In 1957 the Australian-American pianist and composer Percy Grainger was 75 years old and in failing health when he received a letter from a young Scottish composer named Ronald Stevenson. Stevenson requested Grainger’s reminiscences of his former piano-teacher Ferruccio Busoni, to be included in a book Stevenson was writing on Busoni. Grainger’s reply, dated 2 August 1957, would lead to 32 letters exchanged between the two men over the four years leading up to Grainger’s death in February 1961. Stevenson was 29 years old at the time, living in West Linton just south of Edinburgh, with his wife Marjorie and their two small children and teaching in various Edinburgh schools and in the Extra-Mural Department of Edinburgh University. He recalled that Grainger ‘gave me companionship through correspondence at a time when I needed it because there wasn’t a great deal of stimulation, cultural stimulation, in my life’.
Stevenson had performed and admired Grainger’s folk-music settings as a young piano student and learned of Grainger’s involvement with Busoni when researching the composer in 1955 while in Rome on an Italian government scholarship. The two men soon found that despite their 46-year age-difference, they had affinities in many areas. Both were pianists of staggering abilities and composers who combined a love for folk-music and demotic, working-class art with an aesthetic that proposed a ‘world music’ which would include the farthest reaches of humanity. Both made an art of piano transcription of a wide variety of works and were champions of little-known music and composers. Both were authors, striving to share their knowledge of musics of many times and places in the printed word and in lecture recitals. And both revered the work of Walt Whitman, that great poet of inclusivity, the pioneering spirit and the open road [quoted in the title of this post].
As the correspondence of the two men grew, their mutual admiration deepened. So impressed was Grainger with Stevenson’s writing that in 1959 he requested that all of Stevenson’s articles be sent to the Grainger Museum: ‘You are a magnificent worder. Your complete articles (now or in a near future) ought to make an impressive collection’. Stevenson soon realised that he wanted to write at length on Grainger and in his last letter to him, dated 7 February 1961, wrote: ‘My work on your music is growing out of hand and can now only assume the form of a book’. It is a correspondence which sheds light on the thoughts of one man coming to the end of his creative life and the other just entering into his most fertile period of productivity. They were like messengers crossing in the night, passing a torch.
These are the opening paragraphs of Teresa Balough’s introduction to Comrades in Art: The Correspondence of Ronald Stevenson and Percy Grainger 1957-61, recently published by Toccata Press and distributed by Boydell & Brewer. As well as the correspondence between the two composers, the book includes Stevenson’s many articles and lectures on Grainger and his music along with a CD of a lecture-recital by Stevenson, presented in Grainger’s home in White Plains, NY, in 1976.
We continue with one of Grainger’s letters to Stevenson (here without footnotes):
Dear Ronald Stevenson,
I found your article on Busoni very stimulating. It brought clarity into my thoughts about Busoni. When I first met him, in 1903, when he offered to give me piano lessons without payment, it was the originality of my sketches for Scotch Strathspey & Reel that attracted him.
By 1907 he had soured on me, but when we played thru the 2-piano version of Hill-Song No. 2 his hostility melted & he said, quite wistfully: ‘Das ist ein hübsches stück – das ist ein hübsches stück!’
And of course I talked to him of the various innovations I had already tried-out (irregular rhythms, unresolved discords, large chamber-music, etc.) or intended to try-out in the future (close intervals, gliding tones, etc.). And while I am not denying that he may have got his ‘music of the future’ from all sorts of sources I do suggest that he got enough from me to account for his ideas of music to-come.
It was the same with Stravinsky & Schoenberg. Neither of these superb geniuses developed their iconoclastic innovations until my innovations, as incorporated in the Cyril Scott Piano Sonata Op. 66 (incorporated by C. Scott with full written permission by me) had been freely played & heard in Central Europe around 1908 – my ‘unresolved discords’ of 1898 leading to atonalism, my irregular rhythms of 1899 leading to irregular rhythms of ‘Sacre du P.’ And when the 1st German War cut off compositional contact between Britain & Central Europe, what happens: These 2 geniuses dropped their British-rooted innovations & went back to less progressive stimulations. (Neither Cyril Scott or I have ever dropped our innovations.) Almost everything that European man does had an English-speaking origin: 5 o’clock tea, train, tram, steamer, flirt, bus, strike, lock-out, club, sandwich, lunch, golf, sport, skyscraper, chewing-gum, maxim-gun, revolver, etc. So why should it be otherwise in music? Is it not a fact that most musical innovations are English-speaking (according to the musicologists): Foweles in the Frith, Worcester Medieval harmony, Dunstable, William Lawes, Jazz? So if an English-speaking composer happens to invent, or revise (for of course Claude Le Jeune also had his irregular rhythms), or transform some aspects of music, why should it seem so unthinkable that it cannot be mentioned?
I do not expect my ‘serious’ music to be liked or respected. But I do think I am a natural innovationist & I would like to see some day an acknowledgment of the changes that have come over music thru me. I think it is only fair to Australia.
I think I did send you some remarks & statements by me about my music, did I not? Do you have Hill-Songs I & II (arranged for 2 pianos)? If not, would you like to have them? Hill-Song II (for 21 single winds) has just been recorded by a superb wind ensemble. When the disc appears, would you like a copy of it? Do you have Frederick Fennell’s flawless recording of my Lincolnshire Posy for band? If not, would you like me to send it?
I am getting stronger, I think. All the same, just writing a letter ‘shivers my timbers’.