Volume 9 Number 3 March 2003

Ronald Stevenson

Not a birthday tribute, from Chris Walton
I am not very good at birthday tributes. I have read too many, perhaps, in which a commonplace occurrence – the completion of another 365 days in the life of a fellow human being – is taken as an excuse to fill a blank page by declining as many as possible synonyms of the verb „to praise‟. As often as not, such hagiographical texts say more about the author than about their supposed object, and the rapidity with which they are forgotten is in direct proportion to the number of adjectives that they contain. Sometimes, the real object of those texts is quite different – I know of several professors in a certain European country who were appointed to their academic posts shortly after publishing a laudatory article on the birthday of a local millionaire (though on different birthdays, of course, each in his turn). And yet, and yet: Birthdays might be arbitrary markers in one‟s life, but they are an excellent excuse both to let one‟s hair down, and to down a few glasses too many without any shame being attached to either downing. They are also occasions for us to look back at what has been, and forwards to what can become. Arbitrary, perhaps, but several hundred years of tradition can‟t be all wrong. My doctoral supervisor once wrote of birthdays that it is a poor tribute that confines itself to praise, and of course, he was right. I don‟t think he meant that one should spend the birthday either digging up skeletons or performing a musicological vivisection on the birthday boy; but just writing nice things alone does become somewhat pointless. It also begins to sound like an obituary, which is hardly appropriate when the person thus obituarized is very much alive and might well outlive his obituarist. Although I began above by criticizing implicitly those birthday tributes whose real object is the congratulator, not the congratulated, I hope that the reader might forgive me the arrogance of writing here decidedly in the first person. It feels uneasy to me, to be sure, but it would be a bit silly to write that „one wishes Ronald a happy birthday‟ or that „the present writer wishes to convey his fondest greetings‟ etc. So I it is. (I am reminded of a tale told me by an American student friend whose attempts at objectivity in an essay were quashed by his supervisor writing in the margin: „“One”? “One”? – Who is this sonofabitch?‟). However, I am faced with something of a conundrum. First, I‟m not an obvious person to write an article such as this, as there must be many others both inside our Society and outside of it who know Ronald far better than I do and (let‟s face it) whose prose he personally might have preferred to read (sorry, Ronald, but you‟re stuck with me for now). Secondly, while I agree wholeheartedly with my adored former supervisor that praise alone is dull, I really, really can‟t think of anything negative to say at all – and even if I could, I wouldn‟t want to say it. I take comfort from the fact that the format of this newsletter has often allowed for the anecdotal, and so the Converted who might have taken the trouble to read thus far will probably not take offence at the nice things that I would really like to say. And, while I am merely one of many to have profited from the friendship of Ronald and Marjorie, my meagre reminiscences might – if I may be forgiven a fanciful metaphor that I would normally excise from my prose before publication – form a gentle breeze to stir the sympathetic strings in the Aeolian harp of memory of my fellow Stevensonian travellers. I first met Ronald and Marjorie in Zurich. They had ventured from the Athens of the North (silly place to put it, really) to the Athens of the Alps (ditto) in order to visit their old friends Edith and Albert Wullschleger. I was then head of the music division of the Zurich Central Library, and was in charge of – amongst many other things – the archives of one Czeslaw Marek, a Polish/Swiss composer/pianist and friend of Busoni. A few years earlier, Ronald had performed a remarkable work by Marek entitled Tryptique, and had subsequently recorded it on the Altarus label; my library had made a modest grant towards the publication of the CD (as a strange footnote to this, I was in the London music shop Travis and Emery a few months later, and bumped into the chap who had turned the pages for that very Marek recording. I can‟t for the life of me remember his name, but I do remember having a very pleasant chat, and our remarking how small the world is). But I digress. I remember our going to eat lunch at one of my favourite haunts near the library, a restaurant called the „Walliser Keller‟, whose name, it now strikes me, is appropriately Celtic in origin. I don‟t

remember the food so well, but I do remember how stimulating the conversation was, and wished that the Stevensons and the Wullschlegers could have stayed longer than they were able to. We remained in touch, and whenever Ronald and Marjorie visited their friends – not often enough for me – we would meet (always feeling – at least on my side – that only days had elapsed, not months), and the conversation would be as lively as ever. I was, and am, an admirer of Busoni (though more of the thinker and the man than of the composer), and was (and am) proud to have had the luck to know two composers who studied with him. My library possessed a considerable collection of Busoniana that naturally interested Ronald, whose knowledge of the composer is probably unparalleled today. And, as it happened, we had many common interests. One of my friends from my Cambridge days was a big fan of MacDiarmid and had introduced me to The Drunk Man (upon the perusal of which I reckoned that MacD might just have been a genius, but had probably been as mad as a hatter); I had also at some point in Blackwell‟s in Oxford picked up a remaindered copy of the songs of Francis George Scott, and adored them; and – thanks to Robin Holloway – I had long been a staunch admirer of the music of Percy Grainger. So we all had more than enough to talk about. The fact that Ronald and I had geographical (northern English) connections, and that we both came from coalmining families, was a further point of contact. I had known of Ronald and his music for many years, of course. When I was a teenager in darkest County Durham, I used to scour the Radio Times radio columns for anything interesting, and I remember a short article on the Passacaglia on DSCH whose effusive praise seemed odd for a piece of apparently interminable length, although apparently based on only four notes. I didn‟t listen to it (if only I had!), though I can‟t remember precisely why (probably because it was broadcast at an awkward time, or because the situation of our only hifi being in our living room meant that listening to it had to compete with the sound of the TV). I did not really become acquainted with Ronald‟s music until after I had got to know the man. I had feared that I might be disappointed, not least because I had heard it praised so much by others that I began to be suspicious; but both fears and suspicions were ungrounded. Ronald‟s music is, and shall remain, I suspect, for as long as I live, a source of delight and wonder. I hesitate to pursue this here, as I risk descending into the kind of paean of which my doctoral supervisor, Gott habe ihn selig, would have disapproved. Not that I could claim to love everything that Ronald has written – who could say that about any composer? – but his finest works for me satisfy both head and heart in a manner that is exemplary. I don‟t know the half of his vast oeuvre, but if I had to choose a favourite nevertheless (an indulgence I‟m sure I can allow myself here), I think it would have to be his 12-part motet „In Memoriam Robert Carver‟, which simply bowled me over when first I heard it. For the past three years, I have managed to find the means to visit Scotland once per annum, in order to visit Ronald and Marjorie. I can‟t deny fearing that I might be intruding; but they never seem to mind (or if they do, they hide it very well). I remember thinking it odd at first that such great hearts and minds should live in such a small house (how on earth did they raise their children there too?!), but now it rather seems to me – oh dear, the metaphors are now flowing thick and fast – a sort of Tardis (showing my age, now) that somehow seems geographically small, yet vast in what it houses. Ronald always seems to have new things to discuss and demonstrate at his piano, and there is always delight to be found in an inner part or a contrapuntal combination. Of course, I relish the tales of MacDiarmid, Grainger, Alan Bush, Erik Chisholm, John Ogden, of the years in South Africa, and so forth. Occasionally, I feel guilty at being always the taker, never a giver – but then I quash my guilt and selfishly sit back and continue to enjoy the taking all the same. At the risk of embarrassing them both, I must say that the quality that has always surprised me most is their infectious enthusiasm for the work of others, paired with remarkable modesty on their part. I have met few modern composers who are so adored and admired by their friends; and yet Ronald never quite seems to notice. It reminds me much of reports of Busoni, who was lionized, idolized, indeed -ized in every which way, yet – to judge by his letters – retained a certain objectivity about his own exploits, and remained genuinely, even at times intensely interested in what others were doing: slow to chide and swift to bless. There are not many composers who have a Society founded in their honour; but even fewer whose Society actually does the right things – in particular, making the music available in published form. But that, of course, is not least thanks to Marjorie, without whose support Ronald‟s oeuvre would undoubtedly be much the smaller. It is customary, I think, to complain that Ronald‟s music is not performed enough. While I would be among the first to wish for more performances, I don‟t think we should worry too much. The number of CD recordings continues to increase, the immense Passacaglia alone has been recorded several times, and if there is one thing that I learnt from my years as a music librarian, it is that music of quality will sooner or later claim its own destiny. Ronald is celebrating his 75 th birthday; but his music will continue to be played and heard, and will continue to give delight and solace, long after he, and I, and you the reader, are no more. Nur der blickt heiter, der nach vorwärts schaut, wrote Busoni; in the confidence that Ronald and Marjorie will

continue to gaze forwards in serenity, I would like, on behalf of all his friends, to wish Ronald Stevenson a very happy birthday, and many happy returns.

Mining the Archive Whimsy and Spleen By Ronald Stevenson (Reprinted from The Listener 3 June 1971)
When I was a boy, I used to play a record of Elgar conducting the LSO in his Serenade for strings. It was his first essay in that medium, his Opus 20, which appeared in 1893, when he was 36; and it was my first introduction to his string music. Certain passages in the Larghetto were so intense that I could have sworn that brass instruments were added to the strings - an impression I also received from an old Koussevitsky recording of Grieg‟s Last Spring. Further hearing revealed that there was no brass support but that Elgar, like Grieg, could make a string orchestra suggest a larger ensemble by cunning use of divisi and the sonority of open strings. Something else I remember from the Elgar recording is the portamento (an almost vocal swooping or gliding between notes). This made the string body sound like an ensemble of Kreislers and was particularly affecting in downward phrases, lending an expression of sometimes almost agonised compassion. This portamento style of violin-playing (which was traditional from at least Bach to Kreisler) is now almost extinct, apart from the Soviet school and Menuhin‟s plea for its partial readmittance - a plea that few, if any, younger violinists seem to heed. No later performance of Elgar‟s Serenade has matched, for me, the intensity of Elgar‟s, with the exception of Barbirolli‟s; but then Barbirolli was himself a string player, a cellist of temperament, who later, on the rostrum, was able to communicate to his players a vibrato of higher emotional voltage than others achieved. The violin was Elgar‟s own instrument. For this reason, his string music is his most personal testament, though his Gerontius is, of course, his confession of the Catholic faith he professed as a younger man (and deserted in his agnostic old age). Because string music is a cypher of the essential Elgar, I Want to consider two of his later works as tracing the trajectory of his creative career at its most intimate: the Introduction and Allegro for strings, Op 47 (1905), and the Cello Concerto, Op 85 (1919). Here is a „secret‟ Elgar: a very different person from the regalia-bedecked master of Imperial rodomontade. Don‟t believe those walrus-mustachioed formal portraits which illustrate his biographies. If we could have tiptoed into his study at Malvern when the spirit was moving him, I‟m sure we‟d have caught a glimpse of the gazelle-like glances of a Keatsian poet. The main difference between Elgar‟s Op. 47 and his Op. 85 - and it‟s something of a paradox - is that the earlier work, employing smaller forces, achieves a bigger sound than the later one. Elgar‟s method of scoring began with his wife ruling the bar-lines on the MS paper. That done, he scored his main ideas and, like the famous anecdote of Turner adding a touch of vermilion at a Royal Academy Exhibition, Elgar kept returning to his score, touching it up, adding a note or two here or there to gild the crest of a phrase. Again and again in the Introduction and Allegro the string quartet limns the string orchestra, or a section of the orchestra adds point and colour to the string quartet. In the Cello Concerto, however, the full symphony orchestra is deployed with the fastidiousness of a gourmet. There are only six pages of tutti out of a total of 104 pages of full score; and one of those six pages includes only one bar of tutti. The effect is that the cello is audible whenever it plays. It is, indeed, the only cello concerto of which this can be said. In his Introduction and Allegro Elgar revived the Baroque concerto grosso. This form, founded by Correlli in the late 17th century, contrasts the concertino or small concerted group of performers (a string quartet in the Elgar) with the concerto or ripieno, the large or full concerted group of performers (the string orchestra in the Elgar). Handel developed the concerto grosso. Elgar‟s revival of it links him with Handel. Elgar was the first post-Handelian British composer to bear comparison with Handel. The psychology of the two men suggests parallels. Both were masters of occasional music for royal events; both masters of massed effects in sound; each had a public persona of swashbuckling panache, concealing

a very different private persona. (Berlioz‟s remark that „Handel must have looked a brute without his wig‟ isn‟t perceptive enough. Christoph Platzer‟s miniature of the 25-year-old Handel reveals an almost feminine sensibility which is also found in his chamber music: for example, the G minor Trio Sonata of 1733). The British cult of Handel, and the later Mendelssohn cult, seemed to deliver solar plexus punches to any hope that Britain could produce a great indigenous composer. Elgar was the first British composer to emerge from the shadows of Handel and Mendelssohn. So sure was he of himself by the time he wrote the Introduction and Allegro that he could even take the concerto grosso form, particularly associated with Handel, and still create a work of genuine British character. I say „British‟ rather than „English‟ because the fons et origo of the piece was Elgar‟s experience of sitting on a hill in Malvern and hearing some Welsh people singing one of their folk-songs on a picnic in the distant valley. Elgar‟s memory of this tune (not a direct quotation) is presented on solo viola soon after the beginning of the work. It is characterised by a sustained note drooping to the minor third below, the phrase being repeated sequentially a tone higher. It is the first intimation of the drooping phrase (the dying fall) which bears the burden of Elgar‟s world-weariness in the Cello Concerto. Another thematic connection between the two works is the perpetuum mobile semi-quavers which the transition of the Introduction and Allegro and the scherzo middle movement of the Cello Concerto have in common. In the earlier work the passage has a modern nervous energy related to rapid ostinati passages in Sibelius and, in its kinetic propulsion, is even premonitory of certain moments in Bartok. In the later work‟s Scherzo, the rapidly reiterated rhythm is more whimsical. Whimsy and spleen seem to me the salient characteristics of the English muse; and this polarisation is certainly manifest in Elgar. This English whimsy, whether it be in Lewis Carroll, Edward Lear or Charles Lamb, is not found in the literature of other countries. And spleen is the essence of English song, from the lachrymose melismas of the Tudor lutenists to the arabesque vocal lines of Britten. Melancholy is perhaps the natural emotional habitat of an island people whose climate, even in summer, suspends the landscape in a perpetual haze. Whimsy trips the light fantastic through the fugue which Elgar substitutes for the development section of his Introduction and Allegro. It is like a caricature of the Victorian academic spirit: its theme be-whiskered in demisemiquaver flourishes. The Cello Concerto is the most splenetic music Elgar wrote. For me, its final pages are the most heartbreaking music in the world. And yet this music is not too self-indulgent. Part of its heartbreak is the shy way in which it repeatedly draws back from an outburst of emotion. It sounds as though it was composed by a man who forced tears back as he wrote. There are snatches of the metropolitan spirit, but they are fleeting glimpses. The finest description of this work that I‟ve ever read occurs in J. B. Priestley‟s play The Linden Tree. An old professor‟s family is having a row. His young daughter is practising Elgar‟s Cello Concerto in an adjoining room. One of the company asks what it is. The professor becomes lyrical: A kind of long farewell. An elderly man remembers his world before the war of 1914 - being a boy at Worcester - or Germany in the Nineties - long days on the Malvern Hills - smiling Edwardian afternoons - Maclaren and Ranji batting at Lord‟s, then Richter and Nikisch at the Queen‟s Hall all gone, gone, lost for ever - and so he distils his tenderness and regret, drop by drop, and seals the sweet melancholy in a concerto for cello. And he goes, too, where all the old green days and the twinkling nights went - gone, gone. But then what happens? Why, a little miracle ... Young Dinah Linden, all youth, all eagerness, saying hello, and not farewell to anything, who knows and cares nothing about Bavaria in the Nineties or the secure and golden Edwardian afternoons, here in Burmanley, this very afternoon, the moment we stop shouting at each other, un-seals the precious distillation, uncovers the tenderness and regret, which are ours now as well as his, and our lives and Elgar‟s Burmanley today and the Malvern Hills in a lost sunlight, are all magically intertwined.


Society Members Honorary Members


Albert Wullschleger Prof Fred Edwards Helmut Petzsch
Scotland Mary Anne Alburger Gertrude Barton Bryan Beattie David Betteridge Helen Bewes Alastair Chisholm Dr Iain Colquhoun Lawson Cook Nicholas Davis James Eaton Edward Ferguson Liz Gibson Gillian Gold Phamie Gow Susan Hamilton Stanley Herd Dr Tom Hubbard 0131-229Hutchison Shand C 9298 Philip Hutton Jack Keaney R & L Morley Jones Joseph Long Michael Lister Sheila McCallum Mary McCarthy Eddie McGuire Archie McLellan Maureen McLeod Catherine Miller Sheena Nicoll Juliet Norris Susan Oakes Malcolm Porteous Dr Alan Riach James Robertson Gillian Sams Will Scott Colin Scott-Sutherland Scottish Poetry Library Judy Steel Marjorie Stevenson Martyn Strachan Anne Todd Stephen Ward Derek Watson Ruzena Wood South Africa Dr Chris Walton Switzerland Ursula Codoni André Guex-Joris Kurt Hediger H & V Lüscher Hofmann Ivan Neumann Annabel Seidler E Wullschleger USA Teresa Balough (CT) Dr Bradley Beckman (TX) Alfred R. Bredenberg (CT) Shou-ping Chiu (NY) Prof W S. Hartley (NY) Malcolm Hawkins (MA) Thomas Hulse (CA) Christian Jensen (MN) Terry McNeill (CA) Prof Neil McKelvie Sweden John Fritzell Wales Caroline Murdoch

Australia Felix Meagher Canada Harry Newstone The Society acknowledges financial assistance from Dr Paul Rapoport Gordon Rumson Prof Joel Wapnick England Ronald Stevenson Society Patrons Martin Anderson Richard Black Joseph Banowetz, Ronald Smith, Lord Patrick Douglas Hamilton, Michael Binks Graham Johnson OBE Dr Morag Chisholm Committee Tim Clark Chair: Philip Hutton; Vice Chair: Nick Davis; Secretary: Iain Colquhoun; Henry C Day Geoffrey Elborn Treasurer: Colin Scott-Sutherland; Editor, Newsletter: Will Scott; Dr Alan Espie Archivist: Marjorie Stevenson Mark Gasser Barrie Gavin Blanche Gordon The Ronald Stevenson Society, 3 Chamberlain Road, Edinburgh EH10 4DL, Scotland. Fax No. Carola Grindea E-mail: Kenneth Hamilton Dr Peter Hick Jeremy Hooker Joan Humphreys Nigel Hutchison Michael Jones Morris Kahn Dr Edward Lowbury William Lynch Malcolm McDonald Murray McLachlan Tim Mottershead Beryl Penny Victor Perry Kenneth Roberton Jonathan Scott Hugh Shrapnel Eileen M Skinner Harold Taylor S. C. Trowell Irving Wardle Charles Wiffen Kenneth Worrall Finland Matti Raekallio Germany Arnold Schalker Italy Centro Studi Musicali Ferruccio Busoni Empoli Japan T. J. G. Harris Maya Masumoto Luxembourg Maurice Barnich Dr J R Baxter Chris Birch Dafydd Bullock Alan Carlisle Jacqueline Fleming Olivier J. Frank Barbara Hall Gordon Jenkins Geoff Piper Mick Swithinbank Hubert Wellenstein Netherlands Ronald Brautigam Portugal Nancy Lee Harper


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