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Recordings of the Month


From Ocean’s Floor


Conner Riddle Songs

Rodzinski Sibelius

Of Innocence and Experience


Symphonies 1, 2, 3


CD: AmazonUK AmazonUS
Download: Classicsonline

Peter DICKINSON (b.1934)
Complete Solo Organ Works
A Cambridge Postlude (1953) [2:45]
Prelude (1954) [2:55]
Postlude on ‘Adeste Fidelis’ (1954) [2:31]
Prelude on Song 46 (Orlando Gibbons) (1954/55) [2:42]
Prelude on Song 20 (Orlando Gibbons) (1954/55) [2:27]
Prelude on Song 34 (Orlando Gibbons) (1954/55) [2:39]
Toccata (1955) [3:20]
Meditation on Murder in the Cathedral (1958) [5:26]
Study in Pianissimo (1959) [3:21]
Dirge (1963) [4:09]
Three Statements (1964) [6:38]
Carillon (1964) [3:41]
Paraphrase 1 (1967) [15:16]
Blue Rose Variations (1985) [15:44]
Millennium Fanfare (1999) [2:48]
Jennifer Bate (organ)
Organ of St Dominic’s Priory London (Carillon); Organ of St James’s Muswell Hill, London (Toccata, Meditation, Study, & Paraphrase; Organ of St John’s Duncan Terrace (all other pieces)
rec. 10 May 1982 (St James’s); 17 July 2004 (St Dominic’s); 21-22 November 2007 (St John’s)
NAXOS 8.572169 [77:42]
Experience Classicsonline

I often say this, but it is worth repeating: Do not attempt to listen to this CD at a single sitting. Not only will the listener lose concentration, they will miss some very interesting pieces and a superb opportunity to explore a small but well-proportioned corpus of organ works.

Interestingly, the disc has been presented in chronological order, and that is how I approached it. However, it is possible to select a couple of contrasting pieces and slowly explore from that perspective. A good place to begin would be the Blue Rose Variations - more about that work later. However, I do recommend following the development of Peter Dickinson’s thought from his nineteenth year through to the Millennium Fanfare written when he was 66 years old. It is an interesting and instructive journey. Naturally, not all the works impressed me equally, but taken, as my late father used to say, in the round, this new CD is a remarkable musical document showcasing a composer and musician who has encapsulated much of the musical style of the last half of the twentieth century.

It is not the place to give a detailed biography of Peter Dickinson; however a few brief notes may be of interest. He was born in the Lancashire seaside town of Lytham St. Annes on 15 November 1934. He began to compose whilst still at school. Later, he went up to Cambridge where he was Organ Scholar at Queens College. It was at the end of this time that he showed some of his early works to Lennox Berkeley. In 1958 he was a post-graduate student at the Juilliard School in New York where he was able to explore music by composers such as Henry Cowell, John Cage and Edgard Varèse. After returning to the United Kingdom, he spent most of the ‘day’ job as a lecturer at the College of St. Mark and St. John, Chelsea and later in Birmingham. He was the first professor of music at Keele University in 1974 and established there an important centre for the study of American music. Further academic distinction included being Professor of Music at Goldsmiths University of London and after that, Head of Music at the Institute of United States Studies, University of London. 

Interspersed with this academic achievement were parallel careers of composition and performance, often with his sister Meriel, a noted mezzo-soprano. His style could be seen as eclectic, with a number of his pieces exploring the techniques of the so-called avant-garde and others developing more popular idioms. Critics have noted that some of his music has been compared to Igor Stravinsky, Charles Ives and Erik Satie. Latterly his works appear to have moved into a more approachable, if not populist style, which fuses “a mix of ragtime, jazz, serial music, and even electronic playback to more traditional types of instrumental musical forms.”

However, there is little in the way of this diversity in the corpus of organ music. None of these pieces force the listener too far out of their comfort zone. All are well within the tradition of contemporary organ music, although one or two would be rather inappropriate for the recessional at ‘St Swithuns’ or for signing the register at a wedding.

The CD opens with a fine Postlude that was one the first pieces that Dickinson wrote as organ scholar. There is nothing particularly novel here, but it represents a good example of the then prevailing English cathedral tradition of organ music. However there are one or two rather powerful dissonances to spice up the proceedings. The Prelude of 1954 is reflective: a complete contrast to the previous piece. Once again it is very much a work of its era. Dickinson suggests that it was nearly lost when he had a mass burning of his early pieces. However, his father had kept a copy in his collection of organ music! It is good that it has survived. The Postlude on ‘Adeste Fideles’ is largely predictable in its use of the tune over and against a toccata-like configuration. A great Christmas Day recessional...

Peter Dickinson notes that the three Preludes of Orlando Gibbons’s Hymn Tunes have never been published. The first two are largely introspective and the last is a sort of postlude. They nod towards Howells and owe much to the ‘early music’ revival at Cambridge in the mid-fifties, led by Thurston Dart. Truly lovely pieces that I hope will soon be published. 

The Toccata is a considerable stylistic distance from the Gibbons Preludes. It sounds fiendishly difficult. This music balances a largely complex figuration against some almost jazzy big chords. It would make a great alternative to the inevitable Widor!  

The Meditation on Murder in the Cathedral is a harder work to come to terms with. It is derived from some incidental music written for a performance of the play at Embley Park School in Hampshire. Some of the ‘string’ effects are quite simply gorgeous - yet these are offset with ‘violent’ moments that literally rip through the ‘meditation’.

The Study in Pianissimo was composed in the United States. It is a work that uses serialism for the control of much of the musical development and content. Dickinson is absolutely correct in noting that it is a ‘fragmentary’ piece. Yet in spite of the highly organised nature of the music it has a strange fascination and freedom of expression.

I have an irrational dislike of any piece called a ‘Dirge’- it goes back, I think, to some piano music by Felix Swinstead. And this piece is no exception. Dark and inward-looking, it barely admits a glimmer of light. The definition of a ‘dirge’ is “a sombre song expressing mourning or grief”, such as would be appropriate for performance at a funeral.” If anyone plays this piece at my funeral I shall haunt them for a very long time! Yet, objectively, this piece does fulfil the criteria of the definition.

The Three Statements was the only organ work of Peter Dickinson’s that I knew prior to hearing this CD. I guess I bought the music way back in the early seventies when I regularly played the organ. I seem to recall that the first piece was just about in my gift. It was never popular when I gave it an airing at Morning Service! Yet listening to these ‘Statements’ some thirty-five year later, I can see that they are good examples of organ music. They seem to hold a middle ground between improvisation and control. The three pieces use note-clusters, wide melodic leaps and chords built on fourths for their effect. They are interesting, if a little dated in their sound-world.

The Carillon is another toccata-like effort that exploits interesting off-beat rhythms. Dickinson writes that it is “a jumble of bell sounds in variable metres - rhythms rarely heard from church steeples”. However he assures the listener that the campanologist’s art lies fairly and squarely behind this work. It is a thoroughly enjoyable piece of organ music. 

Paraphrase I
is quite long: it lasts over quarter of an hour and is perhaps the most involved piece presented here. Although originally written for a chamber organ that had been installed in Pershore Abbey, it is perfectly well suited to a larger instrument. The music is presented in ten very short sections with the last being a repeat of the first. Dickinson mentions that the starting point of this piece is his motet John that was a setting of a poem by Thomas Blackburn. I guess that it is effectively a ‘paraphrase’ on this music or poetic theme. It certainly holds the listener’s interest. The musical language is not particularly challenging and the whole appears unified and satisfactory. A glance at Dickinson’s catalogue reveals a Paraphrase II - but this time it is for piano!

Perhaps the most novel, if not the most important work on this CD is the Blue Rose Variations. It was written some eighteen years after the Paraphrase. The composer points out that at the time of writing this work his music was influenced “with ragtime, blues and aspects of early jazz.” The present piece achieves a balance between what may be regarded as secular and as sacred. Certainly I doubt that it could be played at High Mass, but it is certainly not out of place in the organ loft. It is an excellent example of how different styles of music can be successfully fused.

The latest piece on this CD is the Millennium Fanfare, which was quite naturally written in 1999! It was first performed at Aldeburgh Parish Church by Keith Bond. I have never heard Dickinson’s Organ Concerto (1971) (see review), but he suggests in the sleeve notes that the Fanfare “looks back to the awe-inspiring chords” at the start of that earlier work. A jazzy section that complements these massive chords is derived from some form of appropriation of the ‘musical’ letters found in the name Aldeburgh. It makes an excellent conclusion to this largely interesting and often impressive recital.

I have only one minor criticism of this CD. I do wish record companies would provide the date of composition of each piece in the printed track-listing: it does save thumbing through the programme notes. Naturally, I always recommend a perusal of these notes, but it can sometimes be interesting to listen to a CD with an innocent ear, leaving the essay till later. However, the dates are always a vital clue to understanding and appreciating the music. 

Jennifer Bate has given a sympathetic and convincing performance of all these pieces - they were recorded over a period of a quarter of a century. The organs sound excellent and appear to be ideally suited for the pieces chosen for them. Naxos has provided a specification for all three instruments. For the cognoscenti, St John’s Duncan Terrace is a 1963 Walker Organ, St Dominic’s Priory is also a Walker and St James Muswell Hill was built by Harrison and Harrison.

John France

see also reviews by Hubert Culot and Jonathan Woolf



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