'' Everything he writes is required to communicate itself vividly. Obscurism is anathema to Steptoe, though that does not mean that his intellect is compromised in any way. Indeed, his structures are often tough and full of dynamic inter-reactions, though the ideas somehow manage to plant themselves in the memory very quickly, with the result that the reprises and developments are made crystal clear.''
Stephen Pettitt

Biography Roger Steptoeversion française version Française

 

Roger Steptoe (born 1953) is acknowledged to be one of the most respected British musicians of his generation. A composer of international renown his impressive catalogue of works includes chamber music, four concertos, song cycles and instrumental sonatas all of which have been performed worldwide. As an admired pianist he has pioneered much neglected British music through recitals as a soloist, an accompanist to singers and a chamber music player. A sought-after teacher he has taught at the Royal Academy of Music in London for fifteen years, given regular masterclasses internationally and currently teaches at the conservatoire of Brive-la-Gaillarde in the French Limousin where he lives.

steptoe
Photo: Jean-Pierre Mathez,
Emily Stanley

Since 1999 Roger Steptoe has lived in Uzerche in the French Limousin. From this small medieval hill-top town his creative output has been renewed with new works and many older ones receiving performances internationally.

In the last five years a number of works have been recorded for CD by leading French and British performers including the Scottish-born tubist, James Gourlay, the French oboist, Nora Cismondi, Olivier Latry, organist at Notre-Dame, Paris, and the young award-winning French piano trio, the Trio Magellan, the Anglo-American trumpettist Graham Ashton and French organist Michael Matthes. New works, too, have been commissioned, composed and performed, and these, along with an impressive list of commissions into 2013, affirm Steptoe's ever-increasing international reputation.

Recently his music has been heard in Cincinatti, Canberra, Zurich, Lisbon, Besançon, Roque d'Antheron, Paris, York, Bournemouth, Tulle, London, New York City, Geneva (NY), Salt Lake City, Port Erin (Isle of Man), Lyon, Manchester, Limoges, Glasgow and Uzerche itself.

Roger Steptoe's long commitment to teaching and educational work continues as Composer-in-Residence and professor of analysis, harmony, composition and musical history for the Conservatoire de Brive-la-Gaillarde. His senior students come from Brive as well as leading music conservatories in Toulouse, Bordeaux and Paris.

After the premiere of Steptoe's String Quartet No. 3 (2001) by the eminent French string quartet, the Quatuor Elysée, Dr Malcolm Miller wrote in the UK contemporary music magazine, Tempo, 'Steptoe, who celebrates his fiftieth birthday in 2003, has resided for five years in the Corrèze, where he has recently produced a string of powerful 'French' works. These include a Piano Quartet (premiered by Philip Fowke's London Piano Quartet in Britain in 2000), the prelude La Dame de Labenche, premiered by the composer at the Musée Labenche, Brive, on the restored Blüthner that belonged to Debussy, and This Side of Winter, commissioned by the Orchestre Symphonique Régional du Limousin for a premiere on 19 November 2002. The new quartet's enthusiastic reception, by a capacity audience at the picturesque 12th-century church of Saint-Robert, underscored its blend of originality and accessibility.'

Early days

Roger Steptoe studied music at the University of Reading before becoming a post-graduate student at the Royal Academy of Music, London, from 1974 to 1977. There he studied composition with Dr Alan Bush and piano accompaniment with Geoffrey Pratley. The three years proved not only to be a fertile learning ground but a timely spring board into the professional classical music world. Alan Bush's influence on Steptoe's music has been much recorded (see this article on the Alan Bush Trust website). His mentor shaped a razor-sharp technique, fastidious craftsmanship and above-all a rare insight into the art of word setting...

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Royal Academy of Music

During his three-year post-graduate period with Alan Bush at the Royal Academy of Music (1976-1979), a number of formative works quickly established his reputation both within the four walls of the RAM and in the world outside. Early works include The Jumblies, a cantata-type setting of Edward Lear's poem of the same name for childrens' voices, recorders, percussion and piano, Music for Abingdon (for Abingdon School Orchestra), Music for horn and orchestra (premiered by RAM horn-playing student-colleague, Adrian Leaper, with the Oxford Symphony under Robin Nelson, and then by Ifor James and the Henley Symphony Orchestra under the late Marcus Dods), Suite for small orchestra (premiered by the Ealing Symphony orchestra under Maurice Miles, Professor of conducting at the RAM), and From Hyperion for oboe and piano (composed for Roger Smeeton with the composer as pianist). Steptoe's Concerto for violin and strings received its March 1976 premiere in West Ealing by Philip Gallaway and the West London Sinfonia under Stephen Block, Triptych for brass quintet was heard at the Royal Academy of Music in a fellow-student ensemble directed by Paul Archibald and Graham Ashton.

During this time Roger Steptoe benefitted as a pianist, working as accompanist for Constance Shacklock's RAM singing classes. He performed regularly in concert with fellow-student singers. With Suzanne Webborn, he gave the first London performance of Alan Bush's 'Life's Span' for mezzo soprano and piano at the Royal Academy of Music in 1975. Here his love for vocal music began - a period that influenced his own compositional work and contributed enormously to the unique success of his vocal writing.

Whilst a student at the RAM he won all the major composition prizes and was awarded two major Leverhulme Composition Awards enabling him to continue his studies. A number of key works, important in these years, were performed by his Academy contemporaries, many of whom have gone on to become international names in music and with whom he has remained in contact ever since.

Today, Steptoe is one of the few RAM-trained composers who has not been side-tracked into other musically-related genres. Through his own volition he has ploughed a steady international career in composing concert music – mainly song cycles, chamber music, instrumental works and concertos, which, for over 30 years, have been heard throughout the world.

1st Vaughan Williams Composer-in-Residence at Charterhouse

In September 1976, and at the age of 23, Roger Steptoe was appointed the first Vaughan Williams Composer-in-Residence at Charterhouse School in Godalming, Surrey. This nationally-advertised post attracted some 60 applicants nationwide. It was created in association with the Ralph Vaughan Williams Trust at the initiative of Brian Rees, Charterhouse's headmaster at the time, and the school's Director of Music, William Llewellyn. Charterhouse was VW's old school, the RVW Trust maintaining a close association with the Music Department ever since the 1970s.

Steptoe passed three fruitful years there living in the school, teaching and composing. His output was not only music for school use – Praises for choir and orchestra, Overture for Charterhouse, occasional fanfares and music for the Chapel Choir - but for the outside world: namely the first String Quartet of 1976 written for the Coull Quartet's 1976 London debut in the Purcell Room and recorded immediately after on the Phoenix Musica Britannica label - ‘..... a well-worked substantial piece in one movement.’ (Dominic Gill, Financial Times), the song-cycle Aspects - ‘The technical ressource of Charterhouse's Composer-in-Residence was again shown to be at the service of a sensitive mind.' (Felix Aprahamian, The Sunday Times), Dance Music for symphonic brass, Study for solo violin written for Peter Oundjian for a Charterhouse Celebrity Recital in 1978, Five Songs for tenor and piano, taken up by tenor, Kenneth Bowen, and pianist, Paul Hamburger on BBC Radio 3, and the Suite for solo cello, a winner of the 1978 BBC Young Composers' Competition and played and recorded by Gillian Thoday on BBC Radio 3 from the Concert Hall at the Royal Northern College of Music, Manchester. 'A well-wrought piece.' (Daily Telegraph).

King of Macedon

Steptoe's three years at Charterhouse culminated in his full-length opera, King of Macedon, to a libretto by Ursula Vaughan Williams, the composer's widow. This major work based on the childhood of Alexander the Great and the events leading up to his father's assassination, was begun when Steptoe was 25. Without doubt it played a major rôle in his emergence as an interesting figure in the British new music scene at the time.

'With such a richly imaginative score behind him the world lies open for this industrious and gifted composer, only 26, already with choral and orchestral music, song-cycles and a string quartet to his name.' (The Daily Telegraph).

The project was remarkable in employing the services of young professional soloists, a local orchestra and Charterhouse School which provided smaller rôles, members of the orchestra, the chorus and back-stage help. The costumes were designed by Joyce Conway-Evans, the set by Charterhouse's Director of Art, Michael Woods, the opera conducted by William Llewellyn, and directed by Geoffrey Ford whose 1972 centenary production of Vaughan Williams' The Pilgrim's Progress at Charterhouse had won critical acclaim. Sadly, the proposed British Council-organised performances of a revised and shortened version of the opera by the Royal Northern College of Music, Manchester, in Philip of Macedon's home city of Thessalonika never materialised.

After Charterhouse

In December 1979, Roger Steptoe was invited to teach harmony, composition, counterpoint and orchestration at the Royal Academy of Music, London, where he stayed until 1993. Many of his students have since made international musical careers, notably Rachel Portman, the Oscar-winning film composer.

This period was dominated by songs and more chamber music including the elegiac Clarinet Quintet commissioned by David Campbell and the Coull Quartet. Through a second timely recording on the sadly-defunct Phoenix label Steptoe’s music was introduced to a wider audience. ‘A splendid work; perhaps the best for the medium since the Bliss Quintet.' (Malcolm MacDonald, Gramophone, 1982).

Stainer & Bell

In 1981 and at the invitation of the late Allen Percival CBE and initiation of Sir Anthony Lewis, former Principal of the Royal Academy of Music, Roger Steptoe began a productive association with the London international publishing house, Stainer & Bell Ltd. Over ten years some 40 works were published, namely chamber music, song cycles, concertos, choral music and instrumental music. Today, Steptoe's most recent works are published by Editions BIM in Switzerland making most of his entire major catalogue publically available throughout the world.

Performances worldwide

Throughout the 1980s Steptoe's music continued to receive regular performances by leading international performers including festivals in the UK, many European cities (including numerous tours for the British Council), the Far East, India, Australia, the USA and South America. Notable performances took place in the new Melbourne Concert Hall for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, the Palais des Papes at Avignon (1980 International Horn Society Conference), the Queluz Palace, Lisbon, Sutton Place, Surrey, UK (former home of Jean Paul Getty), Roosevelt Birthplace and Federal Hall, Wall Street, NY, (for American Landmark Festivals), Wigmore Hall, London, Isle of Man Bank Concert Hall, The Smith Opera House, Geneva, NY, Erin Arts Centre, the Musée Labenche, Brive, the Hong Kong Performing Arts Academy, British Councils in India, South America, Moscow, West Berlin and Lisbon, Notre-Dame Cathedral, Paris, a Swedish tour of the Oboe Quartet for the Svenska Rikkonserter......... Numerous radio and television broadcasts specially on BBC Radio 3 were given by the same artists.

Steptoe has also been a Featured Composer at a number of leading UK festivals. Notable are the Peterborough Cathedral Festival, Greenwich Festival, Cheltenham Festival, Chelmsford Cathedral Festival, Winchester Festival, Aberdeen Youth Festival.

Pianist-composer

During this period Steptoe toured toured internationally as a composer-pianist usually with programmes of relatively-unknown British music. Works by Fricker, Moeran, Bliss, Howells, Scott, Richard Rodney Bennett, Nicholas Maw, Alun Hoddinott, York Bowen, Vaughan Williams, Bax, Ireland, Bush, Lennox Berkeley and Rawsthorne often made up his recital programmes. He worked regularly with singers, and from time to time presented recitals in the Purcell Room with fellow musicians and featuring British 20th-century music. Most notable was an 80th birthday celebration for the late Sir Lennox Berkeley when The Guardian wrote, 'Roger Steptoe was the pianist, cool and lucid in spite of the formidable complexities of his part.'

With Ursula Vaughan Williams he presented music and poetry recitals mainly drawn from the life of Ralph Vaughan Williams. With a number of guest readers they gave recitals at The Snape Maltings (for Sir Peter Pears), Charterhouse (for the opening of the new VW Music Centre), the Cardiff Festival and twice for the British Council in Portugal. For the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution Ursula Vaughan Williams was invited by London Weekend Television to devise a new programme of words and music. The programme was created as part of Steptoe's participation in the 1989 Greench Festival as Composer-in-Residence and repeated for the Isle of Man's Mananan International Festival and the Cheltenham Literary Festival. Stage and television actor, Cyril Nri, was the other reader, and Amanda Roocroft (soprano) and Omar Ebrahim (baritone) were joined by Steptoe as pianist in the premiere of the Four Rondos.

During the 1980s Steptoe made a number of critically-accaimed recordings, namely the songs of Vaughan Williams (which included the first recording of the Four Last Songs) with the baritone, Peter Savidge, and the first recording in modern times of Walton's Piano Quartet with Paul Manley (violin), Michael Ponder (viola) and Jane Salmon (cello). '...... Roger Steptoe, in total command of the very elaborate and exacting piano parts......'. (The Gramophone)

1980s recordings

Steptoe’s own music was represented on disc in the 1980s, notably the String Quartet No. 1 played by the Coull Quartet, the song cycle ‘The Looking Glass’ for soprano, oboe and piano, to words by Ursula Vaughan Williams, and recorded by Lesley Garrett, Gordon Hunt and Jean Anderson respectively, Two Songs for baritone and piano with David Wilson-Johnson and the composer, theClarinet Quintet with the Bochmann Quartet and David Campbell who also recorded the Two Impromptus for solo clarinet. Later in the 1980s Steptoe was commissioned by the countertenor, James Bowman, to write a work for countertenor and strings. An Elegy on the Death and Burial of Cock Robin was recorded by Bowman on the Meridian label.

Sir Malcolm Arnold

For the UK publishing house, Alfred Lengnick, Steptoe created arrangements of instrumental Sonatinas by Sir Malcolm Arnold. The newly-named Concertino for oboe and strings Op. 28a was recorded in 2006 on the Decca label by Nicholas Daniel and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra under the late Vernon Handley CBE - 'If the Oboe Concerto is amongst his masterworks – as I believe it to be – then this Oboe Concertino is another gift. It is a gift partly by the composer and partly by Roger Steptoe who took Arnold’s Oboe Sonatina and orchestrated it. You can tell it is not pure Arnold by the orchestral treatment which is more RVW than echt-Arnold. Still the work is a most beautiful and succinct piece which across its nine minutes traverses much the same territory as the Concerto. Both the Concerto and the Sonatina were written for Leon Goossens' (for details see this CD of the month review on the MusicWeb International website by Rob Barnett).

Arnold's Variations on a Ukrainian Folksong, originally for piano, was released in January 2007 on the Meridian label by the Isis Ensemble, directed by Jacques Cohen, with a concert at St James's Piccadilly, London, in January 2008 - 'Roger Steptoe has arranged it very ably for strings, making a striking work from modest beginnings. Fascinatingly, the theme will be recognised by many listeners for its refrain 'Yes, my darling daughter'. (Edward Greenfield, Gramophone, May 2008).

'The prizes of the disk come last. Malcolm Arnold’s witty Variations on a Ukrainian Folksong was written for piano. This new version is by Roger Steptoe – a composer we should hear more of. Whilst removing some of the witticism and making certain portions a bit po-faced he injects some real fun into the piece which couldn’t be had on a solo piano. The 1st variation, for instance, uses a very silly solo violin – the work was written for a violinist friend of Arnold’s. The mock seriousness is all the more pointed by the use of strings because of the instrument’s ability really to sustain chords and make attacks which immediately fall away. The arrangement also makes the music sound more “English” and puts it firmly in the Tippett Double String Concertoand Britten Frank Bridge Variations camp' (for details see this review on the MusicWeb International website by Bob Briggs)

Four concertos

Apart from a notable contribution to chamber music, song cycles and smaller instrumental works, the 1980s saw the composition of four major concertos. The 1982 Concerto for Oboe and Strings has recently been recorded by Nora Cismondi, principal oboist with the Orchestre National de France, the 1983 Concerto for tuba and strings by James Gourlay on Naxos, the Concerto for clarinet and strings was written for David Campbell and the Guildhall String Ensemble, and Alexander Baillie was an early advocate of the 1991 Cello Concerto which was described by Michael White in The Independent on Sunday as '... there is a fullness of life in this piece that sweeps through its four dance movements with passionate, almost ecstatic immediacy.'.

Work for musical organisations

During the 1980s Roger Steptoe worked tirelessly for organisations that looked after music and musicians in Great Britain. He was a committee member of the Incorporated Society of Musicians (having also recreated the North London Centre with the late Sir Charles Groves), a Director of the Royal Philharmonic Society (also a member of the Programme Committee), a reader for the Society for the Promotion of New Music, an active committee member of the Composers' Guild of Great Britain, and also a member of the Music Committee for the English-Speaking Union (Chairperson, Belinda Norman-Butler).

Roger Steptoe has been a Full Member in the Performers and Composers section of the Incorporated Society of Musicians since 1979. He retains a close association with the ISM through his election in April 2008 as an Ordinary Councillor.

RAM festivals

Between 1987 and 1993 he was responsible for the organisation of six International Composer Festivals at the Royal Academy of Music which featured the music of Messiaen, Henze, Berio, Carter, Schurmann and sixty ex-RAM composers.

Biographical references

International biographical references include the 2000 New Groves Dictionary of Music and Musicians, the 2008 Oxford Companion to Music, Oxford Dictionary of Music, Baker's Dictionary, New Harvard Dictionary, International Who's Who, Debrett's People of Today, Dictionnaire Biographique des Musiciens, and, again, for 2008, the Dictionary of International Biography.

Roger Steptoe in the US today

Over the last ten years Steptoe's profile has been more and more visible in the USA. He has enjoyed a happy relationship with the New York-based American Landmark Festivals since the early 1990s when ALF's Director, the late Francis Heilbut, invited Steptoe to New York on two occasions to give recitals and attend performances of his chamber music notably at the Roosevelt Birthplace and Federal Hall, Wall Street. Further appearances for the English-Speaking Union took him to Boston (ESU, Harvard.....) and Cleveland. For Milton Babbitt, Steptoe was invited to the Juilliard School to present a composers' seminar on his own music.

Recent tours have included piano recitals at the Goëthe Institute, Fifth Avenue, New York, when he featured Frank Bridge's Piano Sonata to honour the composer's centenary of his birth and give the premiere of Three Preludes by the distinguished jazz composer and pianist, John Rangel. The recital was repeated at The Smith Opera House in Geneva, New York State.

In 2007 he was invited as an Artist-in-Residence at the University of Texas San Antonio where he included Henri Dutilleux's major Piano Sonata in a recital programme that also featured the first performance of James Scott Balentine's Piano Sonata No.2 written specially for the occasion. Steptoe also gave composition classes and lectures. He repeated the Balentine Sonata in a recital in the Central Presbyterian Church in Manhattan and the Smith Opera House in Geneva, New York.

The International Clarinet Society invited Steptoe and eminent British clarinetist, David Campbell, to its 2003 annual conference at Salt Lake City where they gave a Celebrity Recital featuring Steptoe's Clarinet Sonata alonside music by Camilleri and York Bowen.

James Gourlay included the Tuba Sonata in the International Tuba and Euphonium Society's conference at Cincinatti University in July 2008.

In October 2008 Roger Steptoe was invited back to Geneva and Boston by American Landmark Festivals in two recitals celebrating the 50th anniversary of the death of Vaughan Williams. Steptoe was joined by Belgian violinist, Pierre D'Archambeau, American baritones, Jimi James and Michael Pelletier, and Geneva-based actress, Eleanor Stearns.

Steptoe returned to the States in January 2009 for the premiere of the Sonata for trumpet and organ at the National Cathedral at Washington DC. During this period he was invited to give classes at Purchase College, New York State University.

September 2009 saw a further tour for American Landmark Festivals when Roger Steptoe honoured the 130th anniversary of the birth of British composer, John Ireland, and for which he wrote the Sonatine 2 for cello and piano. The work was premiered by Stefan Reuss with the composer as pianist in the Smith Opera House, Geneva, New York, on September 19th, 2009.

In October 2010 Steptoe gave the New York premiere of the Sonatine 2 with Andrew Yee, took part as pianist in a performance of Frank Bridge's Three Songs for mezzo, viola and piano at the Paul Recital Hall, Lincoln Center, New York, gave a class for Steven Stucky's Doctorate composers at Cornell University, visited Notre-Dame University and repeated the Sonatine 2 at the Smith Opera House, Geneva.

Steptoe returned to New York pn October 27th 2012 when, with the German/American tenor, Niels Neubert, he gave the world premiere of the Five Shakespeare Songs at the Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace – a National Historic Site – invited by American Landmark Festivals Concert Series 2012/13.

He gave the Indiana premiere at the University of Notre Dame, South Bend, Indiana, with Mark Beudert, on October 28th 2012. He also gave masterclasses with singing students and a class on his work and life in France.

Roger Steptoe returned to the University of Notre Dame in April 2016 to attend rehearsals and the four world premiere performances of his second full-length opera, As You Like It. The libretto is by Lesley Fernandez-Armesto

 

Roger Steptoe in France

Steptoe's love of French music began at a very early age with the discovery of the piano works of Fauré, Poulenc, Ravel and Debussy. Therefore in the early 1990s it became a natural career break to take time out to encounter French musicians and more of their music. He discovered the Corrèze and has continued to enjoy this part of the French Limousin ever since. At the same time he quickly developed numerous professional musical collaborations. Free from Camden Town, his London home for some 15 years, Steptoe's more recent works have benefitted enormously from this cultural move, which has generated a sea change in which a free form of serialism and structural freedom reign uppermost.

Yet, Roger Steptoe guards his poetical sensibility, his strong sense of harmonic and melodic development, and above all, a certain Englishness which has unwittingly contributed to the new-found popularity of this aesthetically individual music.

Among the French musicians associated with Steptoe's music are: the Trio Magellan (Pierre Fouchenneret, violin, Antoine Perlot, cello, Julien Gernay, piano), Nicolas Baldeyrou (clarinet), Olivier Latry (organ), Michael Matthes (organ), Quatuor Girard, Quatuor Elysée, Nora Cismondi (oboe), the late Mel Culbertson (tuba), Elsa Grether (violin), Ferenc Vizi (piano), Adrien La Marca (viola), Peter Csaba (conductor), Jérôme Devaud (cond), Marc Ursule (cond), Arie van Beek (cond), Guy Condette (cond), Epsilon Euro Brass (dir: Franck Pulcini), CNSM Brass Ensemble, Lyon, Charles Lavaud (piano), Billy Eidi (piano), Ensemble Hope, Orchestre d'Auvergne, Orchestre de Besançon Franche-Comté, Orchestre du Conservatoire de Brive, Orchestre Symphonique Régional du Limousin.

In January 2009 the disc, LIGHT, featuring the Oboe Concerto, the Sinfonietta for organ and strings, and the Seven Miniatures for piano trio, was awarded 4 stars in Le Monde de la Musique. The conductor was Jérôme Devaud with the Forum Sinfonietta, Paris.

Since 2001 Roger Steptoe has taught at the Conservatoire of Brive-la-Gaillarde.


Editions BIM

November 2008 saw Roger Steptoe join the roster of composers of the Swiss publishing house, Editions BIM, and with whom he enjoys an on-going relationship. All his recent major works are now in the BIM catalogue including the chamber music, instrumental and vocal works and sonatas and sonatines for various instrumental combinations. This agreement has ensured that the majority of Steptoe's output since 1975 is signed to a publisher.

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