In an essay Composing a Song Cycle (first published in
the Ronald Stevenson Society newsletter (Vol 3/2 Autumn 1996) and subsequently
in the double issue of Chapman vols 89/90) Stevenson propounds
some fascinating even heretical ideas on the perennial subject of words
for music which reveals the fact that, as a composer, his respect for
the words, and for their form, whether Poem or Prose is highly individual
and shows a creative sensitivity uncommon enough today. He writes:-
"Another problem of setting words to music is this: every musical motif or
theme contains the germ of its own development: set words to it and the
development of the musical idea has to be subjugated to the development of
the verbal idea. The music has to yield to the words: like a creeping plant,
it has to be trained to a trellis. This problem can be overcome partially
by a careful selection of the text."
He goes on, like an enthusiastic child to divulge the intensity of his
inspiration (speaking of the Border Boyhood cycle in particular):
There are recurrent references to the wood throughout the cycle. Can you
remember the first time you ente../graphics/red a wood as a child? I can. Suddenly to
be encircled by shadows and to see the shadows become luminous with blue-bells
- this was magic ! Ive tried to evoke the suddenness of this experience
by a single chord in the opening song.
The emerging melody is treated in variation-form in a piano interlude.
Another recurrent motif is the river. It meanders in and out of the music
of my song-cycle as it does in the Border landscape.
This essay illuminates this particular cycle which was commissioned by Peter
Pears for the 1971 Aldeburgh Festival. A setting of the prose writings of
MacDiarmid, it is symphonic in scope, with an arch-like form built around
the central Intermezzo for piano alone - a moment of hushed stillness in
the midst of the cathedral-like woods. Here even the robin hushes his
song in these gold pavilions
Stevenson again, whose sense of formal coherence is well demonstrated in
the huge 80 minute long Passacaglia on DSCH, constructs his cycle
of verses from Robert Louis Stevensons A Childs Garden
with a judicious selection of poems which reflect the passing of a day, and
of the pageant of the seasons - choosing verses that deal with the sensual
(wood-smoke, train travel, bed in summer, the swing) and in which the child
is engrossed in solitary play, his only companion the Shadow!
The formal element of the 17th century Japanese Haiku also attracted
Stevenson who describes them as suggesting the use of pentatonic
and heptatonic scales, completing a twelve-note sound spectrum These
fine performances by the Art Song Collective are authoritative - the group
very close to the composer, and attendant at the annual July symposium of
the Society at Garvald. I cannot help however yearning for the first broadcast
performance of the RLS cycle when, with a characteristic touch, the composer
employed the voices of two children with the tenor. Nevertheless this welcome
disc must win many new friends to the music of this fascinating composer.
Colin Scott Sutherland