Rags, Blues and Parodies
Wild Rose Rag
Three Satie Transformations
A Red Red Rose
So we'll go no more a'roving
Peter Dickinson (piano)
rec Rosslyn Hill Chapel, Hampstead, London 9 Dec 1985; *
Peter Dickinson was born at bracing Lytham St Annes
in Lancashire on 15 November 1934. He studied at Cambridge then at the
Juilliard in New York. He met Cage and Varèse during his American
years. Satie is plausibly claimed as an influence on Dickinson. Stravinsky
is also mentioned but on the evidence of these three discs I did not
see the basis for this. Berners' growing discography and exposure is
down to Dickinson's advocacy and informed enthusiasm (see the ex-Unicorn
Symposium recital reviewed elsewhere on this site). Dickinson is also
a doughty friend to the music of Lennox Berkeley.
Dickinson's works include a ballet Vitalitas (1959),
The theatre-piece The Judas Tree (1965), Monologue for
Strings (1959), Transformations - Homage to Satie for orchestra
(1970), Piano Concerto (1978-84), Violin Concerto (1986), Mass of
the Apocalypse for SATB chorus and four percussionists (1984). There
are at least two string quartets and many songs. I came away from this
listening experience wanting to hear more and I am intrigued to hear
the violin concerto, the Mass, the quartets and Transformations.
This brings us to the first of the three Albany discs
which mixes songs and piano solos.
The Stevie Smith cycle is called Stevie's Tunes
and the music is based on tunes which Smith had in mind when she
wrote the poems. There is a sense of humour at work here most evident
in songs such as O Happy Dogs of England but Dickinson is no
'mere' humourist. He slides from high, almost operatic, emotion (as
in In Canaan's Happy-Land and Le Singe qui Swing) of the
type we hear in the Moeran and Orr contributions to the Joyce Book to
'Moody and Sankey' land (The Heavenly City and in the words 'O
circle of Trismegistus'), to Bernstein's suave and smoky sarcasm (The
Nervous Wife) to a sincere sentimentality that stays just the right
side of the sampler morality heard in Copland's Old American Songs.
The familiar friends include Greensleeves, Londonderry
Air and the Coventry Carol. The songs in this group are not
The Concerto Rag (Joplinesque, somewhat Beethovenian
and feline) is extracted from the 1980 piano concerto where it is played
on an upright within the orchestra. Rag is clearly something
of an obsession. There are four rags here. Quartet Rag is the
basis for his string quartet No. 2 written for the Albernis and premiered
by them at Harlow, Essex on 30 January 1977. The style is somewhat tougher
than the Concerto Rag. More tender and yet heartless is the Wild
Rose Rag (a transformation of Macdowell's famous Woodland Sketch).
The Hymn Tune Rag is closely modelled (says the composer) on
the style of Charles Hunter (1876-1906). It is neatly turned but charm
is its strength. There is more of a sly smile in Patriotic Rag which
'roughs up' the British National Anthem. It works very well indeed.
Dickinson has championed Berners and Satie amongst
many others. The three Satie Transformations grasp the first
three of Satie's Gnossiennes (1890) and melt them into a casually
moody and rather breathless reflection, a slouchy blues and a ruthless
chase number with a hint of the murderous Orient.
Gregory Corso, one of the Beat Poets, provides the
poems for Extravaganzas. The poems are all very short - a ghoulish
take on death. They were written for unaccompanied voice as a means
of illustrating twelve-tone technique to a group of students. That was
in 1963. In 1969 Dickinson added the piano part. It is a macabre little
Rags are one theme and Blues are another. There are
seven on this disc. The Blue Rose is a blues of such deliquescence
as to be almost Delian. It is Macdowell's To a Wild Rose held
up to a tobacco smoked mirror and breathed over with Southern Comfort.
A Red Red Rose is a bluesy song which takes an anglicised version
of Robert Burns' famous words and gives them the full cool 3.00 a.m.
night-club treatment. The pulse slows further for So We'll Go No
More a Roving where the music was suggested by the first of the
Ravel Valses Nobles et Sentimentales. The song is the basis for
the Organ Concerto. The Four Blues drift lazily through humid
Let the florid music praise (1960)
Four W.H. Auden Songs (1956)
A Dylan Thomas Song Cycle (1959)
An e.e. cummings Song Cycle (1965)
Three Comic Songs (1960-72)
Three Songs from The Unicorns
Surrealist Landscape (1973)
The song cycles are lent source authority by the presence
of the composer as pianist. He also appears in this capacity in the
Rags, Blues and Parodies disc.
Let the florid music has something of the declamatory
tone I associate with Alan Bush's Voices of the Prophets - less
relentless - with a more lyrical heart.
Four W H Auden Songs are sung by Meriel Dickinson
and suggest that the composer is in sympathy with the fine and still
disregarded songs of Michael Head. The songs explore heroic, defiant
disillusion and delicacy without fragility. The final song is rather
Britten-like. These date from his student days.
A Dylan Thomas Song Cycle was written six years
after the poet's death. Robin Bowman takes over as pianist for this
cycle only. Henry Herford is the soul of dictional clarity. The songs
depict turbulence and anxiety. They are concise and are free with dissonance.
Is it purely British reserve that prompts the use of
the indefinite article in the titles of the Thomas and Cummings cycles?
The Cummings songs are sung by the composer's sister and frequent collaborator,
Meriel Dickinson. The first song is threatening and darkly mesmeric.
No time ago is a most striking song. Up into the silence is
part-Debussian as well as carrying hints of early Messiaen. Love
is the every only god touches off memories of Britten's Our Hunting
Fathers. The composer ends the song with a touch of cabaret - all
done quite naturally.
Martyn Hill was in great voice in 1986 for the comic
Auden songs. His tone reminded me of the Walton's for the music for
Pandarus in Troilus and Cressida. This was especially true in
My Second Thoughts Condemn. He is 'down and dirty' in the bluesy
Happy Ending. Elements of popular commercial music are to the
fore in this cycle.
The Unicorn songs are to words by John Heath-Stubbs.
They are full of emotional content; just listen to Lullaby. On
this evidence it is tragic that the opera from which these songs are
workshop pieces has not been realised.
The strange last piece for soprano and piano and soprano
and piano on tape includes vocalises. It sounds, for all the world,
like one of Berners 'red-nosed' music-hall songs or an 'escapee' from
Anthony Burgess's light opera The Blooms of Dublin - itself a
James Joyce tribute.
It is a pity that there are no texts supplied - copyright
complications? Mind you their absence does promote concentration.
Thankfully the composer's notes are specific on facts;
not to be taken for granted with composers' sleeve notes. Everything
is very approachably explained.
Piano Concerto (1979-84) [24.28]
Howard Shelley (piano)
Organ Concerto (1971) [20.00]
Jennifer Bate (organ)
BBCSO/David Atherton (both concertos)
Outcry: A Cycle of Nature Poems for contralto solo, chorus and
orchestra (1969) [33.07]
(alto)/London Concert Choir
City of London Sinfonia/Nicholas Cleobury
rec 30 Jan 1986, Watford Town Hall (piano); 31 Jan 1986, RFH, London
(organ); 20 March 1988, University College School Hampstead, London
Sad to say, Dickinson's name (as composer) has disappeared
completely from the 2002 Penguin Guide. I had to leaf back a few years
to find him. There I found the original EMI issue from which this disc
is, in large part, drawn. The two concertos were first issued in the
1980s under HMV CDC7 47584-2 and cassette EL 2 2704339-4.
The Piano Concerto starts in unequivocally dissonant
terms with stony bell-tower impacts and resonances and irritable brass
gestures. Oddly enough the bell-strikes reminded me of the start of
the finale of the Concerto for Two Pianos, Three Hands by Malcolm Arnold
before that overripe and enjoyably vulgar tune bursts in. The Dickinson
is a short work in thirteen separately banded sections. Jazz and ragtime
voices flicker and surge through the pages vying with sleety showers
and rainclouds. It is a work that jostles the elbows of Britten's Grimes
(especially the Grimes - Passacaglia) and Messiaen without the
French master's voluptuous abandon. The work is dedicated to Howard
Can organ concertos escape the monumental and the Gothic?
Malcolm Arnold's does. Peter Dickinson's Organ Concerto does
although you might be fooled for the first couple of minutes. Hear it
alongside Peter Racine Fricker's Fifth Symphony (a symphonic organ concerto
premiered by Gillian Weir some four years after the Dickinson) and you
note a more inward-looking and intimate approach. This is a work of
psychological horizons rather than smashing public gestures. Dickinson
joys in the chamber textures. The same fragmentary-continuity we hear
in the Piano Concerto is heard here. The dedicatee is Simon Preston
who premiered it at Gloucester on 22 August 1971. Frémaux conducted
and from my memories of his conducting of Ravel's Ma Mère
l'Oie with the City of Birmingham SO I am sure he would have
found Dickinson's orchestral fabrics very congenial. Helpfully the work's
nine sections each have their own banding on the CD. There is dissonance
but everything registers without smudging. The last adagio has a dewy
Rosenkavalier quality and the ending is unemphatic - almost casual
- as if we simply slip out of a dream of eternal tintinnabulation.
In between the two concertos comes the orchestral song
cycle. This is larger than each of the two concertos. The dissonant
edge of the concertos is absent. The anthology cantata is a bit of a
British speciality (RVW's Hodie and Dona Nobis, Britten's
Spring Symphony, Bliss's Serenade, Morning Heroes and
Beatitudes, Geoffrey Bush's far too little known Summer Serenade).
The binding theme here is protest against man's cruelty to animals.
The texts are by William Blake (Robin Redbreast in a cage), Thomas
Hardy (The Blinded Bird and Horses Aboard) and John Clare
(Badger and the final Nature's Hymn to the Deity). The
whistles and evocation of violence of the hunt in Badger is extremely
well done reminding me rather of another protest song cycle - the young
Britten's Our Hunting Fathers written before the sand settled
on his creativity and wax cloyed his expressive humanity. The Hymn
is a cortege of radiant grandeur which has its roots in the march of
Spring in Bridge's Enter Spring and in Holst's Choral Symphony.
The brilliance of the orchestration (clearly a Dickinson hallmark) reminded
me of another colourist (he is more than that of course), William Mathias,
whose This Worldes Joie is worth your attention (Lyrita) if you
Dickinson's music is published by Novellos of 8/9 Frith St LondonW1V
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