Obituary: Robert Murrell Stevenson (1916-2012)

Prominent scholar of Latin American and Iberian music, composer and UCLA professor died on December 22, 2012 of natural causes.

Obituary: Robert Murrell Stevenson (1916-2012)

By Steven Loza, Professor of Ethnomusicology, UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music

Robert Murrell Stevenson, one of the leading music scholars of the twentieth century and a preeminent figure in Latin American and Iberian research, died of natural causes on December 22, 2012, in Santa Monica. A longtime professor of musicology at UCLA as well as an adjunct professor at Catholic University of America, he was an extraordinarily prolific author of books, articles, editions, reference entries, and reviews, as well as the founder/editor of the groundbreaking journal Inter-American Music Review.  His scholarly investigations ranged over an impressively wide array of subjects, particularly Spain and Latin America before 1800 but also traditional, indigenous, and popular musics of the Americas and the contributions of women composers and performers. 

Born on July 3, 1916, in Melrose, New Mexico, he spent his childhood and grew to maturity in El Paso, Texas, earning his bachelor’s degree at the University of Texas there.  An account of his subsequent training reads like a Who’s Who of institutions and famous people, with degrees from Julliard, Yale, Eastman, Harvard, Princeton, and Oxford, and studies in composition, piano, and musicology with Stravinsky, Schnabel, and Schrade, Hanson, among others.  During World War II he served as Army Captain and Chaplain for a unit of African American armed forces, and received an Army commendation.  He began teaching at UCLA in 1949 and soon established his scholarly reputation with seminal books such as Music in Mexico (1952) and Music in Peru (1959; 1960), followed by a trilogy of classics: Spanish Music in the Age of Columbus (1960), Spanish Cathedral Music of the Golden Age (1961), and Music in Aztec and Inca Territory (1968).  In all, he authored twenty-nine books and hundreds of scholarly journal, dictionary and encyclopedia articles. In 1978 Stevenson launched his own journal, Inter-American Music Review.  Unique in conception as well as execution, it became a major venue for leading research on music of all the Americas.  An accomplished composer and pianist, Stevenson wrote a wide range of pieces for piano, chamber groups, choir, and symphony orchestra.  He was the recipient of Guggenheim, Fulbright, NEH, and Ford Foundation fellowships and grants, and he was an honorary member of several scholarly societies, including the Society for Ethnomusicology (SEM) and the American Musicological Society (AMS).  For SEM he established the Robert Stevenson Prize awarded to composers who are ethnomusicologists, and for AMS he also established an award for scholars of Iberia or Latin America.  He also founded the annual Robert Stevenson Lectures in the UCLA Department of Musicology.  In 1985 he was awarded the OAS Gabriela Mistral Prize and in 2004 he was nominated for and received the Constantin Pununcio Award for scholars who maintain high levels of research after retirement from the systemwide University of California.  Dr. Stevenson’s research archive is maintained at the Conservatorio Real de Madrid.

Stevenson was an exceptional mentor as well as researcher and guided twenty-five dissertations at UCLA and Catholic University.  Those who were fortunate enough to do graduate research under his direction felt deeply inspired not only by his erudition and productivity, by the scope and depth of his investigations, but also by his passionate commitment to preserving and promoting a vast heritage of great music.  He played a crucial role in moving the Americas to a position of central importance in music scholarship.  Though he will be sorely missed by innumerable friends, admirers, colleagues, and students, his seminal work will continue to serve as a shining beacon for music scholars everywhere.