Obituary: Ronald Stevenson, composer and pianist

Prolific and influential composer who created an outstanding body of work. Picture: Donald MacLeod
Prolific and influential composer who created an outstanding body of work. Picture: Donald MacLeod
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Born: 6 March, 1928, in Blackburn, Lancashire. Died: 28 March, 2015, in West Linton, aged 87.

Ronald Stevenson was a prolific and influential composer and performer. He was a musical visionary and conceived works on a grand and imposing scale – two in particular reflect his ability to envisage monumental compositions. His Passacaglia on DSCH for solo piano, written in the early 1960s (based on Dmitri Shostakovich’s initials) lasts 90 minutes and has been memorably recorded by John Ogdon. In 2008 the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra performed the world premiere of his choral symphony, Ben Dorain, based on an epic Gaelic poem. It had taken Stevenson more than 20 years to compose and was scored for two choirs and two orchestras. Stevenson could envisage music on a monumental scale and also in more intimate solo compositions; he brought to all his works a freshness and originality allied to a vision of life as a vast spectrum of human experience.

The Scottish composer John McLeod was a close friend of many years and told The Scotsman yesterday: “Ronald was a giant of a man and a giant of a composer. He might have been more widely recognised had he lived in the 19th century. His piano playing was outstanding – his technique was phenomenal. I conducted him when he played the Greig concerto with the Glasgow Symphony Orchestra and he was tremendous. His playing and teaching has had huge influence on many young Scottish pianists.

“It was always fun working with Ronald. Everyone came away knowing more about the music than when you started rehearsals.”

Ronald Stevenson’s father hailed from Kilmarnock and his mother was Welsh. That Celtic background was to remain a lifelong passion. After school in Blackburn, Stevenson studied at the Royal Northern College of Music where he majored in composition and the piano – graduating with special distinction in 1948. He then studied orchestration at the Conservatorio di Santa Cecilia in Rome and in 1950 moved to Scotland, settling in West Linton in 1955. He was a man with strong left-wing political beliefs and as a pacifist refused to do national service – spending the two years in jail.

Stevenson was a renowned musicologist and lecturer. He held senior lecturing posts at the University of Cape Town, the Shanghai Conservatory of Music, at the Juilliard School, New York and at Melbourne University.

Stevenson championed the music of the 19th-century Italian composer Ferruccio Busoni and in the 1970s presented a series of programmes on Radio 3 on his music, which did much to re-establish Busoni’s reputation. A BBC2 documentary followed. In 1981 Stevenson wrote an extended series for BBC Radio Scotland on the bagpipe, clarsach and fiddle music of Scotland.

The Edinburgh-born concert pianist, Susan Tomes, told The Scotsman how much, as a teenager, she appreciated Stevenson’s “inspirational lectures”. She said: “Using wide-ranging examples from music, poetry, philosophy and politics he drew our attention to many valuable and perhaps under-acknowledged ways of looking at music.

“I doubt if anyone has matched his style and skill in teaching music appreciation.”

Tomes added: “He was a strikingly handsome man. There would be a collective sigh of admiration from the female members of the class as Ronald swept in in his stylish Abbé Liszt black hat and cloak.”

But it was his compositions that brought him attention throughout the musical world. Apart from the Passacaglia DSCH there was the splendid song cycle (Border Boyhood for Peter Pears for the Aldeburgh Fesival in 1971), the Piano Concerto No 1 with the Scottish National Orchestra under Alexander Gibson in 1966 and in 1995 the SNO commissioned him to write a cello concerto in memory of Jacqueline du Pré.

Stevenson’s Second Piano Concerto was first heard at the 1972 Proms with the New Philharmonia Orchestra and in 1992 Yehudi Menuhin commissioned him to write a Violin Concerto which he conducted with Hu Kun as soloist and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra in Glasgow.

Many recall the sheer boldness and audacity of Ben Dorain. The forces included the BBC Symphony Orchestra, a chamber orchestra, the chorus of Scottish Opera, the Edinburgh Singers, two child soloists, a soprano and a tenor – all conducted by James Grossmith. The Scotsman critic wrote that there were “unquestionable flashes of keen perception”. At the conclusion of the extraordinary evening the 80-year-old Stevenson was cheered to the rafters.

His work for smaller forces was considerable. He composed chamber works and many hundreds of piano pieces and songs. His transcriptions varied widely and his enthusiasm for the music of Percy Grainger led him to engage in a lengthy correspondence with the composer which was published under the title of Comrades in Arms.

As a pianist he was hugely respected by audiences all round the world. His touch for the keys was extremely sensitive and absolutely in keeping with the mood of the piece. His ability to combine hours of practising the piano and composing new works seemed to drive him on. His energy seldom relented. Stevenson never wanted to concentrate on just a solo career – his zest for composition was all-embracing.

John McLeod recalls his delight in “seeing Ronald in George Street with his wide Homburg hat, full of energy and enthusiasm. Ronald was, indeed, larger than life. He loved entertaining and when you visited him in West Linton you would be ushered into the “Den of Musiquity” straight away and a whisky thrust in your hand. He was a fine musician and a wonderful character.”

His portrait, by Victoria Crowe, hangs in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery.

Stevenson married Marjorie Spedding in 1952. She and their son and two daughters survive him.