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RONALD STEVENSON - The Man and His Music
A Symposium edited by Colin Scott-Sutherland
publ. 2005
foreword by Lord Menuhin
507pp
Toccata Press
ISBN 0 907689 40 X hardback
Price £45

 

 

 

This sturdily bound hard-back has been a long time in arriving. I recall it being first mentioned in the early 1990s; still, not quite as long as the wait for Diana McVeagh's book on Finzi.

For those of you who do not know, Stevenson is a British composer-pianist who was born in Blackburn in the North-West of England in 1928. His music, which is often lyrical and sometimes tough and tonal, has been fitfully supported and the number of performances remains meagre. There are many songs, some wonderfully recorded on Delphian, the piano concertos on Olympia and much of the solo piano music on Chris Rice’s Altarus label. The DSCH Passacaglia has had good outings on disc from Ogdon, Clarke and the composer himself - there’s also a further private recording reviewed on this site. Major gaps in the recorded repertoire include his cello concerto and violin concerto. Over the next year or so Toccata Classics will be issuing a series of Stevenson CDs to fill out the slender discography. Toccata will also be issuing several books collecting Stevenson’s writings about music.

My own interest in Stevenson came about through a BBC broadcast by the composer of his DSCH Passacaglia. That was on 30 July 1979. I was fascinated by this epic and complex work for solo piano and kept watch for further recordings and broadcasts. I managed to add a precious few more over the years - several while I was in Scotland from 1986 to 1998.

I also encountered the composer’s name in connection with other composers in which I had a strong interest. He performed and recorded music by Percy Grainger. Grainger and Stevenson first met in the late 1950s. Stevenson did a piano transcription of the Hill Song No. 1 and a piece for two pianos the Jamboree for Grainger - a very Graingerian title; later this was orchestrated. He broadcast Bax’s Paean on Radio Scotland in 1987 and Ronald Center’s sonata the next year. With David Wilde he was one of the two pianists in the 18 October 1974 broadcast of Havergal Brian's Third Symphony. The most indelible of these experiences was his performance of the masterful John Foulds cello sonata with Moray Welsh in October 1979. He also played the late piano sonata of fellow traveller in communism, Alan Bush.

The present book is a satisfyingly substantial symposium. The number of living composers treated to such exhaustively commodious treatment is preciously small. By the book’s content and design it instantly declares itself as the authoritative reference on Stevenson. This is no missed opportunity.

There is a foreword by the late Lord Menuhin written very shortly before his death. Colin Scott-Sutherland (currently working on a study of the life and music of the Scots composer Cedric Thorpe Davie) appears as both editor and major contributor. He traces Stevenson's career, stylistic development and aesthetic stance. Ates Orga surveys the piano music in great detail. Malcolm MacDonald examines the orchestral works. Alistair Chisholm addresses the chamber music. Jamie Reid Baxter assesses the choral music and Derek Watson discusses the 230 songs. Pianist Harold Taylor illuminates Stevenson's approach to performance at the piano and Jamie Reid Baxter examines his position in Scottish musical culture; Stevenson has made Scotland his home for many years.

The history and structure of the DSCH Passacaglia is surveyed in this book across 14 pages. What other work was praised in such a fulsome way by Walton, Simpson, Sorabji and Szigeti? The performance history, such as it is, is also documented.

The merit of a symposium is the multitude of perspectives one encounters although one also faces the danger of a large number of people's special pleadings for their own hobby-horse. But why else do you read a symposium except to read the insights of those who have invested time and concentration in the music they love and respect. If there is adulation here then allow for it and do not turn your back on the cornucopia of insights and information.

The book is decked out with a wondrously vivid and generous selection of photographs. They lend further vibrant life to what is a substantial volume appositely targeted to cover music never previously addressed in such rewarding detail. Especially memorable is the plate in which the composer is photographed with Shostakovich at the Edinburgh Festival. He is also pictured in his music room - his ‘den of musiquity’ as he calls it. Stevenson is seen sitting with the venerable Pete Seeger in 1984 in New York. The folk song connections are always strong with this composer.

There is something of the theatre about Stevenson; that goatee, the cape ... a flamboyant character perhaps with a touch of Warlock and of Aprahamian. The man is a survivor from another more unfettered era and one where long paragraphs and attention spans were the norm. His socialist politics had perhaps less of an excluding effect than those of Alan Bush. The fact that Stevenson has suffered neglect is more often down to his tonal idiom at a time of dissonant predominance and the ascendancy of the Glock-Keller-Boulez axis at the BBC.

Colin Scott-Sutherland provides a biographical introduction which is much more than a plodding timeline. In a mere twenty pages the picture is touched in here and a detail added there. The life story is told but not in a linear way. The list of works which Stevenson introduced Colin to is in itself intriguing.

Mr Scott-Sutherland’s quoted description of the Scots Dance Toccata will surely have most readers insisting on hearing it: ‘...several traditional dance tunes from Neil Gow's repository are drawn out on an opening haar into a Paganini-like polytonal reel of Ivesian complexity’. Such writing!

After that comes Ates Orga's study of the piano music. Orga says Stevenson has modelled himself on the Medtners and Godowskys and Rachmaninovs of this world. Music exx. adorn this and other sections and many are in Stevenson’s elegant hand. Orga’s congested musicological dissecting approach does not make for a streamlined read. This, for me, is the one downside to the book.

Too easily overlooked in his catalogue are the transcriptions. Special attention is drawn to his L'art nouveau de chant appliqué au piano, written between 1980 and 1986. He has applied his art of apotheosis to the songs of Vincent Wallace, Stephen Foster (a Grainger link there), Coleridge Taylor, Harty, Balfe, Bridge and Rachmaninov.

The Stevenson songs tend to be away from what is seen as high art. Try the truly beautiful anthology on the Delphian label. In addition we should note a Harpsichord Sonata and a Peter Grimes Fantasy for solo piano both examined by Ates Orga. The orchestral music is in the reassuring grip of Malcolm Macdonald whose National Library of Scotland book on Stevenson had, since 1988, been the only reference on Stevenson. It is still extremely valuable so do take the chance to read it when you can.

Let’s not forget also the Janet Baker-dedicated Vocalise Variations on two Themes from ‘The Trojans’. It’s for mezzo and orchestra. The voice is used as another orchestral instrument rather as it is in Harty's The Children of Lir, Medtner’s Sonata-Vocalise and Foulds’ Lyra Celtica.

The cello concerto (premiered by Moray Welsh) and two piano concertos are fully written up and of course there are those maddeningly tantalising references to the incomplete Ben Dorain symphony ... of which more later.

There are so many works we should hear recorded. They include Anns an Airde as an Doimhne (In the heights from the depths), the Peace Motets, the Scottish Triptych - In Memoriam Robert Carver. These works would mix well with Miklós Rózsa's choral works - another major catalogue lacuna.

Harold Taylor surveys Stevenson's pianism picking up on the striking physical similarities between Paderewski and Stevenson. He also dwells on his playing of three of Foulds’ Essays In The Modes and of Grainger’s Rosenkavalier Ramble as well as works by Medtner, Whettam, Rubbra, Stevens and Bush's Piano Sonata op. 71 (a work dedicated to Stevenson).

Eight short personal portraits touch in more of the picture. They are by Colin Wilson and John Ogdon amongst others. Albert Wullschleger expatiates on Stevenson’s championing of the music of Czesław Marek (eight volumes of CDs on the Koch International label - all now deleted). Alan Bold's contribution is in the form of a poem. In this section there are many atmospheric photographs of Stevenson with John Ogdon.

Scott-Sutherland (the author of the first complete book on the life and works of Bax) also pulls together and catalogues Stevenson’s concert programmes which include such ‘strangenesses’ as the Stevenson-arranged suite from Paderewski's Manru an opera recently recorded complete on the Polish Dux label.

The list of Stevenson works is organised by genre with full details of orchestral specification, premiere details, commission and dedication incipits.

There is a bibliography of Stevenson’s writings. They span a wide horizon extending to a survey of Alan Bush's piano music for Alan Poulton’s Bravura Publications, Grainger and the piano, Busoni: Necromancer of the piano, Bernard Stevens, Britten’s War Requiem; Maurice Emmanuel - a belated apologia, Godowsky and Sorabji, Szymanowski and Enescu. He also reviewed a very rare performance of the Delius Requiem as well as of concerts of works by Menotti and Dallapiccola.

Hanging over all is Stevenson’s massive and incomplete epic Ben Dorain 'symphony' started in 1962 at the prompting of Hugh McDiarmid. It is listed as a work-in-progress for double chorus and two orchestras both large and chamber. Scott-Sutherland describes it as a symphony conceived in a single movement - a variation structure with principal motif acting as the urlar or ground for the richly tapestried variation construct. Will it ever be finished? Will we ever hear it or is it the same stuff of which Sibelius 8 was made?

In one chapter James Reid Baxter examines the Stevenson connection with Scotland, the composer’s working class connections and his relationship with his mentor, the song composer Francis George Scott (1880-1958). Mr Baxter gives us the heartening news that in the spring-summer of 2004 Stevenson was still working on the orchestration of Ben Dorain. The work remains "in some sense a vision - and it will be no less a vision even when there is a bound full score. Nobody is clamouring for the honour of a giving the first performance; and the most fitting setting for that premiere, the Edinburgh Festival, has never featured a note of Stevenson's music to this day."

This is a handsomely presented book that is a joy to use. The thirty page index means business. Layout includes footnotes rather than endnotes but these are no obstacle to an athletic read. I am quite confident that the next Grove will have this book at the head of the bibliography for their Stevenson entry. In fact given Grove’s commitment to keeping the online version up to date it would not surprise me if it was already listed. I’ll leave checking that one to someone who can afford the subscription.

As well as being a signal entry in Martin Anderson’s determinedly serious Toccata Press list, it also stands out as one of the major contributions to musical literature.

Rob Barnett

 

 

 

 

 

 

 



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