The Music of Robert Louis Stevenson
By J.F.M. Russell, ©2011
From a photo in the Stevenson House Collection, Monterey, CA
"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 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. He was deeply affected by the folk music of Scotland and to a lesser extent by that of Germany, France and the Pacific Islands, as well as by serious 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. His arrangements and compositions include more than 120 pieces. This site describes his complete works through facsimiles, transcriptions, recordings, quotations and commentary.
These compositions and arrangements fulfilled several purposes. Stevenson wrote down 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. Finally, he was fascinated with music and wanted to understand and create it.
All of Stevenson's 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 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 work tries to identify the sources of his inspiration, reveal his actual manuscripts and their transcriptions while bringing his music to life with actual recordings using instruments similar to those he would have used himself. What follows are links to descriptions of all Stevenson's known works, whether they still exist or not. Only three of his original compositions have ever been published.This is the first public appearance for almost all the rest, and the first time most have been heard in at least 120 years.
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 copies of Stevenson's manuscripts:
•CSU East Bay Libraries
•Library of Congress
•Morgan Library & Museum
•National Library of Scotland
•New York Public Library
•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. For more information about Robert Louis Stevenson see the RLS website.