Sunday, 9 July 2017

Bernard Stevens (1916-1983) - a short profile

A short profile I wrote for last year’s (2016) centenary of Bernard Steven’s birth, which was not used at the time.
Three things have mitigated against Bernard Stevens. First, is a general lack of interest in composers from the generation who came to maturity at the end of the Second World War. This includes, Humphrey Searle, Benjamin Frankel and Robert Simpson. Stevens’ musical style was neither avant-garde, nor serialist nor traditionalist.  He did not belong to a ‘school’ or ‘group.’ Second, he was not a self-publicist: he rarely pushed his music into the concert hall or recital room. And, finally, for much of his career he was an unrepentant Marxist which, at that time, did not endear him to the musical establishment.

Bernard George Stevens was born on 2 March 1916 in Stamford Hill, London. Early musical training was provided by Harold Samuel.  He majored in English and music at Cambridge University where he gained his MA and BMus degrees respectively. Between 1937 and 1940 he studied at the Royal College of Music, where his teachers included R.O. Morris (composition), Gordon Jacob (orchestration), Arthur Benjamin (piano) and Constant Lambert (conducting).  During war service between 1940 and 1946 with the Royal Army Pay Corps he became involved in the Workers’ Musical Association. This Association was founded in 1936 by the composer Alan Bush, with the intention of furthering the aspirations of working class music-making. It is still going strong. Stevens wrote a number of pieces for them. He was vice-president of the Association from 1946 and took part in delegations to Eastern European countries. In 1948 Stevens returned to the RCM as professor of harmony, counterpoint, and composition. He remained at this institution until 1981. Other academic posts included a professorship at the University of London from 1967.

His enthusiasm for the Communist Party waned after the 1956 Soviet invasion of Hungary. Stevens had a deep spirituality, which expressed itself in a number of works, including the cantata Et Resurrexit, op.43 (1969) and the stunningly beautiful Mass for unaccompanied double choir of 1939. He was a member of the Teilhard de Chardin Society which promulgated a synthesis of evolutionary theory and Christianity.
Bernard Stevens died at the Essex County Hospital on 3 January 1983. He had struggled with cancer since 1978.

Stevens’ style is European in outlook rather than specifically English. His music is influenced, but not dominated by, Paul Hindemith, Béla Bartók, Dmitri Shostakovich, Ferruccio Busoni and Alan Bush. He was less-concerned about writing music aimed at addressing ideological problems of left-wing politics than Alan Bush.
A number of Stevens’ works look back to the Elizabethan age with titles such as Fantasia on ‘Giles Farnaby’ Dreame’ for Piano, op.22 (1953) and Introduction, Variations and Fugue on a theme of Giles Farnaby for orchestra, op.47 (1972).

The powerful and ultimately triumphant, Symphony of Liberation op.7 (1945) won the Daily Express competition for a ‘Victory Symphony.’  The premiere of this work was given on 7 June 1946 at the Royal Albert Hall by the London Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Malcolm Sargent.  Other important compositions include the Concerto for violin and orchestra, op.4 (1943), the Concerto for cello and orchestra, op.18 (1952), the Concerto for piano and orchestra, op.26 (1955), the Symphony No.2, op.35 (1964) and Thanksgiving for chorus and string orchestra, op.37 (1965).

Only a small percentage of Bernard Stevens’ work is currently available on CD. However, most of the orchestral pieces have been recorded, as well as a fair tranche of chamber music. The Mass for double choir was released by Chandos in 1992.
There is sufficient in the catalogue for the listener to gain a good understanding of his style. The best place to begin is with the extract from the film score The Mark of Cain. This is more romantic in tone than much of Stevens’ music, and is well-written and immediately approachable. It was arranged by Adrian Williams in 1995.

Some works to listen to:
Suite from The Mark of Cain (1947) (accessed 12 April 2016)
Sinfonietta for string orchestra, op.10 (1948) (Lyrita REAM.1117 Mono)
Symphony of Liberation: Symphony No.1, op.7 (1945) (Meridian CDE84124)
Variations for orchestra, op.36 (1964) (Marco Polo 8.223480)Concerto for piano and orchestra, op.26 (1955) (Marco Polo 8.223480)
Mass for Unaccompanied Double Choir (1939) (Chandos CHAN 9021)

If the listener can only hear a single work, I would recommend the Symphony of Liberation, op.7.

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