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Born in London, Stevens studied English and Music at the University of Cambridge with E. J. Dent and Cyril Rootham, then at the Royal College of Music with R.O. Morris and Gordon Jacob from 1937 to 1940. His Opus 1, a violin sonata, attracted the attention of Max Rostal, who commissioned a Violin Concerto, which Stevens wrote while on army service. In 1946 his First Symphony, entitled Symphony of Liberation, won first prize in a competition sponsored by the Daily Express newspaper for a 'Victory Symphony' to celebrate the end of the war with a premiere at the Royal Albert Hall.
In 1948 Stevens was appointed Professor of Composition at the Royal College of Music, a post he combined from 1967 with a professorship at the University of London. As an examiner he travelled widely, especially in Eastern Europe.
Although he resigned his membership of the Communist Party in protest at the Soviet suppression of the 1956 Hungarian uprising, Stevens was intellectually and emotionally committed to the left and associated with other socialist artists and writers, such as his friends Alan Bush, Randall Swingler and Montagu Slater, and was active in the Workers' Musical Association.
His musical students included British composers Keith Burstein and Michael Finnissy and Canadian composer Hugh Davidson. See: List of music students by teacher: R to S#Bernard Stevens.
Stevens died in January 1983, in Colchester, England.
In recent years all of Stevens' major orchestral and chamber works have been recorded. As a result, the String Quartet no. 2 of 1962 has in particular been revealed as masterpiece fit to stand with the greatest twentieth century British works in the medium. While, as Malcolm MacDonald states in his 1990 sleeve note for Unicorn-Kanchana, "it is one of three compositions (with Symphony no 2 and the Variations for Orchestra) to display...the internal logic...[of] Schoenbergian serial techniques," the Second Quartet's language is neither neo-Expressionist or serialist; rather, it uses Schoenberg's fierce logic to create the impression of a seamlessly unfolding tonal song that, creating its own haunting, individual sound world, draws the listener in with its emotional power. The Cello Concerto (1952) attracted the highly distinguished artist Alexander Baillie as its soloist (accompanied by the BBC Philharmonic under Edward Downes), while the Symphony no.1 (1945), a cry of "Liberation" after Nazism, could seem gestural with its looser structure. However, what strikes the listener is the Symphony's imaginative playfulness, a stylistic approach that could be described as the logic of the unexpected.
- A Symphony of Liberation, Op. 7 (1945)
- Symphony No. 2, Op. 35 (1964)
- Violin Concerto, Op. 4 (1943)
- Cello Concerto, Op. 18 (1952)
- Piano Concerto, Op. 26 (1955, rev. 1981)
- Ricercar, Op. 6, for string orchestra (1944)
- Eclogue, Op. 8, for small orchestra (1946)
- Fugal Overture, Op. 9, for orchestra (1947)
- Sinfonietta, Op. 10, for string orchestra (1948)
- Overture East and West, Op. 16, for wind orchestra (1950)
- Dance Suite, Op. 28, for orchestra (1957)
- Adagio and Fugue, Op. 31a, for wind orchestra (1959)
- Prelude and Fugue, Op. 31b, for orchestra (1960)
- Variations, Op. 36, for orchestra (1964)
- Choriamb, Op. 41 (1968)
- Introduction, Variations and Fugue on a theme of Giles Farnaby, Op. 47, for orchestra (1972)
- Mimosa, Op. 15, unfinished opera in 3 acts to libretto by Montagu Slater (1950)
- The Shadow of the Glen, Op. 50, opera in 1 act to libretto by J. M. Synge (1978–79)
- Mass, for double choir (1938–39)
- The Harvest of Peace, Op. 19, cantata for speaker, soprano, baritone, mixed choir and string orchestra to text by Randall Swingler (1952)
- The Pilgrims of Hope, Op. 27, cantata for soprano, baritone, mixed choir and orchestra to text by William Morris (1956, rev. 1968)
- Thanksgiving, Op. 37, motet for mixed choir and string orchestra (or organ) to text by Rabindranath Tagore (1965)
- Et Resurrexit, Op. 43, cantata for alto, tenor, mixed choir and orchestra to texts from Ecclesiastes and Randall Swingler (1969)
- Hymn to Light, Op. 44, anthem for mixed choir, organ, brass and percussion to text by Rabindranath Tagore (1970)
- The Palatine Coast: Three Folkish Songs, Op. 21, for high voice and piano (1952)
- Two Poetical Sketches, Op. 32, for female voices and strings to text by William Blake (1961)
- The Turning World, Op. 46, motet for baritone, mixed choir, orchestra and piano to text by Randall Swingler (1971)
- The True Dark, Op. 49, song cycle for baritione and piano to text by Randall Swingler (1974)
- Violin Sonata, Op. 1 (1940)
- Piano Trio, Op. 3 (1942)
- Theme and Variations, Op. 11, for string quartet (1949)
- Two Fanfares, Op. 12, for four natural trumpets (1949)
- Fantasia on a Theme of Dowland, Op. 23, for violin and piano (1953)
- Two Improvisations on Folk Songs, Op. 24, for brass quintet (1954)
- Lyric Suite, Op. 30, for string trio (1958)
- String Quartet No. 2, Op. 34 (1962)
- Horn Trio, Op. 38 (1966)
- Suite, Op. 40, for flute, oboe, violin, viola da gamba or viola, cello and harpsichord or piano (1967)
- Fantasia, Op. 39 (1966)
- Fughetta (1974)
- Theme and variations, Op. 2 (1941)
- Fantasia on The Irish Ho-Hoane, Op. 13, for piano duet (1949)
- Sonata in One Movement, Op. 25 (1954)
- Introduction and Allegro, Op. 29, for piano duet (1957)
- Two Dances, Op. 33, for piano duet (1962)
- "Bernard Stevens". Retrieved 8 January 2007.
- Beginning 4th July 2016, Bernard Stevens was featured as BBC Radio 3's Composer of the week