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Obituary: Peter Stevenson

01 June 2018

Kenneth Shenton writes:

INTIMATELY associated with ecclesiastical liturgy from boyhood until death, Peter Stevenson, who died on 4 March, aged 89, represented at its most elegant that immediate post-war generation of organists who achieved so much in reviving English church music in often difficult times. An outstanding musician of great versatility whose influence permeated all aspects of the subject from classroom, choir stall to cathedral cloister, he remains one of that select but notable band, known and admired both nationally and internationally.

Born in Norwich on 28 August 1928, Peter Anthony Stanley Stevenson was educated at the City of Norwich School. From there, when he had undertaken his National Service, his prodigious gifts took him to the University of Durham, where he was Organ Scholar of Hatfield College. Having been elected a Fellow of the Royal College of Organists, he moved to the Royal College of Music, where he came under the stern but benevolent tutelage of Harold Darke. Indeed, it was Darke who instilled in him the academic rigour that so came to characterise his subsequent career.

Stevenson’s professional career began in earnest in Coronation Year, with a dual appointment in which he joined the music staff at Berkhamsted School and became organist of Berkhamsted Parish Church.

Three years later, he succeeded Keith Bond as Assistant Organist of Ripon Cathedral. There, his input and expertise proved pivotal in helping the Organist, Lionel Dakers, to restore choral standards after a period of neglect. When, in 1957, Dakers moved to Exeter Cathedral, Stevenson held the fort in the months leading up to the arrival of Philip Marshall.

In 1958, Stevenson moved south, his outlook finding a particularly happy and expressive outlet as Director of Music at Wrekin College, in Shropshire. There, besides creating a notable centre of excellence in music education, he played a pivotal part in the wider cultural community. He became a lecturer in the Extra-Mural Department of the University of Birmingham and a Special Commissioner for the Royal School of Church Music. Tours as an examiner for the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music (ABRSM) afforded him regular breaks from this exacting routine.

In 1965, Stevenson succeeded Maxwell Menzies as Organist and Master of the Choristers at Portsmouth Cathedral. Like Menzies, he, too, held the post in conjunction with that of Director of Music at Portsmouth Grammar School. There, he directed a small but skilful choir whose resources he came to use with much imagination and skill. At the cathedral, he gave the choir a distinctive sound, enriched and enhanced the repertoire, and expanded all aspects of the cathedral’s musical output. In addition, he lectured at the University of Southampton.

Providing a colourful palette for his talents was the cathedral’s 1947 three-manual Walker organ. Having emerged as one of the finest organists of his generation, Stevenson was especially at home among late-19th- and early-20th-century repertoire. With a splendidly natural technique, his playing combined a happy blend of virtuosity and elegance. With an ear for neatly shaded colour, he was also an accompanist of great sensitivity. As his many broadcasts and recordings ably demonstrated, he could also take delight in the occasional grand gesture.

He stepped down from the cathedral in 1969, and continued to be in constant demand worldwide. Extensive examination tours for the ABRSM were interspersed with lecturing assignments, summer schools, seminars, and masterclasses. He was an organ tutor at Chung Chi College, part of the Chinese University of Hong Kong, for seven years, and then became Dean of the Faculty of Music. While here, he also conducted both the Hong Kong Bach Choir and the Hong Kong Chamber Orchestra.

He modestly claimed no special merits as a composer; nevertheless, Stevenson’s feel for the liturgy allowed him to write well for voices. His small output of anthems, responses, chants, hymn tunes, and imaginative descants, often written for specific occasions, have long remained in the repertoire. Particularly fine is his set of Ferial Responses for treble voices

After returning to England, he spent his retirement in his native county. More than 100 organ recitals at Princes Street URC in Norwich brought his rich life full circle.

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