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Ronald Stevenson, Francis George Scott, and the legacy of the Scottish Renaissance

The following is the transcript of a lecture given for the Musica Scotica conference in May 2019. This particular conference was in celebration of the 60th birthday year of Sir James Macmillan.

In lieu of musical illustrations being performed live, as in the lecture itself, please listen to each of the embedded audio tracks as you read. The professional recordings found via the links can be purchased here. At the time of posting (11 July, 2019), there are no footnotes, but I intend to add these in due course. Anyone reading this who wishes to verify references should contact me.


Hampshire, July 2019.

* * * * *

You just heard ‘Wha is that at my bower-door?’, a song-setting of Burns, by Francis George Scott (1880-1958), the Hawick-born composer of the Scottish Renaissance of the 1920s and ‘30s. It was transcribed by Ronald Stevenson (1928-2015). The two composers have a considerable amount in common, despite their generation gap, and the fact they never met. It is about both of them I will speak this afternoon. This will be with slight leaning towards the work of Stevenson from the 1950s and ‘60s. Stevenson was an artist with enormous wide-ranging influences and tastes, and it is impossible to discuss his work without referencing other artists. But it is my belief that his music represents much of the ideas espoused by those leading the Scottish Renaissance of the inter-war years. The Scottish Literary Renaissance – to give it its original full name – was a movement concerned with bringing native, in some cases ‘endangered’, aspects of our intangible heritage in to the modern era by means of modernist thought and technique. It appeared at a time when many were beginning to question aspects of identity in the aftermath of the Great War, and particularly with regard to imperial power. It is important to note that this zeitgeist was to enable to Scottish National Party to be founded and established at this time as well.

So, I will discuss how the work of F.G. Scott, and the raison d’etre of the Scottish Renaissance more widely, influenced Stevenson, and how Scott himself realised these ideas through music as a means to putting Stevenson’s achievements more clearly in to context.

First, let me give a little background on Scott and Stevenson; set the scene in Scotland after the second world war, with the help of a number of sources from which I will quote extensively; and look briefly at the basic tenets of the Scottish Renaissance.

F.G. Scott

Scott was born in Hawick, Roxburghshire, the son of an engineer supplying parts to the milling industry. Two main interests dominated his early life: literature (he tended to lean heavily towards all that was French, as well as playing an important part in reviving the Scots language), and music. Discouraged from studying music seriously, he would often work secretly after he had gone to bed, by candlelight, so as not to be caught by his disapproving father. Later, though, he would undertake a distance learning course at Durham University and also Edinburgh, though he did not complete his studies at the latter. He took composition lessons in France from Jean-Roger Ducasse, a pupil of Faure, who regarded the young man with great admiration. Scott spent most of his life lecturing at the Jordanhill Teacher Training College in Glasgow, and counted the likes of Hugh MacDiarmid, Edwin and Willa Muir, and the other writers of the Scottish Renaissance, as firm friends. He is one of the only composers so closely associated with this group.

Ronald Stevenson

Stevenson is generally assumed to be a Scottish composer; in fact, he was born in Blackburn, in Lancashire, albeit of Scots-Welsh parentage. It was Percy Grainger whose music was to offer Stevenson, early in life, the courage to pursue his instinct of embracing ‘non-classical’ music, as well as the musics of non-western cultures.

After spending his early adulthood in England he came to Scotland in the early 1950s, settling in West Linton, Peeblesshire. Malcolm MacDonald, who knew Stevenson personally, notes in his 1988 biography of the composer that “although it was during these next ten to twenty years that Stevenson found Scotland to be one of the profoundest influences on the direction of his life, he also found it culturally isolating”.

Scottish musical climate post WWII

After Robert Carver, there were few composers of note in Scotland until the Late Romantics, such as Hamish MacCunn, Alexander Campbell Mackenzie, Learmont Drysdale and others. Erik Chisholm made a significant impression in 1930s Scotland, but only briefly. After the Second World War Scottish composers tended to head further afield to pursue their artistic goals: Iain Hamilton and Thea Musgrave, who both emigrated to the United States, are examples. Chisholm, too, moved to South Africa. Those who remained, like Ronald Center, scarcely stood a chance in a country described by the poet and polemicist Hugh MacDiarmid as ‘the most backward country in Europe, aesthetically speaking’. Stevenson concurred: ‘from my experience of living there, I am convinced that it is true. There is no feigned sophistication there, but rather a crude, healthy philistinism that hits you in the face. That is a challenge for me: at least it is honest’”.

F.G. Scott, a prophet for Scottish music

In his nationalistic aspirations, Stevenson sought to follow the example of F.G. Scott who was, in the words of MacDonald, “a prophet of the kind of Scottish music he wished to create”. Scott, of a similar working-class background to Stevenson, is the only composer closely affiliated with the Scottish Renaissance.

But it is important to stress that Stevenson, an artist who constantly strove for the Busonian ideal of ‘oneness’ in music, was at pains to embrace all of humanity in his music through his Scottishness. Scotland was often the well-spring of his work, not the end in itself. Writing to Ates Orga in 1968, he said:

“I think all great art aspires beyond nationalism, as an exploration of occult regions of experience. But I am convinced that a people’s culture cannot get beyond nationalism until it has realised it. Scotland hasn’t.” [Letter to Ates Orga, 30 April 1968).

Something similar is reflected in F.G. Scott, about whom his friend, the scholar and writer Denis Saurat (who had worked as lecturer in French at Glasgow University) wrote:

“What he was looking for was forces, which were perhaps in a Scottish garb and came out of Scottish nature, but which were universal. He felt that in Scottish literature, and in Scottish music, some element of human nature which was universal, and which had never been given a real hearing before, could now be brought to the fore, and be the foundation of a new future for Scotland, because then the separation between Scotland and England would be quite clear, although he wished it to remain friendly, and the originality of Scotland, which was what he felt most deeply, would be brought forth triumphantly.”

When one considers British music in the 19th century, it invariably really means English music. Music by the likes of Hamish McCunn and Learmont Drysdale certainly had Scots flavouring, but wasn’t Scottish at its core. MacDonald again: “Genuine re-engagement of a country’s folk-sources had largely passed Scotland by.”

But, with Scott, there finally was that genuine re-engagement. “He was”, Edwin Muir remarked, “interested most of all in applying modern techniques to Scottish sentiments and Scottish music”, Hugh MacDiarmid furthering this remark by stating, “the only composer today who is endeavouring to establish a Scottish national idiom – who, in other words, has got beyond kailyardism” – so, beyond either writing tartanised classical music, or making kitsch settings of folk melodies. This entailed closely examining aspects of Scottish folk songs, the classical music native mostly to the Western Isles – Pibroch – and discovering convincing ways of setting such elements in to the innovative musical languages of the time. There are some thrilling songs by Scott, such as Moonstruck, which is overtly Schoenbergian, alongside more conservative soundworlds taking their leave from the French late Romantics.

Influence of Pibroch on Francis George Scott

Scott was particularly interested in Pibroch, which permeates more of his music than one might realise. In a moment I will play the Stevenson transcription of his song ‘Milkwort and Bog-Cotton’. Scott himself frequently drew attention to the fact that this very song was influenced by Pibroch, as you might hear for yourselves. First, though, listen to this extract from the Urlar (or Ground) of the Pibroch ‘I Got a Kiss of the King’s Hand’ - first extemporised here in Stirling in the 17th century!

That strange sense of rubato – or perhaps timelessness, in the sense that there is no strict, underlying pulse or sense of the music being in a regular, unchanging meter – is conveyed literally in Scott’s score: there are no barlines, as with Pibroch notation.

Common to both are the gently lilting, motion common to both it and Scott’s song in the Urlar (or Ground). Notice also how both song and Pibroch leap up and down a fifth a lot.

It is written in (as classical musicians would label it) the Dorian mode, as would be heard if the melody were played on the ‘Pipes with its key-note as A. And, the limited pitch range of the song line is also characteristic of the ‘Pipes: it is a one-octave scale of D major, with an additional flattened seventh below the bottom tonic; analogous to the Bagpipe’s A-scale, with the seventh below its bottom tonic.

Scott has maintained all the characteristics of the ‘Pipes, when writing his melody, and the character of their music is at the root of the melody also.

Influence of Pibroch on Ronald Stevenson

Ronald Stevenson emulates the Great Highland Bagpipe on the piano in several of his works. One well-known example is a movement from his Passacaglia on DSCH, ‘Lament for the Children’. This is thought to date from around 1650 and was composed by Patrick Mor Macrimmon, piper to the MacLeod’s of Dunveagan.

*Play ‘Lament for the Children’* (2’)

Stevenson achieves the effect of the pipes by means of Minor and Major 3rds simultaneously: this way, one gets the jarring effect of the ‘out of tune’ notes. The way the pipes are tuned don’t correspond with the equal-temperament of the modern piano, so it is actually impossible to play certain Bagpipe notes on the piano: the precise pitch here would lie somewhere the equivalent of between the F and F-sharp. And, of course, there is the use of grace notes in emulation of the pipes, though the specific patterns used systematically by pipers are not copied note for note.

The influence of Folk Song

Moving now to Folk Song. Two things which Stevenson realised were highly characteristic of Scottish folk song, and Gaelic song in particular, were a wide melodic spectrum, and large melodic leaps. You might recall that wide intervals are also audible in the F.G. Scott song I started the afternoon with, particularly in that direct, opening statement following the introduction.

One song Stevenson sets, which clearly shows its wide tessitura at the outset, is Ne’er Day Sang, a melody found in William Sterling’s Cantus Part-Book 1639.

A setting of folk-song with large melodic range and leaps, is ‘A Tired Mother’s Lullaby’ from the South Uist Folk Song Suite’, transcribed from Margaret Fay Shaw’s seminal ‘Folk Songs and Folk Lore from South Uist’. Interestingly, it, like ‘Milkwort and Bog Cotton’, uses the compass of a ninth, as per the ‘Pipes.

The sharp-eared might have heard that the rippling ostinato of the second section was entirely comprised of the notes of the melody. This impressive compositional economy, and all aspects of folk song discussed, are present in Stevenson’s original composition, ‘Keening Sang for a Makar (in Memoriam Francis George Scott)’. Economy is a watchword in this piece, it being tautly constructed on 3 notes: F, play G play, and E-flat (using the German spelling of ‘Es’) play, thus spelling Scott’s initials. Arranged in this way, the outline of the chord play is characteristic minor-seventh of the Dorian mode and in turn a characteristic of the ‘Pipes’ compass.

Some notable extracts which demonstrate such economy are the beginning and following 'Lisztian' sections of the piece; and the 'Marche Funebre', not long before the end.

All of a work’s complexity can stem from one single idea, even as few as three notes. Such economy of means is important: it expresses that Busonian value of ‘oneness’, which Stevenson also held was a Celtic value too: one unifying theme, with variations.


Canon is the purest way of treating folk song when transcribing it for piano, because it adds as little new material as possible, yet allows for extraordinary richness of texture with rhythmic fluidity and complexity – without overburdening a work with too much material. It is expressive of ‘oneness’ probably better than any other musical form, and is most easily heard – to the most persuasive effect - in Stevenson’s transcription of ‘Hard is my Fate’.

Audio: 'Hard is my Fate' from Scottish Folk Music Settings for Piano

To quote Malcolm MacDonald again: “Stevenson has striven to bring [Scottish folk music], and its possibilities, into the general consciousness, out of the kailyard and beyond the scholarly confines of ethnomusicological treatises. He has not been alone in this, but he seems to have had the most all-embracing view, and to have made the most comprehensive use of it – in conjunction with European and other ‘classical’ traditions – in his own works.” Many have done so since – James Macmillan was the first composer of art-music which I ever heard of doing it with such conviction and persuasiveness – but we must acknowledge Francis George Scott as being one of the only Scottish composers leading the way for future composers in Scotland to, as Stevenson said, realise their nationality in their work so as to get beyond it.

In conclusion

In some ways the best representation of the ideas discussed today might be found in Stevenson’s ‘Heroic Song for Hugh MacDiarmid’. This piece is intended as at once a portrait of MacDiarmind, and Scotland. It is perhaps the musical equivalent of William Johnstone’s portrait of F.G. Scott.

Here, the subject (Scott) becomes part of the landscape. The landscape you see is the Ettrick hills in the Borders, among which Scott was born and raised. Sitter and setting are on the same plane; they are, at once, the subject; there is no compositional hierarchy; and, most importantly, the observer is made to inextricably connect the man and his geographical roots which were of central importance to his work.

It is important that Stevenson’s ‘Heroic Song’ is an original composition. Much of what we have covered is transcription, and ways of renewing existing material. This work does not do that, has no reference to any specific folk song, and yet is unmistakeably Scottish. How?

Note the wide-gapped melodies in the opening passage which is very similar to ‘Ne’er Day Sang’. The significance of the peculiarly Scottish pentatony is obvious (so many Scottish songs and tunes are based on the pentatonic scale). Great space is conjured up, the vastness of Scotland’s landscapes, an effect heightened by the extended technique of silently depressing the keys before playing which allows sympathetic resonance across the piano strings. What immediately follows is very brusque, imposing and direct music, a fitting portrait of MacDiarmid’s personality (so I’m led to believe). Later in the piece one can hear the poet’s cackling laughter. One at times can visualise the wind in the glens; and there is notable reference, of course, to the ‘Pipes. Broad, bardic melody appears towards the end: again, wide-spaced intervals, and set in canon.

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