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The Transcendental Tradition

Ronald Stevenson in concert, Vancouver, 21 April 1976
Ronald Stevenson (piano)
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Label: APR
Recording details: April 1976
Recital Hall, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada
Produced by Robert Chesterman
Engineered by Gene Loverock
Release date: November 2005
Total duration: 76 minutes 4 seconds

This is a recording from Appian Publications & Recordings Ltd (to quote the full title)—the label invariably more familiarly known simply as "APR".

Since its foundation in 1986, APR has won an enviable reputation as a quality label devoted predominantly—though not exclusively—to historic piano recordings. In particular APR has won countless laurels for the high standard of its 78rpm restoration work—"Transfers of genius" to quote one critic—as well as the detail and content of its booklets.

At the heart of Ronald Stevenson’s pianism, as of all his creative work, lies a compelling urge to communicate, which manifests itself continually through composing, writing, talking or playing. These activities sometimes overlap, as when a recital becomes a lecture-recital or even an illustrated polemic on the decline of melody in the twentieth century, ending with a performance of his latest Edwardian ballad transcription. Ronald could never be accused of lapsing into good taste, nor has he ever belonged to that impotent body of musicians succinctly dismissed by Jorge Bolet as ‘the Urtext crowd’, who exalt the letter at the expense of the spirit—if they are able to decide what the letter should be in the first place. (Harold Taylor, ‘Stevenson’s Pianism’, from Ronald Stevenson: The Man and his Music, Toccata Press, 2005)

Lancashire-born and domiciled in Scotland for over fifty years, the composer, pianist and writer Ronald Stevenson is not so much a survivor as the modern re-invigorator of the most precious aspects of the Romantic piano tradition. The son of a railway fireman, he was something of a prodigy, giving recitals and composing from his early teens. He studied with Iso Ellinson at the Royal Manchester College of Music but feels that he owes his real education as a musician to the discovery and close study of the works of Ferruccio Busoni and of Percy Grainger (with whom he corresponded). Under these twin influences—and also that of Paderewski, whose music and performing style he deeply reveres—Stevenson developed into a virtuoso pianist of probing intellect, wide-ranging vision, and preternatural sensitivity of touch and pedalling.

In his recitals—and he has played and broadcast all over the world, from Canada to Bulgaria, from South Africa to mainland China—he champions a huge range of music which he presents in often intensely stimulating programme-juxtapositions. His own compositions range from tiny children’s pieces for solo recorder to the epic choral symphony Ben Dorain, still a work in progress after forty years. He has written hundreds of songs, and worked in most media; but the piano naturally dominates his output, ranging from folksong transcriptions to two and a half concertos (the half is the ‘pocket concerto’ for piano and wind band, Corroborree for Grainger) and the monumental Passacaglia on DSCH, more than eighty minutes of bravura pianism on a ground bass derived from Shostakovich’s musical monogram, and claimed to be the longest unbroken single movement ever written for solo piano.

In the grand tradition of Liszt and Busoni, Stevenson is an inveterate transcriber of music from one medium to another, seeking both to extend its life in different instrumental guise and to discover new possibilities that were, perhaps, only latent in the original notation of the musical idea. His own transcriptions are legion, and include all six of Ysaÿe’s solo violin sonatas, re-created as piano sonatas, Bernard van Dieren’s fifth string quartet (also made into a piano sonata), and a piano version of the adagio of Mahler’s tenth symphony. (For an eighty-page catalogue of Stevenson’s original works, transcriptions, cadenzas and editions, see Ronald Stevenson: The Man and his Music, A Symposium edited by Colin Scott-Sutherland, London: Toccata Press, 2005.) In his own work, transcription, variation and original composition sometimes flow into one another in an all-encompassing ethos of alchemical transformation, dissolving all categories of convenience. We seem not to be listening to this composer or that, but to a musical impulse which has striven to gain larger life and, in the process, has composed Ronald Stevenson.

One of his major acts of transcription has been the multifarious piano reworkings of nineteenth- and twentieth-century songs which constitute his collection Le nouveau art du Chant appliqué au Piano. The title alludes to Thalberg, and the work is subtitled ‘Piano Transcriptions of Victorian and Edwardian Songs being Etudes in the Lost Art of bel canto piano-playing’. Even before the piano, Stevenson loved song (‘Before people spoke, they sang’, as Giambattista Vico puts it in the Nuova Scienza), and one of his special qualities as a player is the way he has tried always to capture the vocal, literally singing qualities of melodic lines. He is always mindful of the piano’s nature as a percussive instrument—the ‘African drumming’ section of the Passacaglia on DSCH is proof enough of that—but like the great performers of the past whom he particularly admires, he is able to transcend that nature and make it an instrument of true legato, true sostenuto, and vocal as well as orchestral colour.

This disc captures a characteristically wide-ranging recital that Stevenson gave in the University of British Columbia, Vancouver on 21 April 1976, under the title ‘The Transcendental Tradition’. In the programme-note he wrote for the occasion, Stevenson explained: ‘The title of this programme is Peter Pears’s. When he proposed it, I saw immediately how its three words suggested everything about the art of transcription. For that’s what transcription is, or rather, should be: the transcendental tradition. An art based on tradition, but going beyond it; an art both old and new at the same time.’ And he further commented, apropos of Busoni’s dictum that ‘the notation of music is, in itself, a transcription of an idea’: ‘The truth is that it is impossible to differentiate too finely between variation and transcription, or between transcription and composition. For every good transcription varies an original and is a composition in its own right.’ Stevenson’s choice of programme illuminates these comments from several angles.

Franz Liszt was a doughty champion of the music of Schubert from quite early in his career, and made many transcriptions—principally, though not only of his songs—in order to make them better known. His exquisite arrangement of the Rückert setting Du bist die Ruh’ is among the earliest, one of a set of twelve Schubert song transcriptions (S558) that Liszt made between 1835 and 1837, less than a decade after Schubert’s death.

Leopold Godowsky devoted many years to his amazing studies on the études of Chopin, completing the first group in 1893 at the age of twenty-three and publishing his definitive edition of fifty-three in 1914 (there were several more which got dropped or lost). Twenty-two of these studies are for the left hand alone. Revered by all true pianophiles, and possibly by a few discerning admirers of Chopin, the Godowsky studies are among the most challenging works in the repertoire; they re-cast or combine Chopin’s pieces to establish new expressive possibilities, new technical goals, new fingerings and phrasings, always respecting but in some cases transforming the poetic content of the originals, or setting that content in an entirely new light. He produced no fewer than three studies upon Chopin’s F minor étude, Op. 10 No. 9; here Ronald Stevenson plays the third version, in F sharp minor, for left hand alone—Godowsky’s Study No. 18a. Chopin’s anguished original is transformed into a meditatively expressive polonaise of great eloquence and rhythmic flexibility, requiring tremendous dexterity (or, more precisely, sinistrality) from the pianist’s single hand.

The great, mysterious, reclusive pianist–composer Alkan (born Charles-Valentin Mor­hange), who spent most of his life in Paris, published his arrangement of the gavotte from Gluck’s Orphée in 1861, in the second volume of his collection of transcriptions that he entitled Souvenirs des concerts du Conservatoire. Though renowned for the enormous technical challenges that some of his original works present (think of the Symphony and Concerto for solo piano, or the Grande sonate «Les quatre âges» with its nine-voice fugue!), Alkan was in many respects a late-born Classical composer, and this transcription is both delicate and severe.

Percy Grainger’s Ramble on Love (in full, Ramble on the last love-duet in the opera ‘The Rose-Bearer’) is an inspired pianistic recreation of the final scene from Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier. Grainger esteem­ed Strauss’s music highly, writing that ‘Strauss is a greater, grander genius than Maurice Ravel because he has so amply the vulgarity that Ravel lacks’. ‘Ramble’ is Grainger’s characteristically Anglo-Saxon substitution for ‘Fantasia’, and he began the piece some time before 1920, working it out in detail in 1926–27. This re-imagining for piano of Strauss’s combination of large orchestra and soaring female voices is justly regarded as one of the very summits of the transcriber’s art. It has been claimed as one of the most elaborately notated pieces in the repertoire of the piano, and is particularly remarkable for its sensitive use of the middle pedal to sustain some tones rather than others. The many notable features, always used with fastidious fidelity to Strauss’s original, include the uncanny evocation of the ‘silver rose’ chords which Strauss gives to flutes, celesta and harp, and at one point a written-in ‘pre-echo’ effect.

Grainger was also tremendous admirer of the music of George Gershwin, and transcribed a number of his songs (he also composed a fantasia for two pianos on themes from Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess) as piano pieces. His versions of The Man I Love and Love Walked In were made in 1944 and 1945 respectively. For The Man I Love (which Grainger described as ‘one of the great songs of all time’, comparing it to the songs of Dowland, Schubert, Schumann, Brahms and Debussy), he produced what he called a ‘concert arrangement’, elaborating Gershwin’s own piano transcription published in 1932 in the George Gershwin Song-Book. With Love Walked In there was no prior Gershwin version, and Grainger’s transcription is among his most delicate and poetic, making characteristic use of evocative tremolandi: an effect he termed the ‘woggle’.

Ronald Stevenson’s own Peter Grimes Fantasy, based on material from Benjamin Britten’s opera, was commissioned by the BBC for a television premiere in 1972. This magnificent fantasy was an earnest expression of Stevenson’s friendship with, and regard for, Britten, developed over several visits to the Aldeburgh Festival; it is also a terse yet stunning exercise in transcendental virtuosity. Stevenson does not merely present Britten’s themes in pianistic setting, but develops them into an entirely new form, dramatic in its own (pianistic) terms. Structurally, the work is an inspired fusion of fugue with aspects of sonata, conveying the essential melodic and episodic information about the opera’s character-conflicts through the rise of the music associated with the mob, and the fall of that associated with Grimes; this is interwoven with the famous ‘Storm’ interlude, and the cold ‘Dawn’ music appears last, as a cold, shocked coda of plangent, silver-grey sonorities.

The Chaconne in J. S. Bach’s D minor partita for solo violin (BWV1004) is one of the most significant examples of the strict form of variations on a ground. At the same time it’s a staggering feat of writing for the violin, which though essentially a melody instrument must continually suggest separate polyphonic lines, and a full range of harmony. Inevitably this titanic piece has been a magnet for other composers to transcribe it for other media. Mendelssohn and Schumann added piano accompaniments to the violin. Joachim Raff was the first to produce a solo piano version; he also transcribed the Chaconne for orchestra, very impressively. Brahms, imposing a parallel limitation on the pianist as the violinist, produced a comparatively strict arrangement for piano—left hand only. It was left to Ferruccio Busoni to produce the grandest metamorphosis of Bach’s movement, into a transcendental example of pianistic display. This, perhaps the most famous of Busoni’s many Bach transcriptions, seems to date from 1893, when he premiered it in Boston; it was published in 1897 with a dedication to the Glasgow-born virtuoso Eugen d’Albert, one of Liszt’s star pupils.

Busoni’s procedure was to imagine the violin work as an organ piece, and then transcribe that imaginary organ piece for the piano. The form and content of the original are preserved, with very little fundamental alteration. Yet in its fullness of texture, elaboration, added voices and chords this is a brilliant re-invention of Bach’s music entirely in terms of the modern piano—though there is a reminder of single-violin sonority in the gentle più sostenuto variations just before the titanic coda.

Finally, Ronald Stevenson’s own Prelude, Fugue and Fantasy on themes from Busoni’s Doktor Faust is one of the most important of his early works. This three-movement composition evolved in reverse order, beginning with a Fantasy on ‘Doktor Faust’ (1949), which he played to Busoni’s widow in Stockholm: a brilliantly eventful and glitteringly virtuosic study on themes from Busoni’s opera, recreating the Lisztian tradition of operatic fantasy, just as Busoni had done in his own Kammerfantasie on Bizet’s ‘Carmen’. The Faustian obsession led Stevenson on to compose a Fugue on ‘Clavis Astartis Magica’ (1950): the theme of the magic book, The Key to Stellar Magic, given to Faust by three sinister students in the opera’s opening scene. This Fugue is aloof, severe—the first example in Stevenson’s music of a withdrawn, occult, hermetic vein that probes spiritual mysteries through the manipulation of notes as symbols of an unrevealed truth. The nine successive pitches of the theme become the tonalities of its later entries, determining the fugue’s structure.

It was John Ogdon who, in 1959, suggested that these Faust piano pieces should be combined with a prelude developing the same material, to produce a large-scale triptych. The result was the Prelude, Fugue and Fantasy, the synoptic piano work which sums up much of Stevenson’s early compositional development, and has become one of his best-known achievements. Nor did its evolution end there: taking the business of transcription one stage further, in 1960 Stevenson further expanded and rewrote it for piano and orchestra as his Piano Concerto No. 1, A Faust Triptych.

Malcolm MacDonald © 2005

from the 1976 concert programme …
The title of this programme is Peter Pears’s. When he proposed it, I saw immediately how its three words suggested everything about the art of transcription. For that’s what transcription is, or rather, should be: the transcendental tradition. An art based on tradition, but going beyond it; an art both old and new at the same time.

Transcription, the art of re-working a com­position in a performing medium different from the original, has the imprimatur of the centuries. It is not, as is sometimes assumed, an aberration of the nineteenth century. To take an early example, Caccini’s solo madrigal Amarilli mia bella was published in Florence in 1602; in London the following year, Peter Philips transcribed it for virginals—a trans­crip­tion far more free than any of Liszt’s transcriptions of Bach. True, in the nine­teenth century the transcription sometimes degener­ated into the cheap arrangement (or, more aptly, derangement). Unfortunately this brought the whole thing into undeserved odium. But the masters practised transcription, from Bach to Schoenberg. Bach, who transcribed Vivaldi, is himself the most frequently transcribed com­poser; his transcribers include Mendel­ssohn, Schumann, Liszt, Alkan, Brahms, Busoni, Godowsky, Grainger, Schoenberg, Segovia, Stokowski, Stravinsky and Walton. The list includes not only composers of transcriptions for piano, but also for other media; and it does not include the number of jazz-transcribers of Bach, whose number is legion.

The most prolific transcriber was Franz Liszt. If all nineteenth-century music were destroyed—heaven forbid!—with the excep­tion of Liszt, nearly all the best of it would remain in Liszt’s piano transcriptions, from the nine symphonies of Beethoven to the music of the Russian nationalists. Some of Liszt’s finest transcriptions are of Schubert. Lieder. After the early advocacy of the baritone Vogl, Schubert’s songs fell into neglect. Liszt’s transcriptions popularized them in the pregramophone era in a similar way to the growth in music appreciation effected by the gramophone. Some people think that the gramophone has invalidated trans­cription. Personally, I think the gramophone has given transcription a new validity. Too often, repeated listening to a favourite recording stereotypes one’s view of a work. In this case a transcription, especially a free transcription, can shed light on familiar music.

In his opuscule ‘A New Aesthetic of Music’ (1906) Busoni considers that the notation of music is, in itself, a transcription of an idea. From ‘scription’ to transcription is but a short step. Busoni adds that it’s odd how variation-form is esteemed by Urtext-fetishists; while varia­tion-form, when built on a borrowed theme, produces a whole series of trans­criptions which, besides, are least faithful when most ingenious. So, to purists, the transcription is not good because it varies the original; while the variation is good, though it transcribes the original! The truth is that it is impossible to differentiate too finely between variation and transcription, or between transcription and composition. For every good transcription varies an original and is a composition in its own right.

Twentieth-century masters of trans­cription have all spoken out against irrational criticism and calumny. Godowsky wrote: ‘Why should musicians be denied the privileges of comment, criticism, dissertation, discussion, and display of imaginative faculties when transcibing, arranging, or paraphrasing a standard work! Why should the literary men alone enjoy all the prerogatives! Shakespeare built his plays on borrowed themes, and Molière said: Je prends mon bien où je le trouve.’ Grainger instanced the example of master musicians practising the art of transcription and commented: ‘Why should the smaller flight, who really hardly know anything about anything at all, make such an uproar against arrangements and transcriptions?’ But not all critics calumniate. Ernest Newman held that masterpieces of transcription are comparable to the work of great com­mentators, such as Scartazzini on the Divina Commedia, Conington on Virgil, Mantague Summers on the Restoration dramatists. But the best appreciation comes from composers. In a letter to me, Benjamin Britten wrote: ‘Transcription is a very serious form which has been much neglected recently.’

In a way, this essayette itself is a kind of transcription: random reflections on the opinions of other musicians … and on Peter Pears’s title.

Ronald Stevenson © 1976

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