Feb 2008 – Ben Dorain

This edition of the Newsletter concentrates on RS’s In Praise of Ben Dorain, which had its long-anticipated première in Glasgow on Saturday 19 January. It would be hard to imagine a finer way of starting the celebrations for RS’s 80th birthday, which falls on 6 March.

In praise of Praise of Ben Dorain: by Alistair Hinton

Robert Dawson Scott rightly observes in his review of the world première of Ronald’s Ben Dorain (The Times, 22 January 2008), “not many works can be said to be worth waiting 45 years for but this was certainly one of them”. Few works in musical history have in any case had such lengthy gestation periods (Medtner’s Piano Quintet is the only other example that springs immediately to mind) and it certainly
comes as something of a surpri se to witness the unveiling of a recently completed work that Ronald began just after finishing his Passacaglia. Whatever the reasons may be that delayed its completion so long, a single hearing alone reveals beyond doubt that this was not a work of which Ronald ever “let go” in his mind.
In his excellent biography of Ronald, Malcolm MacDonald wrote:
Stevenson has written no Symphony. Ben Dorain was at first announced as one but when, or if, it finally emerges it will be without that designation, which would disguise its essential variation-form
Two decades later, all of this remains true, apart (mercifully!) from the “or if”.
Ronald himself wrote:
I think all great art aspires beyond nationalism, as an exploration of occult regions of experience. But I am convinced that a people’s culture cannot get beyond nationalism until it has realised it. Scotland hasn’t”.
But that was almost 40 years ago. Ben Dorain is arguably Ronald’s boldest specifically “Scottish” musical statement yet; it is fascinatingly different in approach to his Scottish Triptych which Chris Rice (Altarus Records) appositely describes as:
“in some ways a more international, more epic work, a work that places Scottishness more firmly in an international context – a better analogue of MacDiarmid’s polyglot vocabulary – despite its smaller scale and forces”.
Chris Rice’s observation illuminates just one of Ben Dorain’s immediate fascinations: Ronald equally at ease as international Scotsman and local Scotsman. It is, of course, sad that Ben Dorain never saw the light of day during the lifetime of MacDiarmid, whose work has always played a major rôle in Ronald’s life. It is an even greater pity that Ronald’s orchestral music has been heard so rarely; let us hope that, in
a climate in which Scotland has perhaps at least begun to “realise” what Ronald felt it had long ignored – and in a city that is no longer either “infernal” or (as MacDiarmid once described it) “a place for batfolding”(!)
– this première will prove to be a turning point in his – and our – fortunes in this regard.
Given Ronald’s immense contribution to piano literature and his own phenomenal mastery of the instrument, it is inevitable that his name has so far been associated first and foremost with the keyboard, yet, in an interview some years ago along the lines of a Desert Island Discs programme, his choices were all recordings of singers. Ronald has always shared with Sorabji – an even more copious composer of
piano music – the underlying principle that “music begins and ends with singing”; it has informed all his art, creative and recreative and, through his many songs and song-cycles, he has developed an instinctive and affecting manner with vocal composition which, in Ben Dorain, has resulted in some splendidly effective and vibrant writing that solo singers and choirs would relish, just as those in that first
performance so obviously did. When once asked to what I would most aspire in my own work that I’d yet to achieve, I replied without a second thought “a gift for memorable melody like Ronald Stevenson has”. I have no doubt that many in Ben Dorain’s first audience will thus have taken away and recalled plenty from that score.
It was unfortunate that I could not attend the performance myself; listening to it afterwards on a computer is self-evidently a rather miserably poor substitute for being present. That said, this facility at least enabled me finally to hear the work and the experience was as rewarding for me as it clearly was for those lucky enough to be there, not least for another Scots composer more than three decades Ronald’s junior, James MacMillan, whose enthusiastic endorsement is most heartening and welcome. The comparative restraint of the orchestral writing made the work’s final gestures all the more tellingly powerful. The representation of the text in two languages by the use of two choirs of different size seems to be an ingenious, if ambitious, masterstroke, though one which, inevitably and frustratingly, was
somewhat lost in the transmission due to the technological limitations.
Ronald’s prolific output includes but a small proportion of orchestral works (so far!), which is again a pity, since his imagination and adroitness in this medium are amply evidenced in such scores as his Second Piano Concerto and, perhaps most of all, his Violin Concerto (surely one of the finest of its kind since Szymanowski’s Second Violin Concerto of more than three-quarters of a century ago). It is
therefore gratifying to learn that, doubtless fired up by the experience of finally setting the seal on Ben Dorain, Ronald is now engaged in orchestrating parts of his Passacaglia.
My first experience of Ronald’s work was a broadcast of his song-cycle Border Boyhood sung by Peter Pears with the composer; I was entranced, not least by the brilliance and sensitivity of the playing. That was in 1971 when it was new, though we can now see it as one of a number of peaks in his creative achievement, along with (inevitably) the monumental Passacaglia before it and (among others) The
Infernal City, the Violin Concerto, Motus Perpetuus (?) Temporibus Fatalibus and Symphonic Elegy for Liszt after it; chronologically, Ben Dorain straddles all of these works except the Passacaglia and is now the most recent addition to that mountain range.
And so – da capo. The Times reviewer states that Ronald, “now in his 80th year…has finally delivered a work worthy of the endeavour”; well worthy it was, indeed, although it must be said that Ronald has been delivering such works over at least half a century! Far from “the forgotten man of Scottish music”
as the reviewer describes him, the new and wholly convincing Ben Dorain establishes beyond doubt Ronald’s position as a beacon of Scotsmanship in 20th century music – a beacon that is shining ever brighter in the 21st.
Bravo, bravissimo, Maestro!
Alistair Hinton
(Composer and Archivist of the Sorabji Archive)

Press and audience response to world premiere of RS’s PRAISE OF BEN DORAIN, City Halls,
Glasgow, Celtic Connections, 19th January 2008, broadcast live on BBC Radio Scotland
BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Scottish Opera Chorus, Glasgow University Chapel Choir,
and the Edinburgh Singers, conducted by James Grossmith.
“It has long been a goal of Celtic Connections, Glasgow’s great winter festival of traditional music, to find a way of bringing together its rich heritage with what, for want of a better word, we call classical music. This year, Ronald Stevenson, now in his 80th year, has finally delivered a work worthy of the endeavour. Not many works can be said to be worth waiting 45 years for but this was certainly one of them. Stevenson began work on Praise of Ben Dorain, inspired by the epic 18th-century poem of the same name by the Gaelic poet Duncan ban MacIntyre, in 1962, when his friend Hugh MacDiarmid showed him a translation he had made. Stevenson uses a traditional musical form that any self-respecting piper would recognise: a simple ground returning with increasing levels of elaboration. He has the words sung in Gaelic and English by two separate choirs. Two child voices, a ninth apart, announce the theme. At the end, two adults return to the same theme in triumphant unison…there is rigorous compositional discipline to develop the material, and some of the most exhilarating choral writing I have heard for many a day, much of it unaccompanied. The big orchestral palette available is used selectively and only rarely brought together, the more effective when it is, as in the final, cathartic chords. The singers of the Scottish Opera Chorus, the Edinburgh Singers and the Glasgow University Chapel Choir made a fine job of some demanding music. The young conductor and chorus-master James Grossmith seized his opportunity with both hands.”
Robert Dawson, Scott, The Times, January 22, 2008.
“There might not be much that music can do about environmental despoliation, but symbolically at least the mountain bloomed again at
Celtic Connections’ opening weekend, as the 250-year-old Gaelic words and music of an illiterate Argyll gamekeeper took their place on the
City Halls stage, in a performance featuring the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and the Scottish Opera Chorus, plus the Glasgow
University Chapel Choir and the Edinburgh Singers. Stevenson’s ideas incorporate sections of both MacDiarmid’s text and the original
Gaelic, sung by two different choirs, along with other Gaelic material relating to Ben Dorain and Ban MacIntyre, plus a closing
contemporary verse by Glasgow poet David Betteridge. The music itself was broadly based on the poem’s original piobaireachd structure
and accompanying melody, which Stevenson deployed somewhat like a fugue, elaborating successively on its urlar or theme in a succession
of stunningly beautiful instrumental passages, including some especially sublime writing for strings and brass.
The vocal interleaving of Gaelic and English also proved effective. Opening with two child soloists and ending with paired adult voices, the
40-minute piece gracefully evoked the life cycles celebrated in Ban MacIntyre’s poem, with the mountain invoked as mother to all the
creation it supports, a hymnal aspect stirringly reflected at times in the singing, in between the orchestra’s lush pastoral sequences. And
Stevenson’s music offered in turn a deeply-felt celebration of Ban MacIntyre’s writing, and the culture that engendered it, framed by the
composer’s own unique artistic dialogue between past and present. With the concert going out live on Radio Scotland, the first half
expanded on the theme of poetry and music’s close kinship in Gaelic culture, with some excellent solo and ensemble singing from Kenna
Campbell, James Graham, Gillebrìde MacMillan and Norrie MacIver, including several other Ban MacIntyre compositions.
Sue Wilson, Highlands& Islands Journal, 22nd January, 2008.
“Here we had a swinging central fugue, a piping flute, a massing of strings and a big recurring tune, full of Scottish
spirit and sentiment – enough to bring the large audience to its feet when the composer took his bow. Stevenson
himself has always stood out from the crowd and has here written something nobody else would dare to.”
Conrad Wilson, The Herald, 21 January, 2008.
“The year 2008 has a long way to run – but this will almost certainly be its Scottish cultural highlight.”
Letters Page, The Herald, 23rd January, 2008.
“The composition follows the form of the Ceòl Mor or the Classical Pibroch tradition, and Stevenson describes the
‘siubhal’ or ‘doubling’ of his piece as closely relating to the classical form of the fugue. The orchestra joined forces
with a chorus of over 100 singers in total, singing in Gaelic and English. If the audience expectations were those of
grandeur and hunting horns, extolling the virtues of the nature of the mountain, then they were not disappointed. It
is without doubt a truly iconic piece and one which deserves to become a fixture of the contemporary repertoire.”
Fiona MacKenzie, (Gaelic perspective), Highlands & Islands Arts Journal, 23rd January, 2008
“I just wanted to say how much pleasure we all got out of being involved in that very special evening. I’ve done a
few of these bilingual presentations of crossover nights for the BBC SSO now, but I have to say that I thought Ben
Dorain was the first one that really worked – everything made so much sense – it belonged. I’ve often thought that
(like Indian music for instance) people from outside the tradition don’t necessarily grasp that there is a folk music
and a classical music within our Gaelic culture that is performed side by side, so it was also a wonderful opportunity
to accord Donnchadh Ban’s poetry the status it deserves and place it in that context. Le mor-speis is gach blath
dhurachd dhuit fhein san teaghlach gu leir.”
Mary Ann Kennedy, bi-lingual presenter, in Gaelic and English, of BBC Radio Scotland’s live broadcast.
“Saturday’s concert was a fascinating musical journey and I’m very glad the SSO was able to be a part
of it. Here’s to Celtic Connections!” Gavin Reid, Director BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra.
“I’m very proud that we could be part of such a landmark event.” Alison Lewis, Celtic Connections.
“This work is in its own league. It does inevitably have one passacaglia-like feature, in the gathering
weight that is borne by its cyclically repeated refrain. But it’s a strophic piece, and proceeds in a
different way. I responded very much to its economy of effect, particularly powerful in the big
orchestral episodes. The quality of inner hearing that informs it, its unpredictable and compelling
harmony, and the authority of its undemonstrative scoring – all these bear the stamp of a lifetime’s
mastery.” David Rudkin, playwright.
“Ben Dorain was a huge undertaking, and a massive success”. Alan Spence, writer.
“Listened on line tonight; what a joyful choral sound; what a stunningly eerie beginning! What a
celebration of the man and the music!” Marilyn Imrie, Radio Producer, Catherine Bailey Ltd,
“WOW! We’ve just now listened on line to the fantastic interview and then the very beautiful and huge
piece and the endless BRAVOS, and send them from our living room as well! Many congratulations.”
Carol K. Mack, playwright, New York.
A Celebration of Ronald Stevenson’s 80th Birthday presented by EPTA UK in Scotland:
Murray McLachlan plays the Passacaglia on DSCH by Ronald Stevenson on the magnificent new Steinway in St Mary’s
Cathedral, Palmerston Place, Edinburgh on Saturday 1st March: 2.00pm. Masterclass 3.45 – 5pm Admission by donation.
15th March, 7.30 pm at the Edinburgh Society of Musicians (3 Belford Road, by Dean Bridge): a concert to celebrate
Ronald’s 80th Birthday.
RS Festival at St John’s Smith Square, London Friday 11th – Sunday 13th April 2008. Full details at
The Peebles Orchestra, of which RS is the Patron, will perform the May Songs for soprano and string orchestra on
26th April at 7.30 pm in the Andrew Leckie Memorial Church, with Susan Hamilton, soprano, and Robert Dick, conductor.
The RS Society Music Weekend at the Cathedral of the Isles, Isle of Cumbrae will take place again this year on Friday 25th,
Saturday 26th and Sunday 27th July. Participants can arrive on the Thursday evening for dinner, and depart on the Monday
morning after breakfast. This year’s theme is Busoni, Grainger, Stevenson, et al.
Inquiries to: info@ronaldstevensonsociety.org.uk or write to The Ronald Stevenson Society, 3 Chamberlain Road,
Edinburgh EH10 4DL, Scotland.