Music Webmaster Len Mullenger
RONALD STEVENSON AT SEVENTY
by Colin Scott-Sutherland
I first encountered Ronald Stevenson in the early 1960s, in an Edinburgh public house where, with John Ogdon, Alan Anderson and some others, we had repaired after a concert (in which Ogdon had played an entire Chopin Concerto without letting his eyes light upon the keyboard, constantly watching the erratic conductor). Garbed in cloak of black, with a wide-brimmed Jesuitical black velvet hat, Stevenson's Mephistophelean appearance was complemented by an ancient courtesy of manner.
The surroundings were conducive to heated discussion on matters of art, and in subsequent months we met, most frequently. in the tiled. august and austere but still fragrantly alcoholic - surroundings of Edinburgh's Cafe Royal. It could have been Vienna, Helsingfors or Padua - for the topics ranged widely from Purcell to Gordon Craig, from Rudolf Steiner to Francis George Scott, from Sorley MacLean to Medtner. But it was Scotland. And the Scottish border country at West Linton, where he has his home, is a setting peculiarly appropriate. From this border landscape, cradled on the south flank of the Pentland hills, where winter's skeletal boughs are bedecked in spring with green (as harmony cloaks the bones of melody) and where waters, chill from the slopes, ripple in a sun-flecked stream through the village, Stevenson has drawn something of a dour MacDiarmidian strength that is the sinew of his work.
Yet from this quiet retreat his expression embraces elements of cultures far-flung from these borders. Writing in 1969 of his Passacaglia on DSCH he points out that the interwoven nationalist elements in that enormous work - pibroch, African drumming, Spanish and Russian elements - were not the result of intellectual manipulation, but the expression of physical experience. His working methods show the acute receptivity with which he reacts to the many and varied sources of his inspiration. The supposed myth that inspiration produces a white heat of creativity is in his case borne out in the sketches from which he works. His focus, once realised, begets a generative urge of expression that is little short of frenetic. His energies are dynamic and I have seen how he has littered the piano with pages of ink and pencil manuscript, playing and linking the pages. in a flurry of turns and searches, interspersed with hectic vocal improvisation, demonstrating an astonishing compositional intensity.
It is surprising how closely the finished creation follows the original invention. The demonstration of his idea is utterly convincing readily translatable into keyboard terms whatever the medium; and his unique understanding of the piano is exemplified nowhere more than per tinent 'asides' in discussion or in musical illustration, where his understanding of musical orthography has the justification of absolute conviction. His knowledge of music is encyclopaedic, his love of it all-embracing. In the midst of creative compulsion he will digress, often a length, upon some page turned by chance - and turn the digression to account in the main impulse of his thought with an impressive grasp of structure and form. But the end his convictions are enshrined in his music - before everything else, that universality of expression must come through personal experience.
It is inevitable, at such a vantage point as a 70th birthday, that we look retrospectively at an artist's achievement. In Stevenson's case this reveals two massive piano concertos, concertos for violin and for cello, a number of major chamber and orchestral works, over 300 songs and a dozen song cycles, and a vast corpus of piano music (from the longest single movement in the literature mere 12 bar realization of Purcell - this backward view will only give a partial understanding of a complex creative personality). The variety of thought and idea is staggering enough - to make any kind of generalisation or pigeon-holing of his versatile spirit is virtually impossible.
It is the measure of the stature of an artist how often he is visited by the fugitive 'Spirit of Delight' - and how able he is to transmute that spirit of inspiration to a communicable form in which we can recognise that 'first fine careless rapture.' Stevenson has two particular attributes that ensure that creation and communication are virtually simultaneous. He is a pianist of outstanding virtuosity in the grand traditions of the past - and he is a born teacher. Thus he is a communicator in the fullest sense of the word.
It is a further measure of his stature that we can still take a Janus-headed view - for having only recently completed a massive work for piano, Le Festin d'Alkan. he has several important works in progress. In an echo of Thalberg's opus 70 (a cycle of 22 études in the art of bel canto playing) Stevenson's L'Art Nouveau du Chant appliqué au piano - also a cycle of 22 pieces, transcriptions of Victorian and Edwardian ballads - awaits completion and performance. There is a large scale Fugue, Variations and Epilogue on the theme of Bax - and even more significantly, a major choral/orchestral epic Ben Dorain. a setting of MacDiarmid's translation of Duncan ban Maclntyre. The work's rich tapestry promises in some way to be the summation of Ronald Stevenson's creative work, incorporating the main thrust of his musical thought, based on the variation procedures of the classical pibroch yet incorporating those ideas which, from his early years, were prompted by the ideals and music of Busoni. He once quoted to me from Tennyson:
...bright and fierce and fickle is the South
And dark and true and tender is the North.
And it is in this direction, northwards, that the magnetic mountain is drawing him.
© David Wright
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