North American British Music Studies Association

In Memoriam: Ronald Stevenson (1928-2015)

by Samantha Barnsfather

Martin Anderson, Scottish writer and founder of Toccata Press and Toccata Classics, referred to Stevenson as “the arch-internationalist who embraced ‘world music’ in his own compositions long before the term became fashionable.” Stevenson’s unique musicianship, his brilliant pianistic virtuosity, compositional abundance, socio-political consciousness, and his lifelong fascinations with fellow composer-pianists such as Ferruccio Busoni, Percy Grainger, Ignacy Paderewski, and Kaikhosru Sorabji may appear to be on the peripheries of conventional musical canons and repertoires. For Stevenson, these gentlemen were the inspirations that prompted one of the most intriguing musical lives of the late 20th century.

His exceptional musicality as well as his dashing good looks and flashy fashion sense seemed out of place within the postwar world. He wore an eagle pendant round his neck in place of a tie, maintained an elegant goatee beard, and composed using a quill in his “den of musiquity.” He incorporated world music in his orchestral works, such as his Violin Concerto “The Gypsy” (1977-1979) and his Second Piano Concerto, “The Continents” (1970-1972). In the latter work, he combined musical ideas from five continents while playfully paying homage to Ché Guevara. His strong sense of his adopted Scottish identity and an appetency to connect his music with intensely held political beliefs were innovative for his time.

In addition, Stevenson was also a political artist in the way of Alan Bush and Michael Tippett. As a pacifist, he was imprisoned for two years for refusing to go into the National Service. He spent two years as a Senior Lecturer in Music at the University of Cape Town (1963-65) where he found the apartheid regime unconscionable. During his time in South Africa, he composed a short piano piece merging the liberation hymn “Nkosi sikelel’ iAfrika” and the national anthem, “Die Stem”. While lecturing at the same university, he stressed how his Passacaglia on DSCH (1960-1962) included a tribute to Lenin and the South African police came calling soon after the presentation. In December 1968, he was a guest at the fourth Congress of Soviet Composers in Moscow. In 1985, he spent several months as a visiting lecturer at Shanghai Conservatoire and saw the effects of Marxism put into practice. As a result, its arguments vanished from his intellectual arsenal.

While Stevenson had a busy and successful career, there was a more private side to the man, especially later in his life, which kept him out of the limelight and denied him some of the acclaim his admirers felt was due. Stevenson worked outside the confines of the London musical world in his tiny cottage in West Linton, south of Edinburgh, surrounded by his beloved family. He and his Marjorie had one son, Gordon (a luthier), and two daughters, Gerda (an actress) and Savourna (a clarsair). His granddaughter Anna Wendy Stevenson continues the family’s traditions by being an outstanding folk fiddler, lecturer, and composer. Students and friends from all over the world visited their home, while local children took piano lessons there.

Stevenson also had an innate affinity for other dissident composers by advocating for such figures as Havergal Brian, Nathaniel Dett, John Foulds, Leopold Godowsky, Bernard Stevens (a personal friend and fellow Marxist) and numerous others in concert, on air and in print. For example, Stevenson was one of the first to take a genuine interest in the music of Percy Grainger. Even though they never met, they exchanged letters for the last three years of Grainger’s life (Their correspondence was published in 2010 under the title Comrades in Art by Toccata Press).

Stevenson was a renowned musicologist, writer, and lecturer. He held senior lecturing posts at the University of Cape Town, the Shanghai Conservatory of Music, at the Juilliard School, New York and at Melbourne University. The Edinburgh-born concert pianist, Susan Tomes, told The Scotsman how much, as a teenager, she valued Stevenson’s “inspirational lectures”. She said: “Using wide-ranging examples from music, poetry, philosophy and politics he drew our attention to many valuable and perhaps under-acknowledged ways of looking at music.” He also wrote for Musical Times, Tempo and The Listener. In the 1970s, he was heard on the radio, both in recital and discussing the music of Busoni, about whom he also made a BBC documentary. During this time period, he also presented a series of programs on Radio 3 on Busoni’s music and a BBC2 documentary soon followed. In 1981, Stevenson wrote an extended series for BBC Radio Scotland on the bagpipe, clarsach, and fiddle music of Scotland.

Until a series of strokes in his mid-sixties, Stevenson was consistently giving public performances and lectures. He was a loyal patron of local music events, amateur and professional. Stevenson was the Vice-President of the Workers’ Music Association, which supported internationalism, peace, and social justice. In 2008, the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra performed the world premiere of his choral symphony, Praise of Ben Dorain, based on a Gaelic poem by Scottish poet Duncan Ban MacIntyre. It had taken Stevenson more than 20 years to compose. It was scored for two choirs and two orchestras featuring the BBC Symphony Orchestra, a chamber orchestra, the chorus of Scottish Opera, the Edinburgh Singers– all conducted by James Grossmith. The Scotsman critic wrote that there were “unquestionable flashes of keen perception.” At the conclusion of the performance, the 80-year-old Stevenson was “cheered to the rafters.”

Despite the extent of his output – more than 500 works – and the occasional recordings for Hyperion, Toccata and Altarus, he was basically untouched by promoters, orchestras and audiences. If the scope of his work is hard to encapsulate, the style of his composition is even more difficult to define which may have contributed to his music’s neglect. He composed a number of large-scale orchestral works, chamber music, and hundreds of piano pieces and songs. His most famous composition, the epic Passacaglia on DSCH, is thought to be the longest single-movement work in the piano literature. It uses Dmitri Shostakovich’s musical initials to build up a monumental 80-minute structure. He presented the score to the Russian composer at the 1962 Edinburgh Festival and four years later performed it himself at the Aldeburgh Festival.

His 300 settings of verse by such poets as William Blake, Robert Burns, Alan Bold, George Buchanan, Hugh MacDiarmid, Walter Scott, James Joyce, Tagore and Ho Chi Minh show a vast array of influences. Poetry by German and Italian writers have also been set along with texts in Lancashire and Aberdeen, and Scots Gaelic dialects. His regard for the human voice and lyric melody stemmed from recollections of his father’s tenor singing voice.

His vocal music falls under the broad headings of eclecticism and nationalism. His self-confessed aim is for an “epic” music, which absorbs elements from the East and from Africa, along with Western culture. Stevenson simultaneously draws inspiration from the folk music of many countries and uses the most sophisticated Western techniques, such as in his Asian-inspired song cycles, Four Vietnamese Miniatures (1965) and Nine Haikus (1971), and in his Scottish inspired song cycles, Songs from Factories and Fields (1977) and Hills of Home (1974). Stevenson’s nationalistic impulse was brought about by his studies of the songs by Scottish composer Frances George Scott (1880-1958). Scott had served as mentor to his former pupil and poet Hugh MacDiarmid (1892-1972) who also influenced Stevenson. Scott and MacDiarmid fronted the music-literary movement of the 1920s, known as the Scottish Renaissance. Stevenson is considered their successor. His study of Scottish folk dance, poetry, and song gave his work a distinctive national point of reference.

My research explores whether Stevenson’s political leanings factor into his compositions, taking into account whether historical and cultural events of 20th– and 21st– century Scotland shaped Stevenson’s long held beliefs including socialism and pacifism. It also addresses the issues surrounding Stevenson’s lack of major recognition outside the United Kingdom. Publication of his songs is a crucial step towards their wider performance, and in turn, a major step toward deserved recordings. The Ronald Stevenson Society is making commendable progress in this direction. It was founded in 1993 in Edinburgh to disseminate the music of Stevenson through performance, recording, and the publication of Stevenson scores. In addition, more scholarly work on the history of Scottish art music and rediscovery of its composers will likely result in modern performances of these works. This writer believes that a broad distribution of Stevenson’s music will result in a favorable reception from history, the final arbiter in all human endeavors.