An Appreciation

Given at the celebration of Ronald’s life at Warriston Crematorium, Edinburgh

14th April 2015

Mary Ann Kennedy

I don’t think Ronald was a man who gave a hoot about fashionability – musically I mean – he was of course a completely dapper dude, tapping into the flamboyant showmanship of his beloved virtuoso piano-composer forebears and I reckon also, illustrating the bravura and panache that he perceived as being a fundamental part of the Scottish psyche, however deeply hidden these might be in some of us.

But as it was for Karl Nielsen, music was the ‘sound of life’ to Ronald, and it is obvious that he cared deeply about people and place – about roots. His music he said was rooted in reality – he wanted to follow in James Joyce’s footsteps and sink his roots as deep down as he could amongst the people, the folk, in order to soar high above to the stars, and beyond. Only by being thus rooted could his music communicate directly – an imperative that went right back to his own roots – and his father’s desire for music that was plain speaking, without too much of the un-necessary twiddly bits!

Ronald’s Celtic heritage – Welsh and Scottish – was at the heart of his deep love of folk and traditional music, a musical passion that would have been considered, certainly in earlier years, unfashionable. “One must go back to be oneself and make it worthwhile being”, he said however – and Ronald saw the infinite worth of this music of his roots – and its capacity to convey narrative, emotion, vision on a grand scale as well as in miniature, (… to be able to appreciate it as long-lived music, as opposed to long-form, as the wonderful pianist Mary McCarthy said to me just before we came inside today.)

He said of himself, “I feel that I function at the point where extremes meet” and in this I believe he was very much like Donnchadh Bàn Mac an t-Saoir, the great 18th Century poet whose epic pibroch poem in praise of Ben Dorain inspired Ronald’s own epic – a true Ceòl Mòr for orchestra and chorus.

Duncan Bàn – the ultimate outdoorsman – his great talent was for being able to convey the macro and the micro with equal joy and respect:

An t-urram thar gach beinn aig Beinn Dòbhrain;

De na chunnaic mi fon ghrèin, ’s i bu bhòidhche leam…

The greatest of all mountains beneath the sun, Ben Dorain, but also populated by:

An eilid anns an fhrìth mar bu chòir dhi bhith,

The hind is in the forest as she ought to be,

Far am faigh i mìlteach glan-feòirneanach;

Here she may have sweet grass, clean, fine-bladed;

Bruchorachd is cìob, lusan am bi brìgh,

Heath-rush and deer’s hair grass, herbs in which strength resides,

Chuireadh sult is ìth air a lòineanaibh;

And which would make her flanks plump and fat-covered.

I think Ronald had this same breadth of perception which enabled him to work likewise on the epic or the miniature scale, to value each in equal part, and to incorporate the essence of one extreme in the other. He grew up with a music that did this already, no surprise then that he would remain so loyal to this music of ‘roots’. He did this though in the face of a rather snooty contemporary music world that wanted discord where Ronald preferred beauty – fearlessness in the face of beauty as John Purser has described it – the beauty of melody, of word rhythm, of capacity to connect with humanity, to understand oneself.

Ronald considered this love of one’s own heritage – a cultural nationalism – to be as much a contemporary concept as anything that flourished in the romantic 19th Century. In this he was the natural successor to Bartok and Kodaly, and to Janacek. But while Bartok’s lifelong love affair with Magyar folk music was devoted to the good of his country and fellow Hungarians, Ronald believed that an understanding of one’s own background was also the fundamental basis for a truly internationalist outlook.

His was a world music before the term became fashionable – the world music of Henry Cowell, rather than Peter Gabriel, and nowhere more visible than in his second piano concerto – the Continents – a work that Ronald created with a desire to connect with every person in the globally diverse Proms audience that was to hear it for the first time.

A young Eddie McGuire remembers the Scottish premiere of the work – where this international melting pot of music yielded up African drumming, an Australian aboriginal tune transcribed by Ronald’s great friend Percy Grainger, Javanese Gamelan, Japanese pentatonic scale, Afro-American spiritual, Latin American dance, Chinese folk song, Hindu raga – but it also gave you, if you knew what to listen for – Ronald’s great concern with the liberation struggles of various corners of humanity with references to the death of Che Guevara and to the Vietnam War, then in its final stages.

All this was, as Eddie wrote at the time, anchored in the folk music of Ronalds’s own background, with a pìbroch Calum Salum’s Salute to the Seals inspired by the music-loving seals of Tiree and Calum’s serenading of them from the beach. And I can vouch for their musical appreciation, having done the self-same thing with Oran na Ròin beneath the neighbouring Skerryvore lighthouse!

Of the Continents, another critic wrote that it was “As though the Indian Ocean was lapping against the shores of the Hebrides”, and that, said Ronald, tickled him pink!

“I have understood that the secret depth one finds in our folk-songs, is basically owing to the richness of their untold harmonic possibilities” – Ronald’s advocacy on behalf of traditional Scots and Gaelic music was a potent one indeed. A BBC interview with Ronald from the late 70s revealed a really quite staggering snobbery on the part of the interviewer, with something approaching incredulity that such a talent would choose not to live in London, would indeed limit his horizons by living in Scotland, and would embrace a music that was essentially some kind of underclass.

Ronald was of course more than a match for this – and his championing of traditional music was just a few years later to manifest itself in the form of a series of programmes for the BBC on the pipes, harp and fiddle – a series now regarded as a landmark by musicologists such as Stuart Eydmann.

His greatest legacy however, in terms of Scottish traditional music is right here today. As he grew up with songs around the parlour piano, so too did Ronald and Marjorie bring up a family who made music, who created the means by which to make music and for whom music was at the very core of their being. That Savourna, Gerda, Gordon and the next generation again – Anna-Wendy, Rob, Miles, Emily and the others – should grow up with music – and the music of their nation – hardwired is the perfect testament to a remarkable couple – to a man who in the words of Thoreau, lived ‘deliberately’, and perhaps, as that particular walk in the woods was how Ronald described himself, it might be appropriate to finish with a poem by his son-in-law Aonghas MacNeacail:

Sìth na Coille – The Peace of The Forest

có nach iarradh sìth na coille
nuair a tha sinn sireadh tàmh
cha b’ann iargailt gairm a choilich
anns a chomraich seo nach cnàmh
ach na seachain ceòl is dannsa
na cuir cùl ri còmhradh tlàth
dlùthaich ris an leug a b’annsa
leat mar chéile chaomh gach tràthcuimhnich gu bheil brìgh na d’ bheatha
ged nach b’ann gun strì no cràdh –
allt do sgeòil ro bheò ’s ro leathann –
inns’ a luach do dh’aois is àl
bitheamaid gu moiteil cinnteach
gu bheil duais am miannach stàth –
ged nach ruig sinn cinn nam fireach
faic an dùrachd fhéin mar bhàrrseadh a luaidh ’s nach gabh sinn spaisdir
mach bho thàlaidhean nan sràid
measg nan geug ’s gach sochair paisgte
seinneamaid an duan gu bràth
có nach iarradh sìth na coille
tosd a bhiathas gréis a bhàird
togail chnothan cinnt le togairt
còmhla ann am buain a ghràidh
who wouldn’t wish the forest’s stillness
when we go in search of peace
the cock’s crow here brings no challenge
in this refuge that won’t decay
but don’t shun either dance or music
don’t reject gentle conversation
draw close to the gem you’d wish
to have as gracious spouse each dayremember that your life has value
though you’ll live with strife and pain –
your story’s stream’s too live and open –
tell its worth to old and young
let us be both proud and certain
there’s a prize in seeking good –
though the peaks may be beyond us
see the wish itself as crownso, my love, why don’t we stroll out
from the allure of the streets
among the boughs and sheltered comforts
let us sing the song for aye
who wouldn’t wish the forest’s stillness
quiet that feeds our bardic skills
picking certainty’s fruit with pleasure
together in the store of love – (together while we garner love)


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