Book review: Comrades in Art: The Correspondence of Ronald Stevenson and Percy Grainger 1957-61
COMRADES IN ART: THE CORRESPONDENCE OF RONALD STEVENSON AND PERCY GRAINGER 1957-61 Edited by Teresa Balough Toccata Press, 279pp, £35
Percy Grainger, the Australian-American pianist and composer best known as an arranger of folk song melodies, was 75 and in poor health when West Linton-based Ronald Stevenson, 29, wrote to him in the States in 1957 asking for help on a book. Stevenson was researching a little-known pianist and composer, Italian Ferruccio Busoni, and wanted to include Grainger's impressions of the man - the Italian had given him free piano lessons for a time, while he was making his way around Europe as a concert pianist and recitalist.
Grainger's response was forthright, within the conventions of a written exchange in the 1950s: in studiously courteous terms he explained that he didn't think much of Busoni at all. "I have a lot to remember but I am not sure it is the kind of thing anyone who admires Busoni would want … The fact was that I didn't admire his compositions in the least, which is a situation not unlikely to arouse the worst in a composer…" The exchange was the start of a lively correspondence that would continue until Grainger's death in February 1961. By then Stevenson, himself an accomplished pianist, prolific composer and arranger of Scottish folk songs, had decided that Grainger was the more interesting talent to research, write about and learn from.
The 32 letters in this Toccata Press hardback make fascinating and entertaining reading, provided you know a little of the subjects under discussion. These range far and wide. Of the piano, Grainger writes: "I simply hate the instrument and regret deeply that I yielded in 1911 to my publisher's request for piano versions of pieces such as Shepherd's Hey, Molly on the Shore, Irish Tune from Co Derry etc." This, in a letter thanking Stevenson for dedicating a piano transcription to him of another of his orchestral folk song arrangements. Not that Stevenson appears to have been put off. Three years later he dedicated another piano transcription to the older man, in honour of his 78th birthday.
The pattern of their correspondence seems to have been one of frankness with flashes of self-pity and tetchiness on Grainger's part and fearlessness on Stevenson's. The younger man is undaunted by whatever the older throws at him. "You say you hate the piano. When I remember your recording of Chopin's B minor Sonata, that confession seems unbelievable," he writes, in response to Grainger's polite rebuff. "But I do believe it. The piano has been, still is, a passion with me …" He sends Grainger articles, scores and a recording of a Scottish Home Service broadcast he has made, offers to make neat copies of the older man's rough scores, asks for a testimonial for a job application to the Melbourne Conservatorium (Grainger: "I know heaps of piano teachers there who are well fit to teach and lecture, but all the posts are filled by musicians from outside … Of course, if they send a reference to me I will fill it out nicely").
The men correspond with a style and grace that seems remote in this e-mail age. You sense the older man's respect for his enthusiastic correspondent building ("… last night we played your records thru several times," he writes on receiving the Home Service recital recording. "What a delightful lecturer you are & what an exquisite pianist!") A kind of intimacy develops, as they share thoughts on the importance of melody, relative merits of Bach and Mozart (Grainger: "Music should not be florid … That is why I love Bach but hate Mozart …"), and supremacy of the English-speaking aesthetic over anything European (Grainger's thesis). And, for anyone whose knowledge of Grainger extends no further than his Scotch Strathspey arrangement or Hill Song (written after a holiday in the Highlands in 1908), there's plenty of discussion about their shared interest in experimental and electronic music - Stevenson's 80-minute Passacaglia on DSCH dedicated to Dmitri Shostakovich and performed at the Edinburgh Festival in 1962, was begun only weeks before Grainger's death and gets a mention in his final letter.
You'll hear more about Grainger's views on experimentation, and about his unorthodox early life and work, in the two extended interviews with Stevenson that bookend the letters. A selection of Stevenson's articles, broadcasts and lecture recitals on Grainger are also reprinted or transcribed here. There's even an accompanying CD (don't listen before tackling the book; it's a rambling, amateur recording from a 1976 lecture recital that only makes sense once you've heard both men's views on the virtues of rambling, and of the amateur).
Meticulous and detailed footnotes fill out the picture, but this is not a biography - of either man. For more on Stevenson - now one of Scottish music's elder statesmen - Toccato Press has already featured him in their Musicians in Music series. For Grainger, there's John Bird's 1976 biography (Stevenson takes issue with his reading of the late composer's style). Reading these letters (and the interviews, once you have settled into their verbatim style) will have you fired up about two under-appreciated musical free-thinkers.
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