Sir John Armstrong Stevenson

From A Compendium of Irish Biography, 1878

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Stevenson, Sir John Armstrong, musical composer, was born in Crane-lane, Dublin, in the summer of 1762. His father and mother died when he was nine years old, and he was taken home by Mr. Gibson, a musical instrument maker, and was procured a place in the choir of St. Patrick's Cathedral. He early developed considerable musical talents, and showed a wonderful facility for composition. While yet a mere lad he gave music lessons and supported himself independently, and he early obtained musical engagements in both the Dublin Cathedrals. In 1800 the degree of Doctor of Music was conferred upon him by the University of Dublin, and in 1803 he was knighted. He composed glees, operas, and sacred music; but he will ever be best remembered by his arrangement of Irish airs for Moore's Melodies. Yet it has been objected that these settings are sometimes too elaborate for Irish music. Sir Jonah Barrington used to say that they reminded him of the Rev. Mark Hare's whitewashing the Rock of Cashel, to give it a genteel appearance against a visitation. The Biographie des Musiciens says: "The fault of this collection, as of all others of a similar character, is that the original style of the melodies is destroyed by the modern accompaniment."

Moore shields his friend from such accusations: "Whatever charges of this kind may have been ventured upon (and they are few and slight), the responsibility for them rests solely with me, as, leaving the harmonist's department to my friend Stevenson, I reserved to myself the selection and arrangement of the airs." Stevenson considered that his symphonies and accompaniments should ever be held subordinate to the melodies for which they were written, and he once remarked to Dr. Petrie: "I would recommend any person who means to sing them to purchase a piano about the value of £5, for it will be then likely that one may have a fair chance of hearing very little of the instrument and something of the melody and the poetry." The round of festivities in which Stevenson took part, would have left him little leisure for work, but that, according to his own account, he could do with only three hours' sleep. He was slight, and of middle height, and dressed in the pink of the fashion. His manners were somewhat pompous, yet he was at heart unaffected and kindly. He died at the seat of his son-in-law, the Marquis of Headford, in the County of Meath, 14th September 1833, aged 70. The orphan son of a poor coachmaker, he lived to see one daughter married to a marquis, another to an estated gentleman; one of his sons a rector, and another an officer in the army. An inscription to his memory has been erected in Christ Church Cathedral. One of the Melodies (" Silence is in our festal halls") was written by Moore on the occasion of his death.

Sources

116. Dublin University Magazine (37). Dublin, 1833-'77.

146. Gentleman's Magazine. London, 1731-1868.
Gilbert, John T., see Nos. 110, 335.

250. Musiciens, Biographie Universelle des: F. J. Fetis. 8 vols. Paris, 1860-'5.

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