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GORDON DALE 1935-2001

Gordon Dale was born in Wrexham on July 13th 1935. His musical life began at the age of seven when he joined a church choir and started taking piano lessons. Several of his piano pieces were broadcast on BBC ‘Children’s Hour’ in 1946 and 1947. Also at this time, he became the solo tenor horn in an adult band. In the early 1950s, he played violin in the National Youth Orchestra of Wales, before achieving the distinction of being the first man accepted for National Service in the Royal Artillery Band. Having trained as a music teacher, he continued his studies privately with Sylvia Cleaver (violin), Michael Krein (woodwind) and Douglas Guest (conducting). He was a composition Fellow of the London College of Music, a member of the Composers’ Guild of Great Britain and held diplomas in violin playing and education.

His posts in education included Head of Department in a comprehensive school, college lecturer and County Music Adviser for Dorset – at the age of 33, he became the youngest music advisor in the county. As a professional musician he appeared as violinist with the National Youth Orchestra of Wales and the Baroque Soloists of London, saxophonist with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, violinist and clarinettist with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. He also conducted several concerts with The Jacques Orchestra and was music director of The Handel Orchestra.

When he left professional music after the 1969 Proms, an orchestral colleague defined his eccentric career by describing him as "the finest composer/conductor who no one has ever heard of". In 1974, Gordon Dale’s heavy workload brought on what he later described as a nervous breakdown, and he gave up his job as music advisor in Dorset, moving to Hereford where he took on some violin teaching and continued to compose. His professional performing career had ended because he had developed arthritis but he continued to conduct his own music occasionally and played chamber music with his friends.

Very little of Dale’s music had been published until, in the late 1970s, he approached Piper Publications – a newly established company specialising in educational music. Since then more than 50 of his hundred plus pieces have been published including works for good amateur and professional musicians. Gordon Dale continued to compose and conduct during the 1980s, directing the world premieres of several of his own works with the Staffordshire Chamber Orchestra. Increasing problems with his arthritis forced him to give up performing and he turned to writing children’s stories instead, including ‘Under the Oak tree’, a charming collection of short stories about Plod the kindly Shirehorse and his friends. Even here however, as in his deceptively simple-sounding music, there is a serious undercurrent to the plot as several stories deal with the issue of hunting from the point of view of the hunted. In 1999 he suffered a serious stroke and his last years were spent in a nursing home in Hereford. Gordon Dale died at the early age of 66 in November 2001.

At his funeral in Holy Trinity Church, the idea was mooted of a memorial concert to be held at the same venue on what would have been his 67th birthday. This idea bore fruit in a moving and joyful occasion on Saturday July 13th 2002 when friends, colleagues and former pupils gathered to play a wide range of Gordon Dale’s compositions and also pieces by some of his favourite composers. A special exhibition consisting of scores, letters and press cuttings complimented the music making, celebrating the many achievements of this most modest of composers.

Songs of Summer op23 no 3 (1965) is a setting of three poems of W H Davies, originally written for soprano and full orchestra, but given on this occasion in the composer’s revised version for string orchestral accompaniment. The soloist was Pamela White, who first met Gordon Dale when they both taught at Weobley high School and later played chamber music with him. She brought an interpretative sensitivity to both text and music of these rapturous, Delian songs, basking in the shimmering string writing realised by the Hereford String Orchestra under the authoritative direction of their former conductor, Julie Hollingworth.

Piano teacher, colleague and friend of the composer, Christine Williams played his op85, ‘My First Piano Sonata’ (1983), a cleverly constructed work, intended to be a first ‘grown-up’ piece for young pianists. Its four brief movements contain fugue and counterpoint (favourite devices of Gordon Dale) and its solid craftsmanship meant that it stood up perfectly well in the company of more sophisticated works.

Susan Humphrey performed a moving 1981 setting of ‘Tom Bowling’ for viola and piano, a welcome reminder of Gordon Dale’s gifts as an arranger (the interval included a tape of the composer playing his own transcriptions for saxophone of Bizet and Tchaikovsky).

Perhaps the biggest surprise of the evening was the Prelude and Fugue for Organ op43, played magnificently by the dedicatee, John Lock. This is a dark piece, written in 1972 at a time when the composer was going through his own personal crisis and some of the torment of this period is reflected in the work’s unusually high degree of dissonance. Far from diminishing its worth, however, its emotional intensity made it the most substantial and powerful of Gordon Dale’s compositions played at the concert.

In complete contrast, the Hereford String Orchestra gave the last movement of the Hymn Symphony, a work virtually unclouded by the kind of tormented self-doubt exploited in the organ work. The hymns were skilfully woven into a delightfully rich string texture, with several original hymn-like tunes thrown in for good measure. The audience thoroughly enjoyed this work, smiling at the popular hymn tunes’ appearances. A pity the whole symphony could not have been played, though the following performance of Elgar’s String Serenade (one of Gordon Dale’s favourite pieces) was distinguished by committed and heart-felt playing.

The last of the composer’s works to be performed was his ‘Mirror Images’op99 (1987) for unaccompanied violin – Bach-like in its nobility and purity, and clearly written for the instrument by a violin player. The soloist was Suzanne Casey, a former pupil of the composer and now a member of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. She brought great style and warmth to the four movements: Prelude, Canons, Minuet, Air and Finale. The work was written as a series of studies in double stopping to improve intonation and dexterity in more advanced players, but also intended for concert performance. This suite made a perfect conclusion to an intelligent and effective selection of the composer’s works.

It was very moving to hear this melodic and tuneful music written at a time when tonal expression was anathema to the musical establishment. As the composer himself put it in a letter to me written on April 1st 1998: "I am one of many composers in two generations who were all but lost to the public because of the attitudes of the BBC and the Arts Council. We loved Elgar, RVW, Rachmaninov, Bliss, Shostakovich etc and were treated much as a fine water-colourist would be when half a dead cow of a pile of bricks were on offer."

The compositional legacy of Gordon Dale includes three symphonies, six concertos and seven string quartets. The first symphony (op41), written in 1971, is entitled ‘A Fellowship Symphony’ and is dedicated "to my friends, the Dorset County Youth Orchestra", who gave the symphony’s first performance under the composer’s baton on December 23rd 1972. It was composed to celebrate the award of a Composition Fellowship by the London College of Music – the title, therefore, has an academic meaning as well as referring to a gesture of friendship. The first movement begins with a brief ‘overture’ characterised by contrapuntal string writing marked Moderato e Maestoso, in which fragments of themes from all subsequent movements interplay. This leads directly into an Allegro Giocoso, reflecting the high spirits and good humour of the orchestra. The second subject provides contrast with its unusual 7/4 rhythm. The central slow movement is an Adagio Affetuoso, a big ‘Romantic’ Tchaikovskian statement, making virtuoso demands on many members of the orchestra, such as solo violin and principal trumpet. The Allegro Moderato Finale is a fugue with canonic episodes in related keys. The closing pages are a contrapuntal tour de force, as all the themes come together. This hugely enjoyable piece is a ‘Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra’ for children to play as well as listen to, yet it never patronises its players or audience and makes a good introduction to Gordon Dale’s soundworld with its memorable, simple melodies toughened by rigorous fugal and contrapuntal structures.

His Second Symphony in D (op55), entitled ‘Sinfonia 40’ has never been performed. This is a great pity as the composer has described it as his most serious and substantial symphony. It was composed in the summer of 1975 which was Gordon Dale’s 40th birthday year and is greatly influenced by the death of his friends Arthur Bliss and his hero Dimitri Shostakovich. A copy of the score is held by the British Music Information Centre.

His third and last contribution to the genre is entitled ‘Hymn Symphony’ (op66), a classical style serenade for string orchestra in which all themes are or purport to be well-known hymn tunes. The work is easily understood since it makes use of the basic language of sonata form, canon and fugue and is written in a tonal idiom. The symphony is dedicated to the composer’s mother. It was completed in the summer of 1977 and they listened to a recording of it together in the County Hospital, happily singing the well-known tunes as they appeared. There is humour as well as craftsmanship in the piece: the hymn tune ‘Immortal, invisible’ takes the form of a sprightly minuet and the sheer tunefulness of the symphony is quite disarming, almost defiantly sounding against the prevailing musical tide. Popular hymns such as ‘Now thank we all our God’ and ‘The day Thou gavest’ weave naturally into the composer’s own inventions, often appearing as a counterpoint to one of Gordon Dale’s original themes. It is published by Piper Publications and has been widely played.

Amongst his other orchestral compositions, there are many titles of interest, along with his Second Symphony. Woodland Ride op16 (1963) is a poem for string orchestra, which received performances conducted by Ruth Gipps in London and Peterborough, whilst Three Songs op19 (1964) for soprano and orchestra enjoyed two London performances, including at the Royal Academy. Midland Overture op36 (1969), a concert overture written for the CBSO was performed by then in London and Weymouth, and a Trumpet Concerto op39 (1970), written for Alan Whitehead of the CBSO, with string orchestra was performed by him in Sherborne Abbey and the Wigmore Hall. ‘Killed in Action’, for large orchestra, was inspired by W H Davies’ poem and received its world premiere a Chester.

Other works of his which have received performances include a large-scale cantata dedicated to his father, and his first piano concerto, ‘A Miniature Concerto’ written for children, dedicated to Shostakovich with the great Soviet composer’s consent. There are also many pieces for professional musicians such as the string quartets for the Amici Quartet, and A Midland Concerto composed for the CBSO brass section. The Kingdom of God (1969), for five–part choir and strings, was written for Stevenage Choral Society.

Unperformed compositions which merit investigation include the following pieces for full symphony orchestra: A Night Piece op29 (1967), The English Crown Overture op45 (1973), A Hereford Suite for strings op91 (1984) and ‘The Sands of Time’ op95 (1985), a valedictory Ode.

His chamber music is dominated by seven string quartets. The composer’s own favourite of all his works was the third string quartet op34 in G. It was written whilst he was in his twenties and his personal life was in turmoil. Some of this upheaval is reflected in the music, which contains a higher quota of dissonance than his other works, with the exception of the Prelude and Fugue for organ. It was written for Lionel Bentley’s Amici Quartet, who wanted to play it at the Edinburgh Festival. However, the festival committee turned down the score without even looking at it. This did a great disservice to a deeply felt work that shows Gordon Dale’s writing at its best. The slow movement, in particular, is passionate and emotionally involving. The familiar fingerprints of fugue and canon are here but the usual good-natured tunefulness is frequently challenged and occasionally thwarted by darker elements. As Peter Ustinov once remarked, "We are seldom at our best when we are on our best behaviour", and this composer’s generally ingratiating music certainly benefits from some grit, as in this string quartet where his tunes are constantly put under self-imposed pressure.

A substantial amount of Gordon Dale’s creative output is available for hire or purchase from Piper Publications, Dochroyle Farm, Barrhill, Girvan, Ayrshire, Scotland KA26 0QG (01465) 821377 e-mail: The website provides details of many of his compositions, alongside works by Thomas Pitfield and David Gow. It is to be hoped that Gordon Dale’s memorial service and further publication of his scores will lead to more of this sensitive and gregarious man’s work being heard in the future.

©Paul Conway 2002

Piper Publications (includes complete list of publications)


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