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. …