottish capital), and so there they settled.  Townfoot House, West Linton, with the big blue door, became their family home and hosting place for countless friends and musicians for the next 60-odd years, and still is today.

1955 saw Stevenson win a scholarship to travel to Rome, and study orchestration - and to further his research on Busoni.  He became one of the greatest Busoni scholars.  Stevenson wrote and presented a multi-part documentary on Busoni for BBC Radio Scotland in the ‘60s, and has authored many papers on him.  He knew Gerda, Busoni’s widow, well as he did many of Busoni’s last pupils, and has in his possession Busoni’s piano bench.  Plans are afoot over at Toccata Press for the publication of much of Stevenson’s research.

Not so long afterwards, Stevenson completed the work which he regarded as the pinnacle of his achievements as a composer thus far: his Prelude, Fugue and Fantasy on Busoni’s ‘Faust’ - and why not reach that apex with the material of the work which set him on such a course in the first place.  Completed in 1958, this has since found a new lease of life in the form of his Piano Concerto No.1.  The original version was premiered by John Ogden, and you can hear it in a live performance given by Stevenson himself in Vancouver, 1978, here:

 

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(Do also listen to the Piano Concerto No.1, with Murray MacLachlan as the soloist, found at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qH1MbFxCFHI).

The advocate of the lesser-known.

A friend of Busoni whom Stevenson met late in his life was the Swiss-Polish composer Czeslaw Marek (1891-1985).  His music can be found on a recital disc Stevenson made in the 1990s, and is an example of him championing works rarely heard or played.  Martin Anderson (owner of Toccata Classics/Toccata Press and a lifelong friend of the Stevenson’s) was instrumental in getting much of Marek’s music published back in the 1980s, so thankfully one can get hold of this wonderful music.  The piece in question is the Triptych, a large work in three distinct sections, each ending with a substantial fugue.  Dedicated to his father, it is a moving work.  I single out the Fantasia (the second section) as particularly touching and recommend it to you here:

 

Stevenson and Scotland.

I mentioned above the importance of Scotland to Stevenson, and how one source of Celtic inspiration was found in the work of Bax.  Stevenson had the immense fortune to meet one Christopher Murray Grieve, better known as Hugh MacDairmid, upon moving north of the border.  MacDairmid was one of the founding fathers of the Scottish Literary Renaissance, and indeed the Scottish National Party, and Stevenson was very much a Nationalist himself.  Stevenson set MacDairmid’s texts to music, and also wrote a striking solo piano piece in his honour, Heroic Song (the second piece in A Scottish Triptych).  I myself recorded this in 2014 and released it on Toccata Classics, but for the definitive version on record, hear Stevenson playing it himself:

 

 

In it, one can hear MacDairmid’s cackling laughter, and the vast wide-open spaces of the Scottish land.  Noticeable is the electronically-realised crescendo/diminuendo during the opening and closing sections.  The piece was commissioned by BBC Radio Scotland in 1967, and was premiered via radio broadcast.  The score instructs the performer(s?) to increase and decrease the microphone volume accordingly.  I myself tried this live in concert in Sheffield on 31st October 2015 with a friend and colleague of mine (and on my own recording), and I must say holding a magnifying glass up to the natural overtones of the piano in this way is quite an enchanting experience.  Piano overtones are something Stevenson plays with in quite a lot of his piano music, always in a way that’s convincingly integrated to the work’s conception and never as a kind of gimmick.

He was, of course, the advocate of other Scottish composers too.  Murray MacLachlan has recorded Stevenson’s transcriptions of Francis George Scott’s songs, for example, and Stevenson has persuaded many other younger musicians to take up the Scots’ musical cause.  One day in the late 1970s the soprano Evelyn Morrison, based in the Aberdeenshire town of Huntly, wrote to Stevenson enclosing a copy of the score to her recently deceased husband’s Piano Sonata.  The aforementioned was Ronald Center, an incredibly reclusive Aberdonian musician who was locally reputed to be a fine pianist, choir trainer, and a self-taught composer.  Stevenson played through the score of this quirky Sonata at home and immediately wrote back to Evelyn Morrison declaring “it is fine piano music...  It is the finest piano sonata to come out of Scotland”.  A big statement, but I for one would agree that it is a striking work worthy of the repertories of many more pianists than the number who presently know Center’s name.  

In 2013 I released the first commercial CD entirely devoted to Center’s piano music, and nearly all the works features had been previously unrecorded.  There was a kind of Center crusade in the late 70s/early 80s instigated by a group of students at Aberdeen University, and to this day the phenomenal Dr James Reid Baxter in particular (one of said students) flies the flag for Center and his cause.  As a result, even though Center is scarcely known, several musicians have recorded the Sonata, including Murray MacLachlan (Regis Records), Joseph Long (Deveron Arts) and Ronald Stevenson (Altarus; available as a ‘rip’ from the original LP via the Scottish Music Information Centre by request).  My recording of the first movement can be heard here - follow the links for the other movements should you wish:

 

Percy Grainger was a considerable influence as well, and Stevenson made many settings of Scots folk songs.  A Hebridean (South Uist) Folk Song Suite is a set of seven short pieces, probably aimed at children or less advanced pianists.  Each is a colourful setting of a song found in that wonderful tome of Western Isles culture, Folk Songs and Folklore from South Uist.  Its author, Margaret Fay Shaw, came from America to the Hebrides in her twenties and was so smitten by the islanders and their way of life that she settled and remained there until her death in 2005, aged 101.  She became to the outer isles what Cecil Sharp and Ralph Vaughan Williams both were to English folk culture.  Stevenson’s settings in the Suite are, as a set, “a day in the life of an island women”. 

 

In summary...

There is a lot more one could talk about regarding Ronald Stevenson.  Here I’ve only scratched the surface when it comes to his original compositions and transcriptions - and I’ve only looked at his works for piano.  There is so much more to learn.  He was, as the Telegraph described in his obituary, a musical polymath, and one could easily write books and books about his work.  I would encourage all readers of this blog to research more for themselves, and above all to LISTEN to what is available.  Regrettably not much of his music is still available on record.  Altarus recorded a great deal up until the 1990s, but even their releases are becoming hard to source.  Some have been completely sold out (Ronald Brautigam’s Scottish disc featuring a good deal of Stevenson has all but vanished).  But there’s always YouTube, as you can see, and there are some fascinating things beginning to appear on Ronald Stevenson.  The pianist Richard Black, I’ve noticed, has put some bootleg recordings of Stevenson in recital up, and they’re amazing (look him up playing the Moonlight Sonata, it’s terrific).  But I’ll finish here as I finished the talk in Salisbury by directing you to this, another item from Stevenson’s already mentioned 1978 Vancouver recital: Greshwin’s Love Walked In (arr. Grainger). 

 



 

 

 

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