Scottish composer Ronald Stevenson, RIP


This music video says about itself:

Ronald StevensonPassacaglia on DSCH“, Mark Gasser: Piano (Live in Australia – 2012)

21 September 2012

The Passacaglia on DSCH is a large-scale composition for solo piano by the British composer Ronald Stevenson. It was composed between 24 December 1960 and 18 May 1962, except for two sections added on the day of the first performance on 10 December 1963. The composer presented a copy of the score to Dmitri Shostakovich, its dedicatee, at the 1962 Edinburgh Festival.

The work takes the principle of the passacaglia or chaconne – namely, strict variations on an unchanging subject, usually a ground bass, and applies it across a very large single-movement structure that divides into a cumulative design of many different musical styles and forms. It is based on a 13-note ‘ground’ derived from the musical motif D, E-flat, C, B: the German transliteration of Dmitri Shostakovich‘s initials (“D. Sch.”). (Shostakovich used these four notes as a musical ‘signature’, for example in his Eighth String Quartet).

Stevenson’s work takes more than an hour and a quarter to perform and may be the longest unbroken single movement composed for piano. It is extraordinary in its scope, the range of its reference to historic events, and the musical influences absorbed. The work includes a Sonata form first section, a suite of dances (incorporating a Sarabande, Jig, Minuet, Gavotte and Polonaise), a transcription of a Scottish bagpipe Pibroch, a section entitled To Emergent Africa involving percussive effects directly on the piano strings, a section resonating to Lenin’s slogan ‘Peace, Bread and the Land‘.

The penultimate section is a huge triple fugue over the ground bass, the first fugue on a 12-note subject derived from the bass, the second combines the DSCH motif with Bach’s monogram BACH (B-flat, A, C, B), and the third, on the Dies Irae chant, is inscribed In memoriam the six million (a reference to the victims of the Holocaust of World War II). The work ends with a series of variations on a theme derived from the ground marked Adagissimo barocco and organized on the principle of Baroque ‘doubles’, with the basic unit of metre halving with each variation.

Plan of Work

Pars Prima Sonata Allegro
Pars Prima Waltz In Rondo-Form
Pars Prima Episode 1. Presto
Pars Prima Suite. Prelude.
Pars Prima Suite. Sarabande.
Pars Prima Suite. Jig.
Pars Prima Suite. Sarabande.
Pars Prima Suite. Minuet.
Pars Prima Suite. Jig.
Pars Prima Suite. Gavotte.
Pars Prima Suite. Polonaise.
Pars Prima Pibroch (Lament For Children).
Pars Prima Episode 2. Abaresque Variations.
Pars Prima Nocturne.
Pars Altera Reverie-Fantasy.
Pars Altera Fanfare.
Pars Altera Forebodings. Alarm.
Pars Altera Glimpse Of A War Vision.
Pars Altera Variations On ‘Peace, Bread And The Land’ (1917).
Pars Altera Symphonic March.
Pars Altera Episode 3. Volante Scherzoso.
Pars Altera Fandango.
Pars Altera Pedal Point. ‘To Emergant Africa‘.
Pars Altera Central Episode. Etudes.
Pars Altera Variations In C Minor
Pars Tertia Adagio. Tribute To Bach
Pars Tertia Triple Fugue Over Ground Bass: Subject 1. Andamento
Pars Tertia Triple Fugue Over Ground Bass. Subject 2. Bach.
Pars Tertia Triple Fugue Over Ground Bass. Subject 3. Dies Irae
Pars Tertia Final Variations On A Theme Derived From Ground (Adagissimo Barocco).

By David Betteridge in Britain:

RONALD STEVENSON, composer, pianist and writer March 6 1928-March 28 2015

Wednesday 8th April 2015

FOR many reasons, the name of Ronald Stevenson, who died on March 28 at the age of 87, should be more widely known.

He composed the epic Passacaglia on DSCH, one of the longest works in the piano repertoire, which is a comprehensive survey of a whole world of music and includes homages to Dmitri Shostakovich, Johann Sebastian Bach and an anonymous drummer whom Ronald once heard practising on a home-made percussion set in a South African township.

That 80-minute single movement work, once heard, is never forgotten — as is the case with many other works forged in Stevenson’s creative furnace.

These range from a violin concerto commissioned by Yehudi Menuhin through choral works — including a group of peace motets and his more recent Praise of Ben Dorain, performed at a Celtic Connections concert in Glasgow — to a rich body of piano works, where the long tradition associated with such giants as Franz Liszt and Ferruccio Busoni is furthered in a novel way.

There was too a cornucopia of songs, settings of Scottish folk songs and works by Hugh MacDiarmid, William Soutar, William Blake and other favourite poets, among them the pure gold of A’e Gowden Lyric to words by MacDiarmid, a friend and collaborator.

This miniature, in the words of one critic, constitutes a sort of gift from Scotland to itself.

Ronald leaves a huge gap in the lives of an international network of “comrades in arts,” as he called them, with whom he corresponded over many decades, as well as in the lives of his family and close friends.

Any comrades-in-arts who made their way to the door of his house in West Linton, on the flanks of the Pentland Hills south of Edinburgh, were certain of a kind welcome both from Ronald and from his lifelong partner, his wife and archivist Marjorie Spedding.

As in John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, this was a latter-day “house of the interpreter,” where the visitor is shown “excellent things, such as would be an help to me in my journey.”

One such fellow traveller was Percy Grainger, the Australian-American folklorist, composer, and pianist. The letters that they exchanged, recently published by Toccata Press, take the reader on an intricacy of fascinating journeys, notably the life and work of Walt Whitman, whose embrace of the world in all its contradictions was a big influence on both men. Like Whitman, Ronald could have said: “I am large, I contain multitudes.”

Born into a working-class home in Lancashire in England, settled in Peeblesshire in Scotland and a wandering scholar and sometimes professor on several continents — he worked in Cape Town, Shanghai, New York and Melbourne — Ronald was an advocate and precursor of world music, along the lines of Goethe’s world literature.

Here, east and west meet, folk traditions and classical traditions inform one another and all barriers of genre and style and class and ethnicity are removed in an open conversation.

In a book that he wrote half way through his career, Western Music: an Introduction, Ronald nailed his colours to this democratic and peace-loving mast.

In his closing chapter, he envisaged a kind of music “which is created by a musician aware of the unity and conflict of the different musics of different nations,” and which, while conscious that “conflict is the law of divided society,” is aware also that “unity is equally a law of that great harmony which is music and which one day will reflect the reality of society united.”

Unsurprisingly, this mountain of a musician was for a while vice-president of the Workers’ Music Association where, along with his friend Alan Bush, he pursued through music the causes of peace, social justice and internationalism.

He is survived by his wife Marjorie and by his daughters Gerda, a playwright, poet, singer, actor and theatre director, Savourna, a clarsach player and composer and by his son Gordon, an instrument maker and repairer.

His funeral will be held at the Warriston Crematorium in Edinburgh on Tuesday April 14 at 1pm.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.