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Pianos and Pianists - Consultant Editor Ates Orga

Ronald Stevenson


A memoir: 1

London, March 18th 1968. A grey Monday afternoon. The Savage Club. First meeting with Ronald. A whisky to keep the cold at bay. We talk - his ideas, his music, his idols. Redolent of an old-world philosopher-artist, he speaks with a seasoned richness of language, the deliberated rhythm, the rhetoric of his delivery as impreious as the gravelled, woody, claret, urgently underlaid nuance of his Borders/Celtic burr. His gestures are expansive, his passions intense, his sympathies, his likes and dislikes uncompromising. He inscribes a copy of his recently published Passacaglia on DSCH dedicated to Shostakovich, and lends his special-edition Cape Town recording of it (limited to a hundred double LP sets), carefully boxed in whitewood. We go our separate ways. They will cross again. Through books (he writes for me on Beethoven, I for him on Alan Bush), letters, cards, telephone calls, condolences. Other meetings, one with the fadingly radiant Ella Grainger at the first British performance of Percy G's The Warriors (Royal Festival Hall, March 20th, 1970). In concert, from South Bank through Round House to Royal Albert Hall - the Prom première of the Second Piano Concerto, The Continents, (August 17th, 1972, sharing a grand tier box afterwards for his favourite symphony, the Pathétique). Imbibing wisdoms and liquor by the fireside at his piano or in the pub down the road from his home in West Linton, shadowed by the Pentland Hills southwest of Edinburgh. Downing rough red wine and pasta in a vaulted, candle-lit cellar round the corner from the Wigmore Hall, joined by Joe Banowetz and Alistair Hinton.

From what he composes and how he plays, his manner and appearance (down to eagle pendant and quill pen), one might be forgiven for thinking of Ronald as a man born out of his time, fifty years, even a century, too late. If a handsome, clean-shaven, right-profile from 1945, dark hair swept back, has him cutting a Samuel Barber pose, photographs taken by Anne Fischer in South Africa in 1963, soulfully penetrating, languid eyed, replete with broad-brimmed hat, winged collar, pencil moustache and goatee, remind strongly of Paderewski, the young Busoni. The 'consience' of new music (Willy Schuh), Busoni, the score of whose Doktor Faust he'd discovered during the winter of 1946-47 on a train from Manchester Victoria to his home-town Blackburn (he already knew the Piano Concerto), is the 'neo-Renaissance' master in absentia he claims most proudly. Inspirationally, musically, calligraphically. He even possesses his piano bench. The Golden Age romantics in whom the creative instinct and re-creative act were as one - the Rachmaninovs, Medtners and Godowskys of this world, successors to the transcendentalism of Liszt, Thalberg and Alkan - are the composer-pianists whose vision, spiritual aspiration and humanitarian, altruistic example have been his life-model. Writing of Ronald in Lewis Foreman's British Music Now (London 1977), Colin Scott-Sutherland quotes the Kellerism that the artist of talent links the present with the future, but 'the truly great artist, the visionary, relates the future to the past.' Spurning credentials (or the need for them), lamenting the frequent aridity of curriculum training ('composition can't be taught: one can learn it, but not from a teacher, only from oneself'), sharing Holst's view that 'doing is learning,' Ronald (as he once defined Busoni and Sachverell Sitwell) is a sciomantic of the present seeding distant futures out of ancient pasts, 'divining the future from the shades of the dead,' a larger-than-life nonconformist whose independence of speech, opinion and action shares something, you feel, with Busoni's 'music was born free, and to win freedom is its destiny' (A New Aesthetic, Trieste 1907). He's a man of the people, passionately remembering his Lancashire/Celtic 'working class origins' (his father was a fireman on the railways, his mother a mill-worker, his grandmother 'a child truck-pusher in the South Wales coalfield,' his grandfather a bargee on the Leeds-Liverpool Canal). 'I'm a composer who wishes to identify himself with his own people and to communicate with likeminded people and to try and win over perhaps some unlikeminded... The fact that the great mass of people couldn't care less about whether I communicate with them or not doesn't deter me: it only makes me more determined...' Morally and politically, he's a man of resolute principle, a life-long 'socialist pacifist.' As a twenty-year old conscientious objector opposed to national service, he was sent to prison (there reading several times over the Bible and Schweitzer's Bach), before serving out his time ditching and draining with gangs of Irish navvies. As a mature individual, through such Marxist 'comrades-in-art' (one of his favourite soubriquets) as Alan Bush, Bernard Stevens, and the Scottish Nationalist poet Hugh MacDiarmid, he culturally embraced the Cold War Communist bloc - going to East Berlin in 1963, touring East Germany in 1966 (a trip traversing the emotional gamut from playing Liszt's piano in Weimar to visiting Buchenwald), and, in the wake of Prague (paradoxically some might think), speaking at the Fourth Congress of Soviet Composers in Moscow in December 1968.

Ronald is a complex personality, more (as he defines the issue in his no-longer-available book Western Music [Kahn & Averill, London 1971, dedicated to Alan Bush]) a romantic progressive ('previsioning ... future reality') than a romantic reactionary - romantic progressiveness, he points out (invoking Liszt's motto prefacing his early, post-Byronic Lyon paying 'tribute to the heroism of ordinary people': 'Live in working, die through fighting,') being historically a matter of 'struggle for human rights. Heroes died in this struggle... workers used their weapon of the strike and faced death in military opposition.' Defying pigeon-holing, Ronald's musical language is as exotically, bewilderingly veined as his literary one - coalescing renaissance, baroque, classic and romantic and 20th century thought; modal, tonal, chromatic and serial frameworks; European cosmopolitan, regional ethnic, Scottish and 'world music' resonances; the abstract and the programmatic; dance, song and variation. Malcolm MacDonald calls him a 'mephistofaustian composer-pianist in the pattern of Liszt, Busoni and Paderewski ... [fitting] the mould of such great Victorian artist-socialists as John Ruskin, or the Transcendentalists Emerson and Thoreau, for whom art and life and nature were all compact,' a man afraid of neither 'spontaneous emotion' nor tears.

 Copyright © Ates Orga, June 11th 1999

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