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George DYSON (1883-1964)
Quo Vadis - a cycle of poems (1936-45)
Cheryl Barker (sop)
Jean Rigby (mezzo)
Philip Langridge (ten)
Roderick Williams (bar)
Chamber Choir of the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama/Adrian Partington
BBC National Chorus of Wales/Adrian Partington
BBC National Orchestra of Wales/Richard Hickox
rec. 11-14 Dec 2002, Brangwyn Hall, Swansea. DDD
Recorded with financial support from The Sir George Dyson Trust
World Premiere Recording
CHANDOS CHAN 10061(2) [54.37+46.39]


Dyson was a working class lad. Not for him the comfortable affluence of Vaughan Williams and Arnold Bax. This is not of course to imply that poverty necessarily breeds excellence though certainly it may suppress the opportunity to develop it. Dyson's upward path was taken with the blessing of his parents who encouraged him to play the organ at the local church. He won a scholarship to the RCM in 1900 and took the Mendelssohn Scholarship in 1904 as a result of which he could travel to Italy and tour Berlin and Vienna. Dyson returned home but it was not long before he was in the trenches. His handbook on grenade-fighting techniques became the standard Army text for many years. He was invalided out after his experiences on the Western Front. A haunted shadow of the young man his tutors had known, he returned to life at the RCM and the world of a professional musician in academe. His experience of wading thigh deep through muddied trenches and of the sight of horrific things left their mark. It is not, I think, too fanciful to read those experiences into parts of this work. Was Quo Vadis partially cathartic in the same way that Morning Heroes helped lay to rest Bliss’s wartime ghosts?

Quo Vadis (nothing to do with Henry Sienkiewicz's novel) is literally the Latin for ‘where are you going?’ This is a challenge to the soul: mortality and immortality. As a scheme the work belongs to the genre of anthology-cantata where the words of more than one author are used to explore a subject. In the same tradition are works by Britten and Bliss.

This is not a travelogue tapestry like The Canterbury Pilgrims (Chandos CHAN 9531(2)) that for years basked in greater success than any other major work of Dyson’s. The Pilgrims has humour, even some ribaldry (of the sort found in Vaughan Williams' Five Tudor Portraits), ruffianly excitement and picaresque incident. It is a serious work with no levity and rustic jackanapes. Bantock's much longer Omar Khayyam packs a potent emotional smack combined with a seer’s insight and vivid scene painting. Quo Vadis, is a work that, in its aim, design and achievement, reaches for the visionary heights. It is not a specifically Christian piece although some of the texts derive from Biblical sources. Dyson, the agnostic, like the similarly minded Vaughan Williams, channels into his music both reflections about the nature of life and thoughts about what follows death.

Our Birth is but a sleep is music purged of drama. This is a sincere and smoothly contoured setting of episodes from Wordsworth's Intimations of Immortality. The same poem was set much more fully by Gerald Finzi in 1949 and some years previously, though seemingly less effectively, by Arthur Somervell. Unlike Finzi it was not Dyson's way to hand-colour every word's emotional nuance. Compare the priority Dyson accords to choral continuity with Finzi's microcosmic etched approach in the words 'neither listlessness nor mad endeavour'. This first part of a nine part work is a musical foreword though the words could easily have admitted of exaltation. These are the emotional foothills; Dyson’s preparation or scene-setting.

In Part III O whither shall my troubled muse incline we seem to hear the marching tread of starry soldiery (3.48). Dyson is ready with a volcanic blaze of glorious choral tone. This is delivered not in the multiform complexity of Howells; rather it is dourly exuberant. Hickox is excellent here. Listen to his way with the stabbing determination of this most glorious of music.

Night hath no wings communes with the solo viola, here played by Steven Burnard. Burnard it was who, in December 1996, gave one of the most memorable broadcasts of Bax's Phantasy for viola and orchestra. In the Dyson his viola sings an incantation hoarse with amber emotion. If you recall Carl Davis's music for The Mayor of Casterbridge (circa 1979) you will know what to expect. The tenor Philip Langridge is in good voice allowing for a tremulous vibrato [tr.4. 1.39, 04.01]. Otherwise his colouration and intelligence are fully in place. He sings in touching interplay with the solo viola at the words in the hour of my distress and when the house doth sigh and weep. Surely this is Dyson speaking to assuage his own demons, bereavements and distresses. ‘Comfort me’ is the repeated heart-breaking call; an invocation to balm and healing.

Roderick Williams’ steady and sturdy bass is a joy to hear. The great Baxian yearning cry of the strings (tr. 5) is searching and heavy with poignancy (3.57). This represents one of the great moments rather like the benison of a tune in the slow movement of Bax 2. Dyson terraces the full chorus and semi-chorus at 5.19 in echo after antiphonal echo, streaming to eternity. There is some great choral singing here, burnished and brazen [6.09] with the brass shatteringly well placed. At 7.33 the choir sing superbly creating, not for the last time, a sense of space and distance. Note the chaste medieval atmosphere at 7.34-8.14. At 11.50, at the end of each of the following lines: ‘Only O Lord in thy dear love / Fit us for perfect rest above’ comes the astral feminine cry suggesting Dyson’s familiarity with the Rosenkavalier ‘Presentation of the Rose’ scene. The movement ends with a beautifully weighted Amen, well balanced and yet not tamed into orthodoxy.

Jean Rigby sounds somewhat like Dame Janet Baker in Holst’s Choral Fantasia (a piece also indebted for its poetry to Bridges). ‘The royal banners forward go’ is set to music similar to that found in the music for Keats’ words ‘underneath large bluebells tented … where the lilies are rose-scented’ from Holst's Choral Symphony.

The Second Part opens with a section which bears the strongest resemblance to Patrick Hadley's writing yet the prefatory bars have the visceral ‘grunt’ of Elgar's Introduction and Allegro. Then the pastoral writing enters with flute calls, chuckling woodwind, cries of pain and all. This is Hadley at one moment but the paschal innocence of Bliss (John Blow Meditations) surfaces at others. The solo violin twines with the singing as it does earlier in the work (The God of Love, Dear Stream Bank and finally in Part 9: Rejoice with gladness evermore).

They are at rest is redolent of Elgar's Where corals lie but such familiarity is abandoned in the eldritch shudder of the strings. This surely sings the losses of two world wars to audiences acquainted with bereavement. It stands, in this aspect, as sincere as Bliss's Morning Heroes and shoulder to shoulder with the trudging cortège of Bridge's Oration. Comfort is administered like a blessing by this movement. Balm and benediction come with the alleluias of the solo quartet.

The finale (Part IX), To find the western path, is the longest movement at 18.34. It mobilises tortured strings and jagged blazes of sound humming with power. The word setting is masterly as in 'Love from its awful throne of patient power'. Shelley’s words 'To suffer woes etc' is familiar from the superscriptions to Vaughan Williams' Sinfonia Antartica (intriguingly premiered at about the same time as the Dyson work). The choral singing has a glorious sturdiness and potent muscle. The music rises to yet another climactic on 'This is alone life, joy, empire and victory' - wildly joyous, yelping and baying in spiritual triumph. The piece ends with the solo quartet of voices, line by line, making the similitude of a 'round' out of the confident, smiling, introspection of 'Holy is the true light'. How unnerving it is to hear these words without the orgasmic ecstasy of Howells' treatment of the self-same text in Hymnus Paradisi. Here they are sung as if to the self. There is no volcanic Ragnarok here just Dyson's preternaturally sustained radiant sunset - an audacious downbeat.

Chandos have documented this set fully and texts are provided with French and German translations either side of the sung English. Lewis Foreman provides the background reminding us that Part I was premiered at the Royal Albert Hall on 12 April 1945. The first complete performance came as part of the 1946 Three Choirs at Hereford. The booklet runs to 64 pages. Believe me there is a lot of text to be sung - and very little repetition. The booklet would not have fitted into a standard jewel case so the single-width double-disc case is inserted with the booklet into a light card sleeve.

We need to pinch ourselves as a reminder of how far the catalogue has evolved since the 1970s when interest in this repertoire first kindled. After this, whither next? We know from Lewis Foreman that Chandos will be issuing the remaining unrecorded Bax choral works including St Patrick's Breastplate and To the Name Above Every Name. But there are still some superb works to be tackled. Look at Arthur Bliss's Beatitudes (a reputation obliterated by Britten's War Requiem at the Coventry Cathedral opening in the 1960s), Rootham's 1925 Ode on the Morning of Christ's Nativity, Julius Harrison's Requiem of Archangels, Woucestershire Requiem and Mass (major works each), Peter Racine Fricker's A Vision of Judgement (to Anglo-Saxon texts and none the worse for the occasional hat doffing towards Walton's Belshazzar), Patrick Hadley's Ephemera, Mariana, Fen and Flood and Connemara and Maurice Jacobson's The Hound of Heaven (setting the famous poem - ask Rogers Covey-Crump who sang this work during the mid-1970s for the RCM - a work similar in style to Quo Vadis). Even more massive pieces waiting in line include Bantock's Omar Khayyam and Song of Songs and Havergal Brian's Prometheus Unbound.

The Dyson is an extremely impressive piece in a performance close to the ideal. I hope that it inspires more choral society performances.

Rob Barnett

DYSON's Quo Vadis - section layout:-

  1. Our birth is but a sleep - chorus - Wordsworth [11.32]
  2. Rise O my Soul - alto and semi-chorus - Sir Walter Raleigh; Thomas Campion; Thomas Heywood [8.20]
  3. whither shall my troubled muse incline - bass and chorus - Barnaby Barnes; Robert Herrick; Thomas Lynch; Thomas Sternhold [10.54]
  4. Night hath no wings - tenor, solo viola and semi-chorus - Robert Herrick; Isaac Williams [10.30]
  5. timely happy, timely wise - solo quartet, chorus, semi-chorus - John Keble [13.20]
  6. Dear stream, dear bank - soprano - Henry Vaughan; George Herbert [9.51]
  7. Come to me God - bass solo and chorus - Robert Herrick; Henry Vaughan [10.12]
  8. They are at rest - alto and quartet - John Henry Newman [8.00]
  9. To find the Western path - tenor, quartet and chorus - William Blake; Percy B Shelley; Salisbury Diurnal [18.34]


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