April 2010

Members of the Ronald Stevenson Society are invited to the launch of Comrades in Art: The Correspondence of Ronald Stevenson and Percy Grainger which will be held in the Concert Room in the Royal Academy of Music on Tuesday 4 May (6–8pm).

In 1957 the Australian-American composer Percy Grainger, then 75 and in failing health, received a letter from another pianist-composer, the young Ronald Stevenson, writing from his home in West Linton, below Edinburgh. That first contact – requesting Grainger’s reminiscences of Ferruccio Busoni, with whom he had studied – led to an exchange of 32 letters over the four years before Grainger’s death in February 1961.
The two men soon found that, despite their 46-year age difference, they had many affinities. Both were pianists of staggering abilities and composers who combined a love for folkmusic and working-class art with an aesthetic that proposed a ‘world music’ to include the farthest reaches of humanity. Both made an art of piano transcription of a wide variety of works and were champions of little-known music and composers. And
both revered the work of Walt Whitman, that great poet of inclusivity, the pioneering spirit and the open road.
This book presents both the complete Grainger-Stevenson correspondence and Ronald Stevenson’s many articles and lectures on Grainger and his music, edited by Teresa Balough, whose two interviews with Stevenson open and close the volume – which includes a CD of a lecture-recital on Grainger that Stevenson presented in Grainger’s home in White Plains, New York, in 1976.
Comrades in Art is being presented as part of a triple book launch, the other two titles being Havergal Brian on Music, Vol. 2: European and American Music in his Time, edited by Malcolm MacDonald, and Composing in Words: William Alwyn on his Art, edited by Andrew Palmer. All three editors will make a brief presentation, after which guests will be invited to join them for refreshments. Ronald and Marjorie Stevenson are planning to come down from West Linton for the event. Copies of all three books will be available at a discount on the day and can also be ordered from the Toccata Press website, www.toccatapress.com. If you intend to be present, Toccata Press would appreciate a word in advance, to info@toccatapress.com.
Comrades in Art: The Correspondence of Ronald Stevenson and Percy Grainger, 1957–61, with Interviews, Essays and other Writings on Grainger by Ronald Stevenson. 40 b&w illus., 279pp, 25 x 15 cm; includes CD. £35

A new book of RS’s articles and essays, Song in Gold Pavilions: Ronald Stevenson on Music, edited by Chris Walton, has recently been published by Sun Press in South Africa. It contains over 30 of RS’s writings on his own music, on many British composers, on Scots music, and on Continental traditions. Currently it can only be purchased from www.sun-e-shop.co.za. We will have more on this book in the next newsletter.

on the transcription of Mahler, Symphony no.10 – Christopher White

Programme Note for the new CD: Mahler, Symphony no.10 realised by Deryck Cooke, transcribed for piano solo by Ronald Stevenson and Christopher White (Divine Art DDA25079)
“The two of us wrote…together. Since each of us was several, there was already quite a crowd”. In their groundbreaking work A Thousand Plateaus, co-authors Giles Deleuze and Félix Guattari describe working together in these unusual terms. The phrase jumped out at me as a useful allegory to describe my work, aided and abetted by my friend and colleague Ronald Stevenson, on the solo piano transcription of Mahler’s Tenth Symphony, presented here for the first time. For not only were he and I involved in producing the work, but a whole host of antecedents were, so to speak, breathing down our neck: Mahler himself, of course, who was unable to complete the work; Deryck Cooke, the pioneering English musicologist who prepared a ‘performing version’ of the sketches in the 1960s; and his assistants, the composers Colin and David Matthews, the latter consulted by me during preparation of the second movement in late summer 2007. Dr. Stevenson, also, comes with his fair share of ‘baggage’:
as perhaps the world’s leading expert on the life and music of Ferruccio Busoni, piano transcriber par excellence, he prepared his own transcription of the opening Adagio of the Symphony with this tradition very much in mind, a fact clearly discernible after just a few bars. Dr. Stevenson’s own particular insight as a composer comes through loud and clear in his own work, which has inspired mine, as well as his significant if not widely held view that a transcription is in essence an act of re-composition.
The question could legitimately be posed, then: how do we find our way back, through this thicket of personalities and compositional theories, to the original Mahler? Or rather, this question could be legitimately posed if ‘finding our way back to the original Mahler’ had been the primary intention of either Dr. Stevenson or myself. But this is very profoundly not our intention. In addition, it is not as if the piano is an instrument starved of repertoire, which could benefit from some transcribed music of earlier composers, and it is not as if an orchestral recording of the Tenth could not easily be picked up at the record store. So wider dissemination of an unknown work is not our primary intention either.
Why produce and record a work such as this then? Well, once we have got beyond the significant and multi-purpose “Why not?” which should never be discounted but which often is when discussing unusual musical enterprises, my intention was, partly, to tap into a tradition with which Mahler in his time would actually have been rather familiar. In his time, it seems to me, respect for the musical text of a work was a far more conceptual, far less literal idea, than it has become. A professional conductor and composer of Mahler’s stature would think nothing of worshipping a work of an earlier composer and giving it a ‘helping hand’ in matters of orchestration etc., as indeed he did with symphonic works of Beethoven and Schumann, for instance. Also, Mahler was instrumental, early in his career, in bringing Weber’s comic opera Die Drei Pintos to life from the sketches Weber left at the end of his life, and perhaps most surprisingly of all is quoted as saying to an orchestra: “hail to the conductor who will alter my scores according to the acoustics of the concert hall” (recorded by Egon Wellesz). Duty to the score, as understood by Mahler, means duty not in the
bald, orthographic sense of the word, but in terms of its effect on a real live audience in a real live concert hall at a particular time. Thereby, it could be argued, music acquires a living, ‘dynamic’ quality, and begins to be rescued, in Richard Taruskin’s terms, from being a ‘museum piece’.

We arrive at another of my ‘non-intentions’ with this transcription – I am not, in my playing, slavishly  attempting to ‘re-produce’ every orchestral sound on the piano; whilst I do attempt quasi-orchestral effects in places, I would like this work to be thought of predominantly as a piano piece. In truth, it is a ‘piano commentary’ on the ‘performing draft’ of the uncompleted Tenth Symphony of Gustav Mahler. In one sense,
then, the ‘authentic’ Mahler is left far behind; in another, he is merely seen in a different light, and is perhaps presented in a way which allows us a way in to his dynamic and evolving compositional process (I love Theodor Adorno’s definition of Mahler as “the developing composer par excellence”).What Ronald Stevenson has described to me, in private conversation, as ‘the living thread’ in the life of a musical work merely begins at the time of composition; it comes through the ears and the fingers of a whole host of others, musicians and non-musicians alike, which give it sustained life: it is only in this dynamic sense that a composer can be granted anything which could even allegorically be described as ‘immortality’.

Whilst the above is admittedly somewhat controversial, and either drastically old-fashioned or drastically futuristic, I hope it begins to give an insight into my motivations and methods in preparing this transcription, which could otherwise seem to be a somewhat obscure project. In some places, I have altered the Mahlerian textures to produce a playable solution, but this was necessary on surprisingly few occasions – Mahler was no mean pianist himself (there are piano roll recordings), and used the instrument to compose. There are places, too, when the fact that this transcription is a piano piece comes through more clearly than in others, for example my rendering of the bass drum solo strokes at the beginning of the final movement (a complicated trick involving the third pedal and my right forearm to generate extra resonance), and the expansion of the pitch material at the recapitulation of the third movement. Otherwise, Mahler’s extraordinary technical and imaginative accomplishment in this symphony give rise to a piano piece which runs the full gamut of pianistic textures, from monody at the very opening all the way to the famous nine-note chord, a shriek of terror which uses the full orchestra, not to mention the range of emotions involved, and extraordinarily compositionally inventive sections such as that of musical de- and re-generation between the fourth and the final movement, which I feel is thrown into particularly clear relief by a pianistic rendering.
My part of the score of this work, and this recording, are dedicated to Dr. Ronald Stevenson. I am humbled and privileged to have so eminent a colleague and a champion.
Christopher White, April 2009

Christopher White (b.1984) graduated from the Royal Academy of Music in 2007 with first-class honours as well as awards for academic and practical music-making. From the same institution he gained a Masters Degree with Distinction in 2008. He studied Chopin with the late Prof. Alexander Satz, Messaien with Pierre-Laurent Aimard, and Busoni with Ronald Stevenson. Solo performances have taken him to Vienna, New York, Kyoto and Auckland, N.Z. He has performed in the Wigmore, Fairfield and Queen Elizabeth Halls as a chamber musician, and worked extensively with singers on Lieder and song recitals as well as for opera. He contributed to the Ronald Stevenson 80th Birthday celebrations at St John’s, Smith Square in April 2008.

Anticipating Sinfonia Elegiaca. David Betteridge

When I heard that RS was at work on a Sinfonia Elegiaca, to be derived and transmuted from four sections of his Passacaglia, I began to wonder what musical “elegies” are, the term being a borrowing from literature.

There are elegies that are no more – and no less – than laments occasioned by the loss of some person or thing that was held dear. Often, however, an elegy goes beyond lament, and includes an element of praise or celebration. Sometimes an elegy goes still further, and tries to make a lasting memorial, offering consolation, perhaps, or conveying an insight of general application. Tennyson’s In Memoriam is a good example. So also is Hamish Henderson’s Elegies for the Dead in Cyrenaica. Here, in this book-length poem, as well as mourning and praising the soldiers who perished in the desert during World War Two, Germans equally with British, the poet also considers what can be learned about the human condition from all these “poor muckers” who joined “the proletariat of levelling death”. Two musical counterparts spring to mind, RS’s Keening Sang for a Makar and Vaughan Williams’ Pastoral Symphony. The first mourns and celebrates Francis George Scott, containing echoes of his songs in the fabric of the music. The second, which would be better called an Elegiac Symphony, is a requiem for a whole generation, lost in the massacres of World War One.

There is a second kind of elegy in literature, one that does not exclusively or primarily deal with loss and mourning. Busoni had this genre in mind when he composed his own very far-ranging set of piano Elegies. “A German,” he later wrote, “should at least know his Goethe, and are this prodigy’s Roman Elegies songs of lament? Practically the opposite.” And not only Goethe. Many poets from Propertius and Ovid, through Donne, to Rilke wrote elegies that reflect, and reflect on, the variousness of life; often the starting point is love. That said, it is noticeable that, whenever a poet’s or composer’s reflections extend to Time and its passing, then a note of mourning is liable to creep in. In T.S. Eliot’s words, in Four Quartets:

Words move, music moves / Only in time; / but that which is only living / Can only die…

What kind of elegy will RS’s Sinfonia Elegiaca prove to be? Insofar as we can guess from its parent-work, the Passacaglia, it will range from elegy-as-lament to elegy-as-reflection, with elements of praise and celebration also occurring. That is to say, it will be a combination of the two kinds.

When Busoni published his Elegies, or the first six of them at any rate, he called them collectively by the title of the first piece in the set, Nach der Wendung. The “turning” that he had in mind was the decisive step in his musical development that he had just taken. In RS’s Sinfonia Elegiaca we can look forward to something different, and no less significant. We can look forward to a work that demonstrates, not a turning, but a continuing of a great composer’s musical and human journey.

Recent CD release

Scotland at Night: Choral settings of Scottish Poetry sung by Laudibus, conductor Mike Brewer features Stevenson’s Medieval Scottish Triptych (Delphian DCD 34060)
‘Magnificently sung… Superlative recording’, Daily Telegraph Five Stars; ‘fascinating and splendidly executed…
enlightens and reveals as much as it impresses and delights’, Classic FM Magazine Disc Of The Month.
Murray McLachlan has completed his recording of a double CD of Ronald’s piano music and it is at present in the production
process by Divine Art who expect it to be available by June/July this year.

Recent Ronald Stevenson Society Publications

Adagio cantabile (2010)
| RSS 117 | 15 pages | Grade (d) |
for string orchestra and one French horn
Score and parts
Sinfonia Elegiaca (2010)
| RSS 118 | 42 A3 pages | Grade (d) |
for Symphony Orchestra
Score and parts
I. Recitative and Air
II. Lament for the Children
III. Adagio
IV. Epilogo: Adagissimo barocco
A 20th Century Music Diary (1953–1959)
| RSS 310 | Typeset | 36 pages | Grade (m) | Duration 20’ |
for piano
(formerly available in ms only)
Fugue, Variations & Epilogue on a theme by Arnold Bax
| RSS 524 | 24 pages | Grade (d) | Duration 23’ |
for piano
A full list of the works of Ronald Stevenson has been compiled by Martin Anderson and can be found in Ronald Stevenson: The Man and His Music, A Symposium edited by Colin Scott-Sutherland.
A list of published works available from the Ronald Stevenson Society can be downloaded from the Society’s website. To order copies, contact the Society by mail or email (details on front page).
Paper saving: please email the Society if you would prefer to receive Fuga,the Society’s newsletter, by email as a pdf file in future.
Mahler’s sketched but far from orchestrated Tenth Symphony can only be known in a conjectural form, so this version for solo piano is, in a sense, as authoritative as any other presentation; and engrossing it is, played with fervour and intelligence, lent an unmistakeable symphonic atmosphere and drama. The first movement is given in the stylish transcription by Ronald Stevenson – the climatic nine-note dissonance, when it comes, is stomach-churning – and the four others in the young pianist’s skilful version.
The second scherzo is tumultuous, the rendition of the military drum thwacks at the opening of the finale suitably shocking. The whole account bristles with intellectual life. PD