I lived on the top floor of Stephen’s Barnes Common house for twelve years. It was a wonderful, generous arrangement – beautiful, quiet rooms at what now seems a ludicrously low rent (and was), and which made it possible for me to survive on my modest fees as a beginning freelance music-critic. It was a peculiarly painless transition from university to London. I’m ever-grateful not to have been thrust at once into a hard-nosed, hard-grinding metropolitan area. The serenity inside the house and – for all that they lie below Heathrow flight-paths – of the ‘village’ and surrounding heathland, remain with me as an improbably realised ideal of living. Stephen, with his calm, productive composing routine, his unfussed domestic practicality, his invincible geniality, was another kind of illustration of the Good Life.
He was supremely assured as a creative artist. Nothing, it seemed, could upset his methodical industry. He worked, like most composers, chiefly in the mornings, and I would hear the distinctive sound of a piano being ‘composed on’ – quite different from the instrument merely being ‘played’. This was never disturbing, and not because I lived two floors up on the other side of the house. He most certainly did not beat the instrument, in some quasi-Beethovenian transport, into submission. He feathered and cajoled it. He approached the creative task, as he approached people, genially and delicately. He used to say he didn’t mind being disturbed at his work, because (and it was an observation that struck me) if you know how to concentrate at all, distractions don’t affect your resolve, and are even quite pleasant. True concentration isn’t a tight thread all too capable of being snapped.
We had countless conversations on the stairs. His knowledge of music was a treasury to dip into, and his personal links to composers and connections within the English musical world made him seem the very embodiment of the latter. If he spoke, say, of E. J. Moeran or Anthony Milner or Herbert Howells, it was with pointed anecdote that brought them into the room, or hallway. (Howells, admittedly, lived only down the road.) Distinguished people came to dinner or to stay – Wilfrid Mellers, maybe, or Julian Budden, or John Williams; while Andrzej Panufnik, living upriver at Twickenham, would send his new scores regularly. I was very impressed by it all – never more so than when asked by the Dodgsons, away in the country, to run an errand (delivering the score of one of his operas) to no other than Joan Sutherland’s London address.
Stephen’s little library of his own music on the top-floor landing was a rarely entered (at least by me) sanctuary of files and brown envelopes, the accumulation of a lifetime; and somehow, within a quiet house, a place quieter still: as though in deference to the wealth of sound reposed in it. Another landing-room was a kind of office – it contained the telephone in the days when such things were static objects that rang through the house and must be answered to. I can still hear Stephen’s voice calling me down mid-morning – I was probably still in bed! – to speak to someone. His voice was beautifully modulated (as listeners to Radio 3 well knew), and I sometimes think that to lose a person is, more than anything else, to lose a voice. From his I picked up more about music and a host of matters than I can readily distinguish; though I know the general theme was lucidity.
But it’s a chat about the shrubbery at the front of the house that sticks strangely in my mind. He was admiring the scent of jasmine on the trellises one summer’s day. I’d oddly never been introduced to the fragrance before.
As a composer growing up in the 70’s, Stephen Dodgson was to me a friendly but authoritative voice on Radio 3 advising me on Record Release which version of Haydn’s op 50 String Quartets (for example) to get: in other words, he was as comfortable in the world of (other people’s) music as a whole, as it would seem, in his own. Only later did I get to hear any of his utterly personal music, with its quiet, gentle but playful voice. His is a totally individual slant on tonality, as if the benign spirits of Scarlatti and Haydn had returned to reside in South West London. That he was an independent spirit, as unaffected by fashionable trends as he was largely ignored by the short-sighted so-called musical establishment, goes without saying. Good for him.
Later I had the chance to learn one of his piano sonatas, No. 4, and when he invited me to play it for him at his home in Barnes one wet Saturday afternoon in 2004, he was exactly the kind, friendly, avuncular figure that I had expected. More recently, hearing things like his marvellous and scandalously neglected string quartets and Essays for orchestra, now happily recorded, did the complete picture of his utter mastery and sheer natural musicality show itself.
It was an honour for me to be allowed to contribute a small but heartfelt tribute to this afternoon’s appreciation of this lovely and exemplary composer.
Few composers have written idiomatically for such an array of musical instruments. In addition to his celebrated guitar pieces, Stephen’s many compositions include nine string quartets, seven piano sonatas, wind band music, a bass trombone concerto and a chamber opera. A passion for early music was inspired in part by his indefatigable wife, the harpsichordist Jane Clark. This resulted in 31 solo harpsichord pieces, two clavichord suites and numerous chamber works that often include the recorder, with captivating titles such as The Snail and the Butterfly, High Barbaree and Jove’s Nod. Largely tonal, there is nothing jarring or aggressive about his music, and it is original by virtue of its integrity.
Despite his international reputation, Stephen seemed blissfully uninterested in fame or status. It is only since reading his obituaries in the national press and elsewhere that I have discovered that, inter alia, he twice won coveted awards from the Royal Philharmonic Society and was a Fellow of the Royal College of Music. These were probably mere trifles to Stephen, whose priorities lay very much in his passionate support and encouragement of a wide range of young musicians. I clearly remember his excitement in 2011 shortly before rehearsals for his recently completed trumpet concerto written for a young Imogen Hancock and the Thames Youth Orchestra. It was encounters like these that fed his childlike wonder about the world – a quality he never lost.
As a friend, Stephen always radiated goodwill and a sense of mischievous wit. On seeing my apology for a garden, he promptly bought me a bag of manure! In life, as in music, he was ever eager to lend a kind and practical hand to those less skilled and experienced than himself. We must now cherish his wonderfully varied and extensive musical legacy.
I only had the good fortune to get to know Stephen in the last few years of his life, but here was clearly a man of life, spirit and wit. I have fond memories of mid-rehearsal lunches in Barnes where Stephen would be, as ever, full of life and laughter; of his boyish delight when a packet of Waitrose mini pork pies was supplied at a particularly uninspiring pre-concert tea; of his warmth and openness, his kindness and gentle good humour at the difficulties and frustrations of life. And the music is so like the man: full of invention, never quite going where you expect, always with a chuckle and good humour but with a heart of seriousness and warmth not far beneath the surface. I greatly regret not having known Stephen for longer, but even those short few years will live long in my memories of him. And of course his spirit remains, utterly embodied by his music.
I first met Stephen when I was about to become Jane’s sister in law, he told me later that he had taken great care about choosing his tie for the occasion! This concern for others, including many of my extensive family especially the young ones, was typical of the warm affectionate man that I came to love dearly. My memories will always be of many mealtimes with excellent wine, good conversation, and stories often funny but full of the information that Stephen gathered from his extensive reading – and his salads were unsurpassed, usually involving things he had grown himself in the garden that was such an important part of his life. Simon and I regularly shared wonderful holidays with Jane and Stephen during which Stephen seemed to get as much fun from cutting up an over juicy melon as explaining the technicalities of Spanish organs or Baroque decoration. Christmas Day at Scarth Road was a very special event, but just as special were Boxing Day walks when London was quiet and Stephen would share with us his love and phenomenal knowledge of the city. He had cycled over much of it and knew it intimately. Music was of course always there, but Stephen knew our limitations in that field, and even when ill he was thoughtful about what we might like. He was a special person – I was lucky that marriage brought him into my life and he is greatly missed by all of his extended family.
When I think of Stephen, I immediately picture the enthusiasm with which he would pass along the results of some of his many interests. We might be strolling in the wonderful garden that he and Jane nurtured in Barnes, Stephen generously giving his top tips on vegetable growing and introducing me to certain favourites like Pan di Zucchero lettuce which I will always grow in his memory. Or it might be Stephen proudly carrying his rustic homemade bread into the dining room and adding it to the mix of friendship, great food and colourful stories that he would tell with such gusto.
I particularly think of the suite of pieces that Stephen wrote for me and Cat Mackintosh (harpsichord and baroque violin) and how to our huge delight, he had as always, caught the particular essences of our instruments and given us a range of emotion to express. I think of Stephen as exemplifying the joy of engagement in all aspects of life combined with a desire to share his discoveries.
Stephen was my composition teacher at the Royal College of Music. He was charming, kind and invariably in a good mood, even when I turned up with a poor musical scribble in response to his demands. He showed me the beauties of Medieval and Renaissance music and encouraged me to follow the learning processes of that time, thus instilling in me a life-long love of ancient music. His knowledge of music was huge and his sharp observations priceless. He loved to point out the absurdities and contradictions in people’s behaviour, all in the most good-humoured and kind-hearted manner, talking and gesticulating while all the time laughing in his characteristic manner.
His tolerance of my student ways knew no limits: I would enter his teaching room puffing at a cigarette and commandeer the dustbin as an ash tray. He would tease me and mimic my actions delightfully, and this from a non-smoker who years later told me he hated the smell! He was extremely supportive of my first important London concert in 1971 when I played his Duo Concertante with Tom Gilhooley. Stephen Dodgson has left a treasure trove of music for the guitar, and personally he will be missed hugely by all who knew him.
I first met Stephen Dodgson when I was an eleven year old Junior Exhibitioner at the Royal College of Music in 1955. He was my composition teacher in those days and we instantly got on very well. Not only was he an outstanding composer and teacher but he was, and remained, a kind and understanding soul of great sincerity and integrity. His sense of humour was acute and much of our time together was spent in tears of laughter. In those early, headstrong days of mine I tried to write my own piano transcriptions of the Beethoven symphonies and he patiently went out of his way to hear them. He conducted Beethoven’s 3rd piano concerto with me at a College concert shortly after – he was outstanding in that capacity too.
Since then I feel so fortunate to have shared such a warm, close friendship with him and his delightful wife Jane. Stephen and I were always amused that our birthdays were exactly 20 years apart and would enjoy celebrating those mutual birthdays in style!
Modest to the core, he never possessed any inflated ego – indeed he was the absolute opposite. He would seldom refer to his remarkable and long list of compositions. He would rather put everyone before himself and remained an unassuming, unaffected man and musician. I, together with the many others lucky enough to have met him, feel greatly strengthened, energised and inspired by his dynamic, warm, vibrant personality and presence.
Stephen Dodgson was my friend for 50 years, in fact we became such good friends that I lived in their large house in Barnes for eight years. During this time the Dodgsons provided me with a priceless cultural education, not merely by taking me with them on a couple of holidays that took in significant European locations and artefacts, but between them making me feel the living, breathing tradition of art music.
Stephen’s literate musical awareness informed everything he undertook, whether as a frequent contributor to BBC Radio 3’s Record Review, where he took infinite pains to write in a way that was acute yet never negative, or in his public work as chairman of the National Youth Wind Orchestra, founder of Castelnau Concerts for young musicians, which ran for eight years in Barnes, or chair of the Composers’ Guild in early 1960s. In this capacity he was a fount of amusing stories about occurrences during an official exchange visit to Russia in the Krushchev era.
Nobody who knew him can forget his sharp eye for the ridiculous and his inimitable method of recounting such episodes, which was to become so engrossed in the humour himself that his spellbound audience was already in tucks before the punchline. And such was the infectious gaiety he brought to each story it really didn’t matter if you’d heard it before, because he had the story-teller’s art of making it fresh. Stephen and Jane were generous hosts, aided by an extensive cellar constantly supplemented by well-judged additions. He and his friend, the late composer John Gardner, particularly enjoyed surprising each other with blind tastings of some new and unusual vintage.
Perhaps it is this quality of intelligent and well-mannered balance that best sums up Stephen’s own musical legacy. Anybody who walked past their double-fronted house on Barnes common of a morning would see what was almost a Dutch still life: Jane at her harpsichord in one window; Stephen at his desk in the other, composing, always in longhand or sitting at the piano trying over a phrase. If ever the term ‘quill pen composer’ was meant as a compliment it would be directed at Stephen who produced limpidly elegant scores of perfect legibility. Although he graduated to a typewriter for scripting, he never adopted the computer. Indeed the couple were the amusement of all their friends for possibly being the only people in the 21st century never to have owned a television set – until in his frailty in the last few years, Stephen made watching classic comedy films constitute ‘retirement’. He was a consummate craftsman, and for this reason performers loved his music. It was this gestural intuition that made Stephen such an effective composer for those instruments like guitar, harp and harpsichord who sound at their best when a composer fully assimilates their unique technique/s.
I had premiered his second set of Harpsichord Inventions in the Purcell Room in 1973 before my career took a different turn. In 2008, after performing a selection of all the sets at Handel House I recorded an interview with Stephen in his studio. It may be the only video to preserve something of his unique and much loved character.
MICHAEL MAXWELL STEER