Obituary: Professor John Stevens

By Page, Christopher | The Independent (London, England), March 11, 2002 | Go to article overview
Save to active project

Obituary: Professor John Stevens

Page, Christopher, The Independent (London, England)

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.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
Loading One moment ...
Project items
Cite this article

Cited article

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited article

Obituary: Professor John Stevens


Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

While we understand printed pages are helpful to our users, this limitation is necessary to help protect our publishers' copyrighted material and prevent its unlawful distribution. We are sorry for any inconvenience.
Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.

Are you sure you want to delete this highlight?