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The Music of Robert Louis Stevenson


By J.F.M. Russell ©2019

"An interesting chapter in his life will be written when all his scattered pieces are brought together, and the musical side of his character unexpectedly revealed to the vast public that knows him now only as the winsome versifier and the accomplished romancer."

Robert Murrell Stevenson (1916-2012) in Robert Louis Stevenson's Musical Interests, 1957.

Whatever the quality of Stevenson's music, it is rare to be able to look directly into the emotional life of an author. The pages in this site attempt to reflect his deep affection for the folk music of Scotland, and for that of Germany, France and the Pacific Islands, as well as European art music.

He began to study piano and composition when he was 36, and learned the penny whistle two years later. From the age of 38 almost until the end of his life he played the flageolet, a version of the whistle equipped with keys. Although he claimed he had great difficulty with works in multiple parts, his pieces include songs and music for piano, as well as duets, trios and quartets for various instruments. Above all he preferred melody, and his favorite composer was Schubert. He wrote more than 120 pieces, and this site describes them through facsimiles, transcriptions, recordings, quotations and commentary.

Other writers such as E.T.A Hoffmann, Rousseau and Tolstoy composed more sophisticated and complex works than Stevenson. Music for him, however, seemed to pervade his and his family’s entire life, and its influence can be found throughout his writings. He made manuscript copies of his favorite melodies, usually to be played on the flageolet or penny whistle. He also greatly enjoyed performing music with other people and wrote or arranged ensembles for himself and family members or friends. Although he was fascinated with music and wanted to understand and create it, the most important use of melody for him may really have been to inspire and shape his poetry. Many of these musically inspired poems are also included in the descriptions.

All of Stevenson's musical works date from a period of six years. He mentions his first piano composition, Threnody, in a letter from 1886, remarks on the flageolet for the last time in a letter from Samoa in 1891 and, finally, quotes the theme of his Andante Tranquillo in a letter from 1892.

Stevenson used the same approach to music composition as he did for literature. In a process famously known as the "sedulous ape," he repeatedly imitated a work that impressed him until he began to attain the effect he wanted. The present research tries to identify the sources of his inspiration, reveal his actual manuscripts and their transcriptions while bringing his music to life with recordings using instruments similar to those he would have used himself. Links to descriptions of all Stevenson's known works are included whether they still exist or not. Until now only three of his original compositions have ever been published. This is the first appearance for almost all the rest, and the first time most have been heard in at least 120 years.

Click here to see links to the complete musical works of Robert Louis Stevenson.

This work began with the support of the Alice Kaplan Institute for the Humanities at Northwestern University and the Northwestern University Main Library. The following organizations provided facsimiles of Stevenson's manuscripts:

  • CSU East Bay Libraries
  • Harry Ransom Center, The University of Texas at Austin
  • Houghton Library
  • Huntington Library
  • Library of Congress
  • Morgan Library & Museum
  • National Library of Scotland
  • New York Public Library
  • Princeton University
  • Robert Louis Stevenson Memorial Cottage & Museum
  • Stevenson House Collection, Monterey, CA
  • University of Rochester River Campus Libraries
  • Washington University in St. Louis Libraries
  • Yale University Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library

Special thanks to Roger Swearingen for sharing his own research and offering opportune criticism, and to Richard Dury for publishing material related to this site, for continued criticism, and for making a wealth of material on Stevenson generally available. See the RLS website and EdRLS.