RLS music recital – my visuals

Last Friday evening, after months of planning (and talking about it), we finally put on our recital:

Robert Louis Stevenson  The Story of His Life in Word and Song Narrated by Alexander McCall Smith

Alexander McCall Smith – Narrator Anna Poole QC – Soprano, script and fiddle James Mure QC – Baritone John Cameron – Piano Jane A Condie – Visuals

The idea for this recital, and the script, all came from Anna Poole – a trained singer as well as a QC. My job was to create a visual backdrop to the music. I decided that, for copyright reasons, I should gather images from as few places as possible. That way I could easily credit my sources. So, most of my images originated on two sites:

Although this made them easy to credit, it was a challenge locating the right pictures from such limited sources. garden of verses The old photographs come mainly from the Gallery section of the RLS Website and most of the colour illustrations are from the NLS Digital Gallery. The fun bit for me was making the images to illustrate songs based on A Child’s Garden of Verses. Via the RLS Website I found and downloaded a digital version of the work from 1895, illustrated by Charles Robinson (as pictured above). I located the poems we were using, cut and manipulated the illustrations and turned them into a usable format. It was time consuming work but so worth it. I love the way those pictures look on screen.

During her script research Anna discovered that, as well as writing books and poems, RLS dabbled with playing and composing music. Therefore, challenge number two was to locate sheet music for one of Stevenson’s compositions for Anna to play on the fiddle. After so many months I can’t even recall how I came across it, but eventually I learned of the Stevenson House Collection in Monterey, California. This building, formerly a hotel where Stevenson stayed while waiting for his beloved Fanny Osbourne’s divorce to be finalised, has been turned into a museum dedicated to RLS. Among their collections they hold pieces of music written in Stevenson’s own hand. aberlady links I made contact with the curator there, explained what we were doing, and managed to obtain both a copy of Stevenson’s original music (see above) and permission to use it in the recital. All they asked for was a mention – which I happily give again now:

Thank you to the Stevenson House Collection, Monterey for permission to use this sheet music

My final challenge was to create a presentation in keeping with the music, the occasion and the beautiful venue. I first put it together on PowerPoint, twiddling and tinkering over months to get the balance right. However, when I came back to it several weeks ago, as we prepared to actually stage the recital, I was disappointed by the overall look of the thing. It was flat.

So, having just purchased my gorgeous new MacBook Pro featuring Keynote presentation software, I set to work beautifying my visuals. The end result was just stunning! Keynote doesn’t just transition slides – it ushers them in and out with a wave of shimmering gold. My presentation became a thing of utter beauty. Sadly I was forced to export back to PowerPoint for practical purposes (the data-projector doesn’t talk to Macs).

However, I was happy and relieved to find that, though the golden wave was gone, most of the other Keynote additions remained. After some adjustment to sort out formatting issues, the presentation looked great. It was a huge improvement and I was very pleased. I really enjoyed setting up the animations and transitions, slowly fading stuff in and out. Avoiding jarring movements and sudden disappearances. Reading and re-reading the script to best fit the images with the text.

The slide below is my favourite for three reasons. Firstly, I just love these images: a beautiful view of Samoa and a coloured print of Robert Louis Stevenson looking rather dashing and buccaneerish. Next, it illustrates a poem called Envoy, about the way reading can transport you to another time or place – and I can obviously sympathise with that.

envoy - and death Finally, this slide also illustrates the part of the recital where we recount Stevenson’s sudden and tragically early death. I set the text, then the images to fade one by one as the narration went on – Stevenson himself fading last – to leave a blank screen. I feel that has quite a haunting effect.

As I said, we staged this recital last Friday – to a full house and rapturous applause – in Parliament Hall, Edinburgh. It lasted only an hour but it was a fabulous event. The singers and piano sounded glorious in the wonderful acoustics of the hall. Author, and honorary Advocate, Alexander McCall Smith made gently hilarious additions to the scrip and narrated in his lovely chocolatey voice. And I, couried in behind the grand piano, worked my slides and lapped up the ambiance.


After so much preparation it all seemed to be over too quickly – but I enjoyed every minute of it, and would probably like to do it all again next RLS Day… Maybe. A video version of the full slide show can be viewed here:

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