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Robert Louis Stevenson A Child's Garden of Verses
set by Ronald Stevenson and Malcolm Williamson


Susan Hamilton's Delphian disc of Ronald Stevenson songs contains 17 settings of poems by his namesake, Robert Louis Stevenson.

A Child's Garden of Verses

• I. Dedication

• II. Bed in Summer

• III. The Land of Nod

• IV. Time to Rise

• V. Singing

• VI. Rain

• VII. Windy Nights

• VIII. Shadow March

 IX. My Shadow

• X. Fairy Bread

• XI. The Swing

• XII. Summer Sun

• XIII. From a Railway Carriage

• XIV. Autumn Fires

• XV. When the golden day is done

• XVI. The Lamplighter

• XVII. Envoy

Other settings include Malcolm Williamson's cycle From a Child's Garden, on a recording sung by the boy soprano Simon Woolf.

Time to rise; Marching song; Where go the boats?; Looking forward; Whole duty of children; The flowers; Rain; My bed is a boat; From a railway carriage; The lamplighter; A good boy; Happy thought


Robert Louis Stevenson has of course become so well known for Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and Treasure Island that we forget he was a proud Scot. He lived only to the age of 44.

A Child's Garden, well known to previous generations, expresses the fears as well as the delights of childhood; its darker side is seen by Sassenachs as distinctively Celtic. The poems have attracted many composers, Hahn, Ireland, Quilter and Stanford as well as the near-contemporaries Ronald Stevenson and Williamson.


Williamson's settings are charming, more consciously beautiful, less dark. Stevenson, though he perfectly captures the young poet's affection for his nurse in Dedication , is most at home in the spookier songs, such as Shadow March. Stevenson's songs sound Scottish, especially in the hands of Scottish performers as Hamilton and Cameron.

What Simon Woolf offers is something much more unusual, a child singer who interprets with the knowingness and precocity of an adult, and whose diction is so clear as to be uncanny. It is Woolf (whose discs are currently available only privately from Musical Pointers) who more disturbingly conveys the uneasy qualities inherent in the poems. In each case, but with a different balance, the composer and the artists have combined deftly to present the admixture of innocence, vulnerability and the Other originally present in the poems.

The overlap between Williamson's and Ronald Stevenson's settings is small; but one poem is already a perfect microcosm. What do we see From a railway carriage? For Williamson, we are physically in the train. From the piano we hear the noise of the axles, the voice almost incants the words to fit; there is little variation. Stevenson sees the poem as an opportunity for sound-painting, here, we are in the passenger's imagination, looking out at the scenery, at figures in the landscape. Stevenson the poet often has such lone figures, for Stevenson the composer, they are symbolic of solitude and loneliness, the isolation of childhood.

Likewise, Williamson wants to show us the rainy-ness of Rain, its repetitiousness; Stevenson its variety, how it falls with a very different sound on water and on umbrellas; he allows himself to repeat one line of a very short poem. In the bird that wakes up the sleeping child in Time to Rise , Williamson does have attractive melismata on the bird's call, Stevenson adds a birdsong piano postlude. Stevenson intends the text as a starting point for exploration, so makes full use of piano introduction and postlude; Williamson, for example, takes quite literally the idea of ‘vanishes forever' from the traveller's viewpoint and ends Railway Carriage abruptly with the end of the last word.


Emotionally, the greatest contrast comes in Lamplighter. Williamson's song is essentially innocent, the child rejoicing in his good fortune, Stevenson's much more poignant, empathising with fate of less fortunate children as the narrator of the poem does.


There is no better or worse in these settings, any more than Wolf set Goethe's poems in Wilhelm Meister better or worse than Schubert or Schumann, but Schiller, in his poetic theory, would have said that Williamson's settings are naive, and Stevenson's are sentimental. The poet, one feels, will have been happy with both. You would do well to have Susan Hamilton's 17 together with Simon Woolf's dozen chosen by Williamson.

Ying Chang