Robert Louis Stevenson

13th November 1850–3rd December 1894)

Engraving after a photograph of Robert Louis Stevenson lying in bed and playing the English flageolet

The Scottish author and amateur English flageolet player, Robert Louis Stevenson, is perhaps the most famous of the many amateur instrumentalists who played the English flageolet during the 19th Century. Much like Samuel Pepys, two centuries before him, his flageolet was constant companion and provided a source of entertainment and music. He also seems to have turned to his flageolet when he was struggling to write:

I wrote two pages, very bad, no movement, no life or interest; then I wrote a business letter; then took to tootling on the flageolet, till glory should call me farmering. Vailima Letters, Wednesday, November 4th, 1890

Due to chronic problems with his health, Stevenson undertook many journeys away from his native Scotland in the hope that a warmer climate would be beneficial to his health. He eventually settled in Vailima, Samoa where he lived from 1889 until his death. From this period a fine photograph exists showing Stevenson, in bed, practising his instrument.

Although an amateur enthusiast, Stevenson appears to have taken his flageolet playing seriously, practicing regularly and even maintaining his own instrument:

Lunch, chat, and up to my place to practise; but there was no practising for me—my flageolet was gone wrong, and I had to take it all to pieces, clean it, and put it up again. As this is a most intricate job - the thing dissolves into seventeen separate members, most of these have to be fitted on their individual springs as fine as needles, and sometimes two at once with the springs shoving different ways - it took me till two.Vailima Letters, Wednesday, October 24th, 1891

However, he appears not to have held his own playing in very high regard:

The season of the full moon came round, when a man thinks shame to lie sleeping; and I continued until late—perhaps till twelve or one in the morning--to walk on the bright sand and in the tossing shadow of the palms. I played, as I wandered, on a flageolet, which occupied much of my attention; the fans overhead rattled in the wind with a metallic chatter; and a bare foot falls at any rate almost noiseless on that shifting soil. Yet when I got back to Equator Town, where all the lights were out, and my wife (who was still awake, and had been looking forth) asked me who it was that followed me, I thought she spoke in jest. ‘Not at all,’ she said. ‘I saw him twice as you passed, walking close at your heels. He only left you at the corner of the maniap’; he must be still behind the cook-house. […] What had the man been after? I have found my music better qualified to scatter than to collect an audience. Amateur as I was, I could not suppose him interested in my reading of the Carnival of Venice, or that he would deny himself his natural rest to follow my variations on The Ploughboy.In the South Seas, Chapter 4

Stevenson also wrote a number of small pieces for the flageolet. Five pages of music are known to exist in the Stevenson House Collection, Monterey State Historic Park, Heron Collection, and around another fifteen in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University. The former were rediscovered in 1967 due to the efforts of the conductor Robert Hughes who subsequently orchestrated and conducted a number of performances of them in 1968. The Robert Louis Stevenson Club has also transcribed and performed one of the pieces for solo flageolet, “Aberlady Links”.

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