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
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
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.
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
), 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
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
see also reviews by Hubert
Culot and Jonathan Woolf