Saturday 7 January 2017

Remembering Ronald Stevenson

Ronald Stevenson - photo courtesy of the Ronald Stevenson Society
Ronald Stevenson - photo courtesy of the Ronald Stevenson Society
The British composer, pianist and writer Ronald Stevenson (1928-2015) is known for one or two peaks of his output, such as the Passacaglia in DSCH, one of the longest unbroken single-movements composed for piano. Yet he was a prolific composer and his music is still not as well known as it deserves. I was lucky enough, as a young man in my first job following university, to meet and get to known Ronald somewhat and come to realise how much his own personality imbued his whole work. There was the sense of him not so much swimming against the contemporary musical tide as, from his base in West Linton, standing determinedly independent of it and creating a sense of the composer/pianist of the past in the mould of Liszt or Paderewski.

The Trasnscendental Tradition - Ronald Stevenson in Concert
I first met Ronald Stevenson in around 1977, he was a close friend of one of my friends in Edinburgh so it was inevitable that I was taken to one of Ronald's recitals. I don't remember that much about the specifics, the various Ronald Stevenson recitals which I attended during the five years I was in Scotland have rather blurred. What I do remember is the slightly nerve-wracking socialising afterwards, myself, my friend, Ronald and the friends with whom he was staying in Edinburgh.

Such occasions would become something of a commonplace over the years and were as much an education for me as the music. Simple but effective food  (from that first I remember the cheese and the strong black coffee), and good conversation. Ronald was not only erudite but talked with wit and charm. He could be informative and entertaining, and his musical heroes were never far away, Busoni and Grainger.

This extended to his recitals, where Ronald talked even if it was intended as a 'straight' recital. He had a gift for elucidating, informing and entertaining. I remember one lecture recital where to illustrate a point he played the opening from Chopin's Revolutionary Etude which made you wish he was playing the whole thing.

The one lecture recital I remember in more detail was one on Bach transcriptions. The art of transcription was something close to Ronald's heart, something profoundly at odds with the musical times. And Ronald's Bach transcriptions recital included some remarkable byways, such as RVW's Bach transcription from Harriet Cohen's Bach Book. This recital finished with one of Ronald's warhorses, the Bach/Busoni Chaconne. He played from music, needing a page turner, and the friend who did so commented after that it was tricky as Ronald re-composed some passages and at one point he was required to take off Ronald's glasses and wipe them.

Regrettably I never heard Ronald play his great Passacaglia on DSCH. In fact, there were few opportunities to hear Ronald's music, certainly no large-scale pieces. This was the period after he had completed the violin concerto for Yehudi Menuhin, too late and too taxing in length for Menuhin to play so there was much discussion about a possible premiere (I don't believe it was premiered until the 1990s). But his music rarely if ever seemed to crop up in concerts unless Ronald himself was involved. That Ronald was somewhat out of step with the musical times was indicated by his love not only of transcription but of writing in romantic genres,

Ronald Stevenson and Dmitri Shostakovich with the score of Ronald Stevenson's Passacaglia on DSCH
Ronald Stevenson and Dmitri Shostakovich
with the score of Passacaglia on DSCH
I did hear him playing his Peter Grimes Fantasy, talking about how Benjamin Britten appreciated it apart from the section at the end where the pianist leans in to the piano and plays the strings directly. (The Peter Grimes Fantasy can be heard on Kenneth Hamilton's recent disc of Ronald's piano music.) For the Percy Grainger centenary in 1982, as I was living in London we attended Ronald's lecture recital in the Jubilee Hall in Aldeburgh, which ended with a magical lecture and performance of Grainger's fantasy on Der Rosenkavalier, the Ramble on Love.

There was private music-making too. I remember a tiny piece of Ronald's with three piano parts which could be played by any combinations of three players with the part at any octave in the piano, so we played it in a variety of combinations.

Though Ronald was known for his strong political opinions, I don't honestly remember much about politics, perhaps it just went over my had as political matters did not interest me so much then. I know that Ronald was proud of his origins and when we visited him in West Linton he showed me a wooden artefact providing a link with the Lancashire mills where one of his parents had worked. (Also in his study, his 'den of musiquity', I remember a striking photograph of Busoni, and a couple of Edward Gordon Craig prints.) I do remember Ronald and Alan Bush going off to give a piano duet concert tour in the DDR, Ronald would have been in around 50 and Alan was nearly 30 years older than him. It seemed, to my younger self, to be two old blokes going off on adventure (and perhaps it was). They performed, I believe, their own music and were very well received in all the small places where they performed, in a way which would seem unlikely in the UK at the time.

As I possessed a car, some of Ronald's recitals in more distant parts ended with me driving him and various friends back to Edinburgh where he was staying. And this happened much later too, when I and a friend attended a recital he gave, in Essex I think. Driving him back to London were were treated to almost a monologue in the car, Ronald at his most charming and most erudite.

Regarding his piano playing, what I do remembers was the vividness and sheer vitality, He could make even a familiar work line Paderewski' Minuet sound new, and he was the only pianist I heard ho could make playing very loudly sound expressive and nuanced.

Looking back, knowing Ronald Stevenson was an important part of my musical education. The sense no only of living your music but being true to it and making it part of your whole life. Music wasn't something Ronald did just in the concert hall, and his talk was as illuminating as his playing. I regret not getting to know Ronald better, but it is the me of 30 years later talking, and I am grateful to have known him.

Ronald Stevenson on disc as pianist

Ronald Stevenson's music on disc

Elsewhere on this blog:

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