Ronald Stevenson at 90

Post Date: 5 March 2018
Post Type: Piano Things


Ronald Stevenson at 90. A lasting inspiriational legacy

Over the past few weeks a race has been on as I attempted to combine Prokofiev’s Toccata with the scherzo of his second concerto in a free transcription for two pianos as a tribute and homage to Ronald Stevenson for 6 March 2018- this date would have been Ronald’s 90th birthday. Happily after 22 hours of work the race finished on Sunday- and here are the first and last pages of my ‘Scherzo- Toccata after Prokofiev in celebration of Ronald’s 90th birthday’. In the tradition of Busoni and thinking positively for the future, I tend to dedicate transcriptions to my pupils. This piece is for Julian Clef, who once won the EPTA Uk competition playing Prokofiev’s Toccata, and Arsha Kaviani, who performed Prokofiev’s second concerto splendidly with the Chetham’s symphony orchestra and elsewhere.
Scherzo- Toccata’s first performance is already planned for Chetham’s summer school in August!

You cannot hope to contain the Atlantic Ocean in a Milk bottle, so this is not the place to fully extend a description of what Ronald Stevenson achieved, what he stands for and what his legacy will develop into. It goes without saying that he left us with truly great music, writings on music,and some of the finest solo performances recorded. He was a truly great musician and artist, a master of transcription, counterpoint and musical commentary.

Ronald constantly tried to encourage me to continue composing and transcribing music-literally every time I visited him West Linton he would ask ‘why are you not composing?’. His pleas extended into phone calls and letters, starting in 1983 and continuing to 2008. Sadly I was too busy- or rather too lacking in boldness of spirit- to take his kind and ever persistent advice on board. It was only on my last visit to see Ronald in hospital ( Valentine’s Day 2015) that I restarted writing by arranging Ronald’s exquisite ‘A’e gowden Lyric’ for solo piano. It was written on the Train and played to him the same day on a remarkably good upright by his Peebles hospital bed with Savourna, Marjorie and composer John McLeod present. In the last three years I have had two transcriptions published and made a further eight musical ‘commentaries’, all very much influenced by RS.
Ronald, so many of us remain eternally grateful to you for your extraordinary creativity, generosity, loving warmth and remarkable legacy. Remembering you on your 90th birthday with huge positivity and gratitude, as well as a firm resolve to keep the fire of creativity burning brightly- to keep on growing as a musician, artist and human.
Here is an article written ten years ago for Ronald’s 80th birthday, which appeared in ‘Piano Professional’ Magazine:

Ronald Stevenson, Patron of EPTA UK, at 80

‘Ronald Stevenson, with whom I share an admiration for my great teacher,George Enescu, is one of the most original minds in the world of the composition of music. His works always seem dedicated beyond the music- a humane impulse, reminding me of Mozart, that makes his music particularly attractive to a wide audience’ (Yehudi Menuhin, quoted in ‘Ronald Stevenson; The Man and His Music’, Toccata Press 2005).

On March 6 this year the composer-pianist-musicologist-teacher and proverbial renaissance man Ronald Stevenson celebrated his 80th birthday. That such a figure as Ronald was supportive of Carola Grindea from the very beginning of EPTA was surely significant,(the first EPTA Piano Journal featured a substantial article by Ronald on Busoni), and prophetic of the success and growth that EPTA would enjoy in the years to follow. Indeed Stevenson (b.1928) and EPTA (b. 1978) have shared more than a few significant birthdays over the years, and Ronald has continued to support EPTA by way of masterclasses, lectures and recitals. Colin Scott-Sutherland offers the following ‘EPTA memory’ written twenty years ago, after Ronald’s 60th birthday:

‘When Ronald Stevenson was asked what he would wish to do on his sixtieth birthday his immediate response was ‘spend it with the children, of course’. And spend it with the children he did- under the auspices of EPTA (coincidently, the tenth birthday of EPTA fell also on that date) in an upper room at St. Mary’s Music School in Edinburgh, in the company of a number of young players, pupils of Edinburgh teachers, with whom he conducted a masterclass of enchanting warmth and sympathy. Concerned as much with approach, preparation and posture as with technique, he managed to enlarge Adam Carse’s and Hilda Capp’s little pieces- to say nothing of his own ‘A Wheen Tunes for Bairns tae Spiel’- into a series of object lessons that ranged far beyond the purely technical, interspersing his comments with hectic, excited and quite unpractised passages from Chopin, Bach and Grainger’.

Stevenson has written nearly 500 piano pieces, and though a significant proportion of these are too virtuosic and challengingly complex for the younger player, there are many that are colourfully approachable for those hovering around the grade 3- 5 mark. Indeed the Associated Board have recognised this fact, setting movements from ‘Bairns tae Spiel’ for the early grades, and so bringing some of what remains a largely over-looked oeuvre to wider acclaim. Though Stevenson’s music has suffered because it lacked promotion from a major publisher, recent years have seen high quality print runs from the Ronald Stevenson Society, and this means that young pianists and their teachers can now easily obtain such rare treasures as ‘Preludette on the name of Gershwin’, ‘The Queen’s Dolour’ (after Purcell) ‘Hard is my fate’ (from Stevenson’s Scottish Folksong settings) and ‘Song of the Crabfisher’ (from ‘A Chinese folsong suite’, also available for piano duet). Other Stevenson miniatures worth investigating for the pre-grade 8 student include ‘Simple Variations on Purcell’s ‘New Scotch Tune’, ‘From an Old Pibroch’ (Scottish Folk-music settings, no.6), ‘Sailing Song’ and ‘A Little Mouth Music’ (South Uist Folksong Suite), ‘The hushed song’ (‘Border Boyhood’), ‘Doubles on Rubbra’s Cradle Hymn’, ‘Prelude and Chorale (An Easter Offering)’, and ‘Song without words’.

It is impossible to do more than touch the surface of Stevenson’s pianistic testament for the young- and young at heart-, but mention must be made of the outstandingly crafted, accessible and inspiring series of transcriptions written as a homage to Sigismond Thalberg and entitled ‘L’art du chant appliqué au piano’. Thalberg’s opus 70 shares more than its title with Stevenson’s series- the earlier cycle contains 22 pieces that transcribed well-known melodies of the time into a ‘bel canto’ style of pianism. Thalberg’s accompanying performance note evidently inspired Stevenson greatly, and deserves to be quoted here: ‘For simple tender melodies the keyboard should be kneaded as it were with a boneless hand and fingers of velvet: the keys must be felt rather than struck’.

These wonderfully gracious and elegantly beautiful sentiments find full realisation in piece after piece (song after song) of Stevenson’s collection, which embraces transcriptions as diverse as ‘We’ll gather Lilacs’, ‘Demande et repose’ and ‘Beautiful dreamer’ as well as arrangements of Bax’s ‘The White Peace’, Delius’s ‘Loves’ Philosophy’ and ‘Eleanore’. Those who appreciate tactile pleasure at the piano will find much that inspires and stimulates here.

Born in 1928 in Blackburn to working class parents of Scots and Welsh ancestry, Ronald Stevenson trained at the Royal Manchester College of Music and the Conservatorio Santa Cecilia (Rome) before settling in Scotland from the 1950s to follow a remarkable artistic path which has in many ways continued the work of the great composer-pianists of the past.

It is virtually impossible in a modest article to begin to do justice to the achievements of this ‘Brythonic’ (Nicholas Slonimsky) figure, but in addition to the 500 or so piano pieces already mentioned, Stevenson’s compositions include 300 songs, 2 Piano Concertos, a Sixty minute long Violin Concerto, a ’cello concerto and a monumental choral-orchestral composition entitled ‘Ben Dorain’ (this latter will receive its world premiere – over forty years after its completion in short score- on January 19 2008 with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and Scottish Opera Chorus in Glasgow as part of the ‘Celtic Connections’ festival).

Hovering over all of Stevenson’s music there is the work for which he is best known, the ’Passacaglia on DSCH’ for solo piano, (completed 1962 and championed by John Ogdon), an immense composition lasting some 80 minutes which was admired by Walton and described by Wilfred Mellers as ’surely one of the greatest works for solo piano, not merely of our own time’.

Long before Antony Beaumont, Stevenson had been considered a remarkable Busoni scholar, and his radio documentaries/broadcasts on this composer led to a Harriet Cohen prize before a full scale television documentary for the BBC was both written and presented by Stevenson in the early 1970s. His Busoni research includes a historical novel of over 2,000 pages in the form of a pyramid and overlaps with many of his other literally interests and projects, notably his Percy Grainger research. Elsewhere he has published a history of Western Music (Kahn and Avrill 1971), a treatise on Piano Technique and countless articles for publications including ‘The Listener’ and the ‘EPTA Journal’. Mention should also be made of his profound knowledge and love of poetry as well as of his associations with many of the great twentieth century Scots poets including Hugh MacDiarmid, Sorley MacLean and Norman McCaig.

Apart from composing, presenting and writing, Stevenson has given countless piano recitals, concerto performances and broadcasts for the BBC over the years. Many of his concerts have inevitably been as an interpreter of his own music, including the world premiere of the ‘Passacaglia’ (Cape Town 1963), the Song Cycle ‘Border Boyhood’ with Peter Pears (Aldeburgh 1971), Piano Concerto no.1 with the Scottish National Orchestra under Sir Alexander Gibson (Edinburgh 1966) and Piano Concerto no.2 with the New Philharmonia Orchestra under Norman Del Mar (Henry Wood Proms, 1972). An admirer of the ‘Golden Age’ of Piano Playing, Stevenson’s pianism is always searchingly aristocratic, creative and cantabile. His sound world as a pianist is unmistakably beautiful, uniquely spacious on the one hand yet fastidious and intimately conceived when the need arises. His feet are as creative as his fingers, his rubato, voicing, range of colours and touch control as impressive as anyone of his generation. The series of solo recordings for the Altarus Label (especially the ‘Cathedrals in Sound’ recital and the Busoni and ‘Passacaglia’ discs) shows Stevenson to be one of the great ‘unsung heroes’ not only as a composer, but equally so as an interpreter.

But it would be wrong to separate performing from composition when considering the genius of Stevenson, and the main reason that his piano works literally leap off the page to the prospective player is that they are written by a master-performer who knows the instrument intimately from the inside. This ‘organic’, holistic approach has obviously come from a deep study of the technical exercises, pianistic approaches, transcriptions and compositions of figures such as Busoni, Grainger, d’Albert, Paderewski, Godowsky, Chopin and Liszt, as well as from a firm theoretical foundation via the Viennese classics, Bach in abundance, and traditional harmony and counterpoint (at one point the teenage Stevenson was rising at 6am daily to study Palestrina!).

Hard grinding erudition has accompanied a love of melody throughout Stevenson’s career, and his father’s admiration of singer John McCormack left an early impression which was to lead to a detailed study of folksong. The resultant abundance of melody throughout the Stevenson oeuvre is there for everyone to savour. At first glance there may appear, however, to be an apparent contradiction running through the corpus of piano pieces, as blatantly populist trifles such as the ’Rigoletto Rag’ (after Liszt’s ’Rigoletto’ paraphrase) sit side by side with such lofty offerings as the fiendishly uncompromising ’Motus Perpetuus(?) Temporibus Fatalibus’, (complete with Herculean bravura, a note row and cryptograms of the names Busoni, Schostakovich, Bach and Schoenberg). But Stevenson is an all encompassing ‘epic’ artist, a composer who according to his biographer Malcolm MacDonald strives for the ’gigantic bear-hug, attempting to sweep everything up in a single idealistic embrace of shared humanity’.

If we sense the influence of Busoni via erudition, counterpoint, vision and pianism in Stevenson, then we can also sense the immense debt he owes to Percy Grainger via the extrovert, open-aired folky, populist outgoing honesty of many a Stevenson phrase. But it would be wrong to view Busoni-Grainger as a kind of conflicting dichotomy running through Stevenson, for these two masters (at one time teacher and pupil in Berlin) shared an interest in ethnomusicology as well as a life-long freedom of separation between ‘transcription’ and so called ‘original’ composition in their own, quite different, music. Perhaps this is the single most important key to unlocking the wonder of Stevenson’s musical paradise: the ability to rise above the curation of manuscripts and embrace our entire musical legacy (whether it be a folksong, symphony or whatever) as part of an enormous and on-going creative process which can be commented on, revised, re-revised, and re-explored continuously for further illumination and beauty.

Much of Stevenson’s output stems directly from re-arrangement and transcription of pieces which have profoundly moved him as an artist, and his works include a whole series of Chopin paraphrases, as well as commentaries after Liszt, Rachmaninov (notably a re-working of the E flat Prelude op. 23 no.6 in which the climax is re-arranged to come at a later point in the piece), Paderewski, Ysaye (the six unaccompanied violin Sonatas transcribed for solo piano), John Bull, Purcell, Scots Folksong, Chinese Folksong, Sorabji, Bernard Van Dieren, Brahms, Berg (the Lullaby from ’Wozzeck), Kurt Weill (a so-called ’Threepenny Sonata’ consisting of sections based on themes from the opera), Britten (the ’Peter Grimes’ Fantasy and a Sonatina after themes from the final string Quartet) and so on. It is as though Stevenson’s music as a whole becomes a kind of meeting place for kindred and diverse spirits. One can never be sure of just how substantial or slight the Stevenson treatment will be (some compositions fit comfortably onto the back of postcards whilst others take well over an hour to play) but the craftsmanship, loving care, thoughtfulness and warmth is ubiquitous. It is worth taking time here to briefly explore several Stevensonian ‘commentaries in sound’ in order to illustrate something of the range, vision and potential for inspiration in this wonderful catalogue which is ours to celebrate:

From 1949 comes an 8 minute long ‘Fugue on a Fragment of Chopin’, written to commemorate the centenary of Chopin’s death and based on the main motif from the F minor Ballade. This is given full textbook fugal treatment, complete with Busonian craftsmanship and erudition via eloquent pianistic layouts and exhaustive permutations of double note figurations. Yet there is something distinctly joyful, mischievous even, about the relentless contrapuntal display, and with the final Tarantella metamorphosis, the Graingeresque abandon and vivacity which is sensed beneath the surface earlier on really comes to the forefront. A remarkable achievement from the 21 year old composer.

One of the most important works to emerge from Stevenson by 1959 was the ‘Prelude, Fugue and Fantasy on themes from Busoni’s Doktor Faust’, a thirty minute long triptych after the manner of Cesar Franck which had started life as a Fantasy in its own right based on motifs from the opera. The Prelude and Fugue were added later and premiered by John Ogdon at the Manchester Arts Festival in 1959 before the work became the first Piano Concerto.

This final, orchestrated version stands as an example of the futility in attempting to differentiate between transcription and ‘original’ composition in Stevenson, so intricately entwined are the motifs of Busoni, the initial permutations and developmental solo piano offshoots of Stevenson, and his re-workings via instrumentation of material already distilled and pondered over to an intense degree. Particular mention should be made of a remarkable passage towards the end of the opening Prelude in which a master-stroke of motivic alchemy produces a quasi-march (repeated three times) with trumpets intoning a hugely significant twelve tone theme from the first Prologue of Doktor Faust (‘Clavis Astartis Magica’) whilst the piano quotes material from the ‘Credo’ section of Prologue two in the opera. The soloist is requested to hold the sustaining pedal down continuously for nearly fifty bars at slow speed, resulting in an overwhelming engulfment of sonority which is brought to a powerful climax with the entry of the full orchestra. In its totality, the Prelude, Fugue and Fantasy/First Piano Concerto makes a remarkably powerful, darkly brooding impression. Die-hard Busonians will note and savour all the manifold references, asides, permutations and extensions, whilst those ignorant of Doktor Faust can still embrace the sense of epic drama and pathos purely on its own terms.

Stevenson has described his aforementoned eighty minute long marathon ‘Passacaglia on DSCH’ for solo piano as his own ‘Diabelli’ Variations, whilst Walton wrote ‘Very many thanks indeed for the records of your Passacaglia. I have now played it through for the 4th time. It is really tremendous-magnificent. I cannot remember having been so excited by a new work for a very long time. It is in the line of such great, but comparatively neglected works as Busoni’s Fantasia Contrappuntistica, and he I am certain would have been among the first to acclaim this work.’

The ‘Passacaglia’ is a text book example of the genre in the sense that the four note motif D, E flat, C and B natural (Shostakovich’s signature) is extended into a seven bar phrase and strictly repeated throughout the eighty minute span of the composition. That the work triumphantly succeeds without sounding atall repetitive is testament to the extraordinary imagination and vision behind its creation. In fact the listener quite early on ceases to be ‘aware’ of the DSCH figure such is the range of mood, characterisation and pianism on offer. In fact, what we have here is an encyclopaedia work, a testament which encompasses virtually everything which the composer knows in one gigantic sweeping whole. The massive triptych which is DSCH includes passages which can be mastered by Grade 5 pianists on the one hand, and other sections which require the most advanced virtuoso techniques. Electronic effects, sections which evoke african drumming, and a final massive fugal section in which DSCH is mixed with BACH , DSCH and a new vibrantly playful fugal motif are as memorable as the quietly wistful pibroch lament, the baroque suite, sonata-allegro, catalogue of double note ‘exercises’ hindu raga scale patterns, chopinesque nocturne and polonaise, etc,etc. It is interesting to note that recently the work has been performed without break as a kind of pianistic ‘relay race’ by half a dozen young artists during a special Ronald Stevenson festival weekend, and also that the composer continues to refine and add new ideas to it, viewing the work 40 years on as still very much a kinetic experience to be re-developed and re-thought as time passes.

Passacaglia clearly marked an enormous watershed in Stevenson’s work, and was followed in the 1960s by the remarkable transcriptions of Francis George Scott Songs, a labour of love which in their entirety presents the entire pantheon of pianistic skills on a most lyrical canvas. There followed an intense interest in ‘World Music’ (an extension of the Graingeresque ideal) which led to the large-scale Second Piano Concerto of 1972 as well as the ‘Gypsy’ Violin Concerto. The 1980s saw more concentrated attention on chamber music, with especially impressive achievements coming directly from Celtic material and folksong. To this period also comes ‘Beltane Bonfire’, (1990) complete with central Busonian- inspired Fugue, quotations from the Trial by Fire in the Magic Flute, Pentatonic Melody, Dance Rhythm and pianistic challenges aplenty. The title refers to the Celtic May Day and the custom of lighting two fires close together, between which men and cattle were driven to ward off disease and promote health. The result is 8 and a half minutes of joyful imagination, colour and vision.


See also ‘News’ on page for details of ‘Ronald Stevenson: A Celebration’, the three day festival at St. Johns Smith Square, London from April 11-13 2008 which will feature music by Stevenson and composers who have influenced him.

The Ronald Stevenson Society’s address is: 3 Chamberlain Road Edinburgh. EH10 4DL E mail: