Spain Meets Scotland

Edinburgh Society of Musicians, 2018
with Chris Gray and Daniel Fajardo

Ronald Stevenson: Folk Music Settings

CCA Glasgow, 2017


I’m delighted to present this recital Ronald Stevenson’s folk music settings. 

Over his lifetime he created a vast body of these works, from traditions around the world- as far afield as China, Poland and Brittany. This program contains just a few, of traditional tunes and songs from Scotland and Ireland. 

These are the product of an amazing person, pianist, and composer. A true maverick. He was deeply embedded in the western piano-composer tradition, with likes of Paderewski, Busoni and Liszt, but at the same time looked far beyond it. The full range of experience fed in to his work: Music, philosophy, politics and poetry. What resulted was a huge and varied output, one that is distinctly and uniquely Ronald’s. 

All of his work has the same essential quality though. His radiant conception of melody and a unique understanding of form and approach to harmony. In these pieces, we see also his sympathy for folk music, in his arrangements he creates a context for the melodies he uses, speaks to their depths and shines a light on them in a new way, one which is somehow always appropriate. 

He seems to tend toward something beyond music, some sort of desire for universality. To me, his music strives to draw together as much of the world, as many of his many worlds as he possibly can. It makes his music rich in so many different ways. 

This is the essence that attracted me to his music. Over the past year, while learning this program, this attraction develop in to something of an obsession. 

The music is simultaneously familiar and unfamiliar: The folk melodies, instantly understandable on the deepest level, are part of the music I’ve been around my whole life. But everything else was new to me, which has led to the most wonderful process of discovery and broadening of horizons. 

This process of discovery has seen Ronald slowly become fundamentally linked to the nooks and crannies of my own little musical world. The obsession only set in this year, but it could easily last a lifetime. 

South Uist Folksong Suite (1995)

Sailing Song // A Witching Song for the Milking // A Little Mouth Music // Waulking Song // Spinning Song // A Tired Mother’s Lullaby // The Christ Child’s Lullaby

Oran Loch Sloy// Crodh Chailein // An Ràcan a Bh’againne // Dhianainn Sùgradh Ris An Nighinn Duibh // Cuigeal Na Maighdin // Cha Bhi MI ‘Gad Thàladh // Tàladh Ar Slànair

The suite is based on seven songs from Margaret Fay Shaw’s ‘Folksongs and Folklore of South Uist’, collected between 1929 and 1935. Shaw moved there from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania when rheumatism put paid to her plans for a career as a pianist. On her first visit, she arrived on South Uist after cycling there from Oxford! 

Both she and Ronald were prolific letter writers. She wrote on a battered upright manual typewriter in the study of Canna house, on the island she owned with her husband John Lorne Campbell, and he with an elaborate quill at the desk in his ‘den of musiquity’ at home in Townfoot House, West Linton. They corresponded during the latter years of her life. They spoke about the songs of her book, and their links to the people of South Uist’s day-to-day lives. 

Ronald used seven gàidhlig melodies: Songs for sailing, milking, dancing, waulking, spinning, lullaby and worship. Here they are presented as miniatures, where they become a distilled version of Ronald- a simple kernel that concentrates both seed and essence of a much larger idea. The roots, branches and leaves are implied, yet very much present, filling the page, the ears and the mind.   

In his introductory note, Ronald says: “In this suite sounds the music of a day in the life of an island woman, with its work and rest against the background of sea, sky and land". 

Dowie Dens 

From ‘Three Scottish Ballads’ (1973)

One of the classic border ballads. The Dowie Dens of Yarrow is well travelled across time and place. During his collecting travels, Francis James Child found at least eighteen variants on the song across the UK. In more recent years, it has been widely sung across the folk scene, by artists including Dick Gaughan, Bert Jansch, and Gerda Stevenson (Ronald’s daughter). 

The tale is set somewhere along the banks of the river Yarrow in the Scottish Borders. It’s a tale characteristically grim of the ballad tradition, which sees a woman reject nine wealthy suitors, in preference of a servant or ploughman. The nine rejected kill the man, ambushing him in the Dens of Yarrow. 

In his setting, Ronald is exploring a different sort of grim than the usual melancholy, its slightly brutal in nature, which in its own way is perfect for the text. 

What I love about this is that the harmony he’s using to slap the listener in the face doesn’t come from a 20th century school of composition far removed from the song. No, he relies upon the natural harmony implied by the melody. In his own words: "It is like allowing a plant to grow in its own kind of soil”.

 From an Old Pibroch 

From 'Scottish Folk Music Settings' (1956-1965)

In March this year, I was lucky to visit Ronald’s wife Marjorie at their home in West-Linton, with their granddaughter, and director of my undergraduate degree Anna-Wendy Stevenson. 

The sheet music offers no hint as to the origin of this melody, so I was keen to ask Marjorie. Given that Ronald made this arrangement over fifty years ago, an answer seemed unlikely. 

But no, Marjorie recalled the afternoon where he first heard it sung, at one of the gatherings of musicians, poets and artists that would frequently take place at their home in West Linton.

The title escaped her, but that doesn’t matter. On my afternoon visit, I was lucky to have such an insight in to Ronald, to talk about him with Marjorie (her memory is phenomenal!) and to play his piano, sitting on the piano stool which once belonged to his great hero Ferruccio Busoni. 

This is one of a collection of ten folksongs that he arranged for piano over the course of a decade. Its dedicated to the memory of Percy Grainger, who’s music Ronald championed throughout his life. 

Since All Thy Vows 

From 'Eight songs of Francis George Scott' (1963)

Like Ronald, Scottish composer Francis George Scott (1880-1958), was interested arranging folk songs, and linking them to a wider musical world. 

This piece, is based on one of Scott’s settings, titled ‘Since All Thy Vows, False Maid, Are Blown To The Air’. The text first appeared in Reverend William Geddes' Saints’ Recreation in 1683, and has appeared throughout the tradition since, including in collections gathered by Robert Burns.

Scott was an important influence on Ronald. In the way that Liszt transcribed Schubert’s Leider, so he did here with Scott. They shared a number of links: Roots in Lancaster, an interest in Scottish folk traditions, but also a background in Western classical music. 

This piece is dedicated to the Scott’s son George. The dedication reads: 'Transcribed on returning home from a 3 month Australian concert tour, and finding a gift awaiting me: F.G. Scott’s copy of Busoni’s Von der Einheit der Musik, very kindly presented by the composer’s son George: for me a symbolic gift of a communion of minds'. 

A Rosary of Variations on Séan Ó Riada’s Irish Folk Mass (1980)

In the 1960s, Séan Ó Riada wrote Ceol an Aifrinn, the first mass in the Irish language. 

The mass was is the opposite of that of the likes of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert and Liszt. It is folk music, sung in the Irish Language, by Sean Nós singers from the congregation of the church in the small village of Cúil Aodha in rural West Cork. 

I can only imagine how much of a profound event it must have been, for the first time to have music for worship in a native spoken and musical language. 

When listening to the recording of the mass, made in the Cúil Aodha church in 1969, there’s a sense of this profoundness; as well as a very human element: A togetherness, a sense that wrapped up in the singing are the hopes, fears, and dreams of the choir, and congregation. Its connected to the people, and I find great beauty in this. 

Those who know me well know that I am not religious. I love the mass nonetheless. I’ve become empathetic, to the importance that this piece of music would’ve had to the people of the congregation, and those it affects to this day. I love it for its human qualities. 

This I think is important. Common ground is what we all need, all of us. Never more than in the face of the events we’ve seen close to home this week, and those around the world that we’re reminded of in the news every single day. 

Ronald’s setting of the mass I’ve come to see as a tribute, rosary, after all means devotion. To me its a tribute to Séan Ó Riada’s mass on the terms I’ve spoken of it in. I can’t be sure though- sadly I never had the chance to meet him. If I did, I’d have loved to have asked him about all of this. 

If this is a tribute, then what a tribute it is. It’s a glorious piece of music, as always utterly individual and completely unique, filled with worlds of the piano, and of Ronald. 

I’ve never attempted music like this before, it is completely new in style, form and in its sheer scale. Learning it has been an incredible experience, my powers of memory, technique, interpretation and empathy have grown hugely as a result.

I suppose people go to mass in service of something bigger than themselves. In some very small way, I think that the experience of learning this piece of music has echoed that.