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.