About this Recording
8.223545 - STEVENSON: Passacaglia on DSCH

Ronald Stevenson (b

Ronald Stevenson (b. 1928)

Passacaglia on DSCH (1960-62)


Ronald Stevenson was born in Blackburn, Lancashire, England, of Scottish and Welsh descent. He studied at the Royal Manchester College of Music from 1945 to 1948. Here he brought about a revival of interest in the music of Ferruccio Busoni (1866-1924), a subject he researched in greater depth during six months of 1955 spent at the Conservatorio di Santa Cecilia in Rome. Stevenson's expert knowledge of Busoni has brought him international respect, whilst his compositions include two Piano Concerti (No. 2 commissioned by the BBC for the 1972 Proms), a Violin Concerto commissioned by Yehudi Menuhin, and much other music of substance.


Stevenson is a remarkable pianist too, and neither his choice of repertoire nor his manner of performing it are routine. He complains about "production-line pianism", especially amongst young pianists, and he is well-qualified to voice strong opinions on this issue, as his own performances demonstrate a pianistic approach of rare individuality. Indeed, when I visited Stevenson at his home to seek advice on performing the work recorded here, it became apparent that, decades after its composition, he views the piece now equally from the perspective of a performer as from that of its composer. Stevenson's insistence on a creative approach to performance contributes to the spontaneity of the music he writes.


The Passacaglia on DSCH was begun in West Linton, a village south of Edinburgh, on 24th December 1960, and was completed in its original version on 18th May 1962. A bound photocopy of the score was presented by the composer to the dedicatee, Dmitri Shostakovich, during the 1962 Edinburgh Festival, at which many of the Russian composer's works were played. In 1963, Stevenson became Senior Lecturer in composition at the University of Cape Town and it was there, at the Hiddingh Hall, that the first performance was given by the composer on 10th December that year. Shortly before the première, Stevenson rewrote the passage entitled "To emergent Africa" and on the day of the first performance he added the "Pibroch" section. In 1964 the composer recorded the work on two LPs issued under the auspices of the University of Cape Town, in a limited edition of 100 copies. In December 1965, John Ogdon recorded the work for HMV and on 22nd May 1966 he broadcast it on the BBC Third Programme. The composer gave the European public première on 6th June 1966 in the Great Hall of the University of Halle (East Germany) and eight days later John Ogdon gave the British public première at the Aldeburgh Festival. Since then, Stevenson has made his second recording of the work, incorporating many modifications to the score. These range from octave displacements and tiny alterations to the part-writing, to radical textural rescoring of passages and significant changes to dynamics. Some of these alterations are adopted in the present recording, together with a few variants of my own.


The German spelling of the dedicatee's name - Dimitri Schostakowitsch - enables the derivation of a four-note motiv of D, S, C and H: in German musical notation, "S" is E flat and "H" is B natural, whilst "B" refers to B flat. This motiv often appears in Shostakovich's works, as a musical signature. Here it is used as the basis of a lengthy score, though when Stevenson began experimenting with writing variations over a theme constructed from these notes, he did not anticipate that they would result eventually in a work on this scale.


The precise nature of Stevenson's achievement is best appreciated by considering the fundamental question: Why is this piece written over an ostinato of four notes? Two related questions may then spring to mind: Is it not unnecessarily inhibiting for a composer to limit his ideas to those which can be reconciled with a persistent four-note motiv, and is the amazing technical accomplishment displayed only of esoteric interest to academically-minded professionals or does it have any relevance to a musical layman?


The answer lies partly within the musical content itself. When Mahler stated to Sibelius that "a symphony must be a world, it must embrace everything", he was speaking metaphorically. Stevenson takes this aesthetic literally. His oeuvre recognizes no barriers and includes elements from cultures other than that of the West. The Passacaglia strives therefore to be all-inclusive by featuring a wide variety of national styles and influences. In this context, the four-note motiv unifies the music, ensuring that the work is perceived as a single span, with a sense of continuity, rather than as a series of colourful but unrelated episodes. The implications of the challenge Stevenson sets himself are also important; in every bar there are a vast number of possibilities available to a creative artist in the 20th century, and although using a strict form (such as a passacaglia) rules out the majority of these, a master craftsman like Stevenson can find solutions to any compositional problem. The demands this makes on his intellect stimulates his creative imagination, rather than limiting it, as working within an extremely strict framework leads to a concentration of musical thought, itself directly responsible for the impact of the work. Without the compositional self-discipline imposed, such an impact could not be achieved on either the professional or, more importantly, the untrained listener. The expressive and intellectual elements of all great music are not in conflict, but are interdependent. The Passacaglia on DSCH proves this, by displaying each element to its extreme, within accessible, memorable music.


A notable aspect of this piece is that from beginning to end a sophisticated process of continuous development progresses independently of the passacaglia form itself. As well as subtle thematic metamorphoses there are hundreds of tiny cross-references between sections which ensure that upon repeated hearings the listener registers certain passages subconsciously as anticipations of analogous passages to come, whilst regarding others in the light of corresponding sections still in his or her memory. Powerful psychological factors are at work here.


Initially, Stevenson described the Passacaglia as a tripartite structure, but it became evident that these divisions were artificial ones which underestimated the work's unity. There are many subsections listed by Stevenson as a preface to the published score. These were intended only as a guide to the changing character of the work, not as separate formal units, and the music to which some of these subsections correspond is sometimes not clearly identified in the score. The division of the work into 32 tracks for this recording has been made in conjunction with the composer, and facilitates a brief outline of the piece here:


The work opens [1] with the DSCH motiv stated in bald octaves in the first three bars. The next three bars repeat this sequence of pitches with a tiny change of the rhythm and with the "D" and the "H" transposed up an octave. The seventh bar repeats the notes quickly in reverse order. Rather than allowing himself some flexibility in the presentation of the DSCH motiv, Stevenson uses this pattern as the unvarying basis of the entire work, with only a handful of modifications to the initial seven-bar design. With D minor established as the main tonality, the Sonata Allegro is now under way, devoted to a preliminary exploration of the possibilities of the theme. Eventually the note D becomes insistent, leading to a forceful resolution into G major. The music retreats from this climax, introducing a Waltz in Rondo-Form [2], which meanders without any apparent sense of direction. The First Episode is less hesitant and takes over with wild pianistic figurations [3]. These are clearly unable to establish themselves with any authority either, and are soon replaced by the Prelude to a suite of dances [4], whereupon we feel that we are now standing on firmer ground. Like many baroque examples, this one resembles an improvisation, in this case with passages for each hand separately. The Prelude begins to ramble, so the music is brought to attention with another dance, a Sarabande [5]. This is soon interrupted impatiently by a Jig [6], but the Sarabande insists on reasserting itself briefly [7], before giving way graciously to a Minuet [8]. This alludes to Shostakovich's Prelude in D, Op. 87 No. 5 and is allowed time to develop before the Jig bursts in again [9], this time in the major mode. The Jig derails itself entirely, collapsing on a dissonant chord from which it cannot continue. A grotesque Gavotte takes its place [10], notated in two time signatures so that the duple metre of this dance can coexist with the triple metre of the DSCH motiv. The "trio" section is more relaxed, but the return of the main Gavotte leads with increasing belligerence to a riotous Polonaise [11]. After much tonal ambiguity, we are now firmly back in G major. The Polonaise dies away and the listener senses that the suite has now run its course.


The first main point of repose ensues [12], a section inserted after completion of the work because, in a piece containing musical elements representing many countries, it seemed odd for Stevenson to omit his native land, when Scottish folk music is just as intricate as the Hungarian folk music preserved in the works of Bartók. The composer uses clashing major/minor harmonies which imply the microtonal scale of the Great Highland Bagpipe. This passage transcribes a 17th-century Pibroch entitled Cumha na Cloinne (Lament for the Children), written by Patrick Mor MacCrimmon after the death of his sons. Placing this lament after the violent passage representing Poland lends this Pibroch a 20th-century relevance when one considers the tragic history of that country in the decades preceding the Passacaglia.


The Second Episode, subtitled "arabesque variations" [13] returns us to more abstract ideas, focusing upon purely pianistic issues. Its decorative filigree leads naturally to the Nocturne [14], where glissandi take over, first played on the keyboard, then directly onto the strings inside the piano. These develop into related gestures of arpeggiated chords. Here Stevenson asks for harmonics, produced by holding down notes silently and allowing them to vibrate in sympathy with pitches sounded an octave below. In the score he indicates that these harmonics should be manipulated electronically for recorded performances, so as to obtain variations in sound level. This contributes to the all-embracing nature of the work, in that the composer wishes to explore every sound-producing potential the piano possesses. The music drifts into remoter regions of the imagination in a Rêverie-Fantasy [15] as the arpeggiated chords are expanded to a wider compass.


A coarse Fanfare disrupts the music [16] and Forebodings [17] convey anxious expectation. The rôle played by the passage entitled Glimpse of a War-Vision [18], where brutal clusters assault the ear, has often been misunderstood. At first it may seem a naïve misjudgment for the composer to permit such primitive sounds into a work notable for its refinement. But for a committed left-wing pacifist like Stevenson, who chose imprisonment rather than accept compulsory conscription into the armed forces in 1948, war is best portrayed by sounds which shock. A conventional musical evocation of it, though more comfortable for the listener, would distance art from the real experience of life, implying an idealisation of a subject in which ideals have no place. Here the atmosphere built up in the preceding sections is deliberately destroyed, just as war is the negation of creativity itself.


The vision soon evaporates, leaving Peace [19], where inspired chromatic alterations are made to the motiv. A five-note phrase in the treble, like a bird-cry, suggests life after the devastation. It provides the theme for the Variations on "Peace, Bread and the Land" [20], whose ostinato rhythm derives from the speech rhythm implied by a Russian slogan of 1917, Mir Khleb i Zemlya. As the music climbs upwards from the bottom of the keyboard, there is a spirit of reconstruction and renewal, as there must have been for the revolutionaries at that time. The climax leads into the Symphonic March [21] based on material reminiscent of the Erdgeist 4ths from Berg's opera Lulu. The Third Episode [22] recalls the flying virtuosity of the First Episode. The following Fandango [23] has more than a touch of decadence. Its repeated notes become the focus of attention when turned into an ominous Pedal Point [24], which parallels the Forebodings section in both atmosphere and musical material.


To Emergent Africa [25] proved to be a controversial passage at the Cape Town première. This is also a pedal point, now on A. Stevenson wrote this section originally for conventional keyboard execution but, after hearing a Bantu tribal drummer performing, he recomposed it, requiring the pianist to play on the keys with one hand and directly onto the strings inside the piano with the other for the first 42 bars of the section. However, since the original "keys only" version of the keyboard element in this section was retained in the published score, with the "piano interior" version notated as an alternative, I have retained the fuller-textured first version of the keyboard part and added the sounds produced directly from the strings by studio overdubbing, as I believe that it leads with greater continuity to the main climax. Although choosing a Steinway piano for this recording, I have switched to an eight-octave Bösendorfer to overdub these sounds. The pedal point on A is maintained for a total of 77 bars, until the start of the Fourth Episode, subtitled "etudes" [26]. Unusual playing techniques are required here, including widely-spaced broken-chord figurations, leaps, and crossings of the hands. Stevenson even asks for the use of the palm, and like Prokofiev in the first movement of his Sixth Sonata, the fist. Freakish glissandi lead to the climax, marked "martellatissimo, sempre ffff". The tension is relaxed by a series of Variations in C minor [27], the key which the DSCH motiv implies, and which has been avoided shrewdly until now. After some passages for left hand alone, a calm Adagio marked "tribute to Bach" [28] opens with a reference to his Toccata and Fugue in D minor, BWV 565.


The highlight of the Passacaglia now follows: a triple fugue, beginning with a subject which uses all 12 notes of the chromatic scale, 11 of them in its first two bars [29], marked Andamento, a standard designation for a fugue subject of unusual length. The ramifications of treating it contrapuntally are considerable. This first fugue ends in the extreme bass register and the second fugue is launched [30]. Its subject consists of another musical motiv based on a composer's name, this time that of Bach, who had himself used the notes B (B flat), A, C, and H (B natural) in his Art of Fugue. In Busoni's Fantasia Contrappuntistica, itself a reworking of this composition by Bach, the first entry of this motiv is marked "pensoso" to indicate its contemplative character; in Stevenson's work the same indication is given at the equivalent moment, a direct acknowledgment of his debt to Busoni's greatest piano work. The subject's eight notes consist of "BACH" followed by "DSCH": Stevenson told Shostakovich that the combination of Russian and German motivs symbolized his hope that the two nations, and by implication all of mankind, would live in peace with each other. The simple presentation of the motivs makes their similarities immediately apparent. Stevenson exploits these ambiguities of identity fully, combining an intense concentration of thematic development with some of the most beautiful music in the work. It is remarkable, too, that he can unfold a fugue over an ostinato motiv which itself uses the same material. The first subject storms in and from then on the second fugue becomes more frenzied, even hysterical. It reaches a similar conclusion to the first, descending again to the extreme bass register whereupon the third subject is announced [31], the grim mediaeval liturgical plainchant known as the Dies Irae (Day of Wrath). The inscription "In memoriam the six million" at the outset of this dissonant final fugue has a 20th-century reference, but the harsh harmonies use archaic open 5ths characteristic of the Dark Ages; this music hints that it is the re-emergence of the spirit of those times which leads to contemporary atrocities such as the one of which this dedication reminds us. Even the passage of quiet repeated chords (derived from the opening five notes of the first fugue subject) shows no trace of compassion.


The Final Variations [32] feature a progressive diminution of rhythmic values, showing a kinship with the "Arietta" from Beethoven's Sonata No. 32, Op. 111, but whereas in that masterpiece the pulse should be maintained strictly, in this one flexibility is desirable, indeed unavoidable. At one point Stevenson specifies that a passage is to be played "as though with Gagarin's perception of space" (the astronaut Yuri Gagarin had orbited the earth in 1961). As the piece approaches its end, a huge culmination appears to loom ahead, but such a simplistic conclusion would be too facile for a work which ponders larger issues than do most contemporary scores. Stevenson therefore offers us a non-committal coda which is convincing and compelling through its sheer open-endedness. Even the last bars refuse to confirm whether the tonality is major or minor, and, by implication, whether the outcome of the Passacaglia is positive or negative. The enigmatic, unharmonized, final low D leaves this for the listener to decide.


© 1994 Raymond Clarke


Raymond Clarke


Raymond Clarke was born in Bournemouth, England, in 1963. He was educated at Selwyn College, Cambridge, where he held exhibitions for both musical performance and academic work. Piano studies followed at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester with Ryszard Bakst. His enterprising repertoire includes such scores as the three Boulez Sonatas, the four Tippett Sonatas, Messiaen's Vingt Regards sur l'Enfant-Jésus and Shostakovich's 24 Preludes and Fugues Op. 87. His South Bank Centre début in London, presented by the Havergal Brian Society and described by Music and Musicians as "truly a historic performance", featured (following some of Brian's piano music) Stevenson's Passacaglia. The Times commented "just as overwhelming was Clarke's magisterial performance... a confidence and energy that simply left one in dazed admiration". Further appearances in London have included five recitals of Beethoven piano music (concluding with the Hammerklavier), a cycle of the complete Prokofiev Sonatas at St. John's Smith Square, plus further South Bank Centre concerts where he has premièred works written for him by Robert Simpson and Alun Hoddinott. He broadcasts for BBC Radio 3 and this is his début CD.

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