Home         Indexes         Conclusion         Statistical Summary         Bibliography         Profile         Contact
 The Music of Robert Louis Stevenson
By J.F.M. Russell, ©2015
Robert Louis Stevenson began studying the piano and composition at age 36 and learned the penny whistle two years later. He played the flageolet, a version of the whistle equipped with keys, almost until the end of his life. His arrangements and compositions include more than 120 pieces. This site describes his complete works through facsimiles, transcriptions, recordings, quotations and commentary.

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.







Please select your recording using the scroll bar on the right


Manuscript Location:

Yale University, Rare Book and Manuscript Library
Gen Mss 664
Box 33, Folder 802
Edwin J. Beinecke Collection of Robert Louis Stevenson
Series II Manuscripts
Manuscripts of Robert Louis Stevenson
[Musical compositions] (6599)  [2 of  4 folders] / undated





Significant References in Works of R.L.S.:


If he had not been familiar with the Irish song for many years before, Stevenson must have at least heard The Harp That Once Through Tara's Halls at Gretz in 1876, when Isobel reported that her first love sang it:
He may have heard it again in 1882 at Davos. The preface to Moral Emblems describes Stevenson's pleasure in engraving wood blocks, and Lloyd reports his own misspelling of the song title on one of the programs he printed.
A madrigal is an unaccompanied song for several voices. Stevenson apparently intended to follow that form and included two measures of a second part in his arrangement, but did not complete it. He also transposed the music to the key of G, probably to avoid playing low D's on the flageolet.
There are several poems in Songs of Travel which could be sung to the melody of The Harp that once. Number II, Youth and Love I, fits the music except for the trochees that occur at the end of each even numbered line and which would require an important change in the rhythm of the music.
Once only by the garden gate
                                 /     x
Our lips we joined and parted.

I must fulfil an empty fate
                            /      x   
And travel the uncharted.
Number V, She rested by the Broken Brook, fits the music but has only three stanzas. Two stanzas are required to sing through the music once, but the addition of the third makes the song end in the middle of a second repetition. The same is true of number X, I know not how it is with you.
However, number VII, Madrigal fits the music perfectly with no changes anywhere. It has exactly the correct number of stanzas to repeat the song three times. An objection could be made to assigning only two notes to the three syllable "glistering" in the first line, but McKay's entry in A Stevenson Library, number 6721, indicates that Stevenson originally wrote the two-syllable "glistered." Of all Stevenson's more than 140 manuscript transcriptions and compositions, The Harp that once through Tara's halls is the only one that fits the poem. 
RLS usually chooses music which reflects somehow the meaning of his verse. Moore's lyrics equate the silence of the harp to the lost freedom of Ireland. Stevenson's verse uses light as a metaphor instead and is about the voluntary loss of freedom to a lost love. The speaker is conquered by love and surrenders to it:

Clear as the shining tapers burned
On Cytherea's shrine,
Those brimming, lustrous beauties turned,
And called and conquered mine.
The beacon-lamp that Hero lit
No fairer shone on sea,
No plainlier summoned will and wit,
Than hers encouraged me.
I thrilled to feel her influence near,
I struck my flag at sight.