Ronald STEVENSON (1928-2015)
As My Harp Sang Out Of Darkness
What the fairy harper told me (1967) [1.51]
Sounding Strings (1979) [21.41]
Rory Dall Morrison's Harp Book (?1970) [18.14]
Jane Ford (harp)
rec. April/June 2020, venue unstated
PRIMA FACIE PFCD139 [41.46]
Even those such as myself who have always admired the music of the maverick Ronald Stevenson may not have been aware that he had written any music for the small Celtic harp (that is, as opposed to the larger concert harp found in orchestras), let alone sufficient to constitute a complete if not over-lengthy CD. He regarded the small clarsach as part of his Celtic heritage (from his Welsh mother no less than his Scottish father) and his major contribution to the literature for the instrument was his 1979 collection of arrangements of traditional Celtic airs (including tunes from Ireland and Brittany) published under the title of Sounding Strings. These pieces were written with his daughter Ella Savourna in mind, and were given in conjunction with a lecture by the composer at the opening of an exhibition at the National Library of Scotland in 1981. This daughter was named after Percy Grainger’s daughter Ella, and she is celebrated in the sixth of the pieces entitled Savourneen Deelish [track 7]. One of the other (and most substantial) pieces in the set is entitled Ben Dorain, a mini-set of variations which has some thematic links to Stevenson’s late symphony of the same name [track 11]. Most of the other arrangements are fairly straightforward, only some of them actually sporting recognisable Stevenson fingerprints. Oddly enough the setting of that most unorthodox of Irish folk tunes, the Tune from County Derry otherwise known as the Londonderry Air [track 9], adheres most closely to the traditional harmonies familiar from the version by Jane Ross of Limavady as published by George Petrie in 1855. But then two of the dance movements feature additional percussive effects as the harpist raps her fingers on the sounding board, an effect Stevenson imitates from his own Peter Grimes piano fantasia of 1971. Since, in fact, the very word ‘clarsach’ derives from the Gaelic word for the sounding-board of the instrument, this has authenticity on its side as well.
This disc also contains eight pieces entitled Rory Dall Morrison's Harp Book. This was published earlier, and also consists of arrangements with rather more descriptive titles such as “Song for John MacLeod of Dunvegan” or “Lament for the Lost Harp Key” (the latter possibly a relative of Beethoven’s lost penny) [tracks 16-17]. The most beautiful of these pieces is that entitled “Fiddler’s Contempt”, a soaring melody which is anything by contemptuous but makes one wonder what story underlay the title [track 21]. We are not told, and the website of the Ronald Stevenson Society is totally devoid of any information on the work apart from the movement titles. Even the dates are suspect; the webpage states that the collection dates from 1970 but the composer’s superscription to the first arrangement gives a date of “14 March 1978”.
The disc opens with a track entitled What the fairy harper told me, which is identified as the one of ‘Three Scots Fairy Tales’; but it is only from the Stevenson Society’s website that we can discover that it is actually the second and the only one of the three suitable for clarsach, although it is clearly a piece of original composition by Stevenson rather than an arrangement of a traditional air. It is a delightful piece nonetheless, and definitely the earliest item on this disc, dating from 1967.
There does appear however to be yet another work by Stevenson for the clarsach, a miniature given the title Country Tune and written in 1980, which seems more experimental in that it exploits harmonies only playable on the clarsach (the operation of the instrument enables single notes to be chromatically changed, which allows for more complex harmonic clashes). Stevenson was particularly proud of this piece – he added a composer’s note to the score drawing attention to his use of flattened intervals in the upper register “unplayable on the concert harp” and it is a great pity that the opportunity was not taken on this disc to let us hear this unorthodox score. But then I cannot find any reference to the piece on the Stevenson Society’s webpage either, although it was apparently published in the Clarsair Annual No 1 in 1980.
But then, none of this information is given to us on the sleeve note for this disc at all (there is no booklet) and I am indebted to Rob Barnett who has provided all the above details from Colin Scott-Sutherland’s symposium on Stevenson’s music which he reviewed for this site some twenty years ago. Given the valuable nature of the music itself and its intrinsic interest, it is startling that this background is not provided for purchasers of the disc. The Scots Fairy Tales and Rory Dall Morrison collections were included in Volume Two of Christopher Guild’s survey of Stevenson’s piano music on Toccata issued in 2017, and were reviewed by Stuart Sillitoe and John France for this site (review ~ review). But so far as I can discover, this CD is the only release to feature the Celtic harp and to give us the books of folksong arrangements complete.
The playing and performances, achieved under lockdown conditions (which are discussed at some length in the sleeve note), are both superb – as indeed is the quality of the recording by the harpist herself in a grateful acoustic. Despite my lament over the lack of more than the most basic information about the music, this disc should be heard both by all fans of Stevenson’s music and of the Celtic harp. “I love tunes,” said Stevenson in his composer’s note to the score of the elusive Country Tune, and so will anyone else who experiences the pleasure of this disc.
Paul Corfield Godfrey