Professor John Stevens

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The Independent Online

John Edgar Stevens, musicologist and literary historian: born London 8 October 1921; Bye-Fellow, Magdalene College, Cambridge 1948-50, Research Fellow 1950-53; Fellow 1953-88 (Emeritus), Tutor 1958-74, President 1983-88; Lecturer in English, Cambridge University 1954-74, Reader in English and Musical History 1974-78, Professor of Medieval and Renaissance English 1978-88 (Emeritus); FBA 1975; CBE 1980; Chairman, Plainsong and Medieval Music Society 1988-95; married 1946 Charlotte Somner (two sons, two daughters); died Cambridge 14 February 2002.

John Stevens was a celebrated musicologist and a leading authority on medieval and Renaissance music. He was also University Lecturer, later a Reader and Professor, in the Faculty of English at Cambridge, and uniquely gifted to interpret the history and performance of early English song.

Born in East Dulwich in south London to talented parents, his father a keen violinist and his mother a graduate in mathematics, Stevens won a scholarship to Christ's Hospital school and Magdalene College, Cambridge. When his studies were interrupted by the Second World War, he served on a minesweeper, as many did who were gifted with sharp and sensitive hearing. After the war he returned to Cambridge and was eventually offered a Fellowship at Magdalene (1953) where he spent his entire academic career, mostly in a magnificent 15th-century chamber with a small cubby that had once served (as he loved to relate) for a privy.

At a small and crowded desk, he often worked at an appropriately monastic hour of the morning while the rest of academic Cambridge was still asleep. Many generations of students passed through these famous rooms, reading their weekly essays and benefiting from criticism that could be very firm but was never uncharitable. Graduates and academic colleagues from various faculties in Cambridge came to participate in the seminars that began with a vast and angry kettle boiling for tea, and it was a pleasure for regulars to watch academic visitors from overseas regarding this British ritual with almost anthropological interest.

Over the years, many other friends and colleagues came to play viols or to sing Renaissance partsongs, for Stevens associated music with friendship and indeed with all the higher things of the spirit in the manner of Milton, Herbert and Marvell, poets that sustained him throughout his life. He had a fine, light tenor voice that he used, and to striking effect, in his lectures. He also played the piano and harpsichord well, but his greatest love was probably for playing the viol, which he did on a weekly basis with a long-standing group of friends and associates.

Stevens wrote his major books and articles in longhand with a fountain pen, using an elegant and quasi-italic script. (Only in the last decade of his life did he acquire a computer, but he regarded it as a most untrustworthy friend, and to see him using it was rather like watching the first five minutes of a retired country clergyman learning to ride a bike). Working in this painstaking way, Stevens produced three monumental editions of music for the series Musica Britannica, beginning with Mediaeval Carols (1952), a pioneering work that was eventually followed by Music at the Court of Henry VIII (1962) and Early Tudor Songs and Carols (1975). With these editions, still the standard ones in their field, Stevens single-handedly put the greater part of late-medieval English song into print.

He complemented them with Music and Poetry in the Early Tudor Court (1961), placing the songs in the context of courtly life, accomplishment and entertainment. Bearing a dedication to his children, "without whose help this book would have been finished much sooner", this is perhaps his greatest work. It embodies the understanding of courtly culture that he derived from his deeply sympathetic reading of medieval literature, and is written in a lucid style that gives unrivalled expression of the humanistic tradition that he cherished.

Stevens believed that it was possible to make an apt remark about a poem or a musical setting because there was something stable (but not necessarily bounded) on the page for the critic to share with an imagined company of sympathetic and like-minded readers. This was very much in the manner of C.S. Lewis, a critic for whom Stevens had the deepest admiration and affection during the years after 1954 when they were both at Magdalene.

The same humanistic qualities are evident in Stevens's purely literary study Medieval Romance (1973) and in his collaborative edition, with Richard Axton, Medieval French Plays (1971). In the last book he saw through the press, Words and Music in the Middle Ages (1986), Stevens succeeded in providing the first comprehensive survey of medieval European lyrics with music. As in so much of his work, he took the view here that the words and music of medieval songs possess sound patterns of their own which offered listeners and readers many sources of delight and satisfaction that were actually quite independent.

In 1988, and now in retirement, Stevens became Chairman of the Plainsong and Medieval Music Society, founded a hundred years before. Although this was undoubtedly the least well-known of his many endeavours, it was in some ways the most telling, for he stood firmly by the society's original (and Victorian) commitment to the public understanding of medieval music and chant.

In this, as in all his undertakings, Stevens believed in the needs and rights of the "common reader". Under his chairmanship, the journal of the society began to be published by Cambridge University Press, and is now well established. He relished the memory of one visit to the press when he noticed a journal called Pig World on the receptionist's desk. "Is that the most unlikely journal that you publish?" he asked. "Not at all," came the reply. "There's one called Plainsong and Medieval Music."

At his death, Stevens left the materials for a major edition of 12th-century song, currently being completed by one of his sons-in-law and by others whom he inspired and guided. Together with his many other writings, it will stand as a monument to a loyal friend, an accomplished scholar, and an exalted spirit.

Christopher Page