2014 marks the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Sir George Dyson. There have been one or two notable commemorations: a substantial biographical study of Dyson by Paul Spicer has been published (details here); and Dyson was the subject of BBC Radio 3’s Composer of the Week series in September. The Composer of the Week broadcasts are still available to download as a podcast,
if you are a UK resident, and I can recommend this as an excellent introduction to his life and music (details here). Those are the two pieces of good news about Dyson. Sadly, however, I’m not aware that the anniversary brought about any obvious increase in performances of his music: as Paul Spicer remarked when I interviewed him earlier this year, Dyson’s name isn’t good for the box office. Equally disappointing was the complete lack, so far as I’m aware, of any new Dyson recordings. Fortunately, however, though few of his works have been recorded more than once, Dyson’s music is now pretty well served on disc. As the fiftieth anniversary year draws to a close it seems appropriate to remind readers of the recordings that are in circulation, most of which have previously been reviewed on MusicWeb International.
I first got the chance seriously to explore the music of Sir George Dyson over twenty years ago through the fine series of recordings that Richard Hickox made for Chandos. Prior to those any serious evaluation of Dyson was all but impossible since his music was almost completely absent from concert halls and from the radio. Indeed, even now live performances are few and far between so the enquiring listener still has to rely on recordings.
First, however, a brief biographical sketch may be helpful for those unfamiliar with the composer. He was born in the Yorkshire textile town of Halifax which, by sheer coincidence, is the town where I myself was born and grew up. He was born into pretty modest circumstances: his father was a blacksmith who worked in an industrial forge. However, young George soon showed that he had a fine mind as well as a precocious musical talent and he won a place at the Royal College of Music. In 1904, when in his early twenties, he was awarded a Mendelssohn Scholarship, which enabled him to study in Italy and Germany. He saw active service in World War I, serving in the Royal Fusiliers. During the war he wrote the first-ever training manual on grenades. As Dyson’s biographer, Paul Spicer, has pointed out, this was very much a pioneering book for the use of hand grenades was then in its infancy. Dyson’s thoroughness meant that he covered the basics so well that his work is still respected even today.
Dyson earned his living primarily as a music educator. He had begun to teach in English public schools prior to the war and after the war he continued this career, teaching at several prestigious public schools. In 1937 he was appointed Director of his alma mater, the Royal College of Music, a post which he held until 1952. Dyson was knighted in 1941 and was further honoured in 1953 when he was made a Knight Commander of the Royal Victorian Order (KCVO), an honour in the personal gift of the British monarch.
Dyson wrote a good deal of Anglican church music, including Canticles in D and in F and an Evening Service in C minor for unison treble voices and this music remains in the repertoire of many church and cathedral choirs. As I said, concert performances of his music remain frustratingly rare and in fact in over forty years of concert-going I can only recall attending one Dyson performance. Happily, that was a fine one: the 2012 Three Choirs Festival performance of his substantial choral and orchestral work, The Canterbury Pilgrims (review). In view of Dyson’s paltry representation in our concert halls it’s interesting to note that not only was that performance of The Canterbury Pilgrims warmly received but also that, as I discovered, the performers enjoyed it very much. To their great credit the Hereford Choral Society, many of whose members had taken part in that performance, then took the box office risk of repeating the work some 18 months later, under their own auspices. I believe that second performance was also well received, albeit by a smaller audience. All of which suggests to me that if people are given the chance to hear Dyson’s music they are likely to respond positively.
Despite the dearth of live Dyson performances those who are keen to investigate his output will find that most of his important works are now represented on CD.
I suppose the obvious starting place is The Canterbury Pilgrims. There’s only been one recording of this work but, fortunately, it’s an extremely good one, by Richard Hickox. I reviewed it for MusicWeb International when it was reissued by Chandos in their Richard Hickox Legacy series; as did Michael Cookson and Rob Barnett. For a detailed discussion of both the music and the recording I refer readers to my full review. The music is colourful, attractive and accessible and anyone who responds to the English Choral Tradition will find that The Canterbury Pilgrims is right in the mainstream of that tradition. The Hickox recording features particularly good solo contributions from Robert Tear and Yvonne Kenny and the LSO Chorus and LSO are on top form. Richard Hickox galvanises his forces into a committed performance which is often red-blooded yet contains many passages of great sensitivity. With trademark vivid Chandos sound this is a fine release and indispensable to anyone who admires Dyson’s music. The set also contains the overture At the Tabard Inn which Dyson later composed using material from the larger work. It can be played as a curtain-raiser to The Canterbury Pilgrims – though that would result in a very long concert – but it’s also completely self-sufficient as a concert piece and it’s delightful. Hickox also conducted a performance of Dyson’s first major choral work, In Honour of the City (1928), which is also well worth hearing.
Anyone wishing to investigate Dyson’s music from scratch might not want to invest too heavily at the outset. In that case, a Naxos disc of some of his orchestral music might well offer a good, modestly priced entrée. David Lloyd-Jones and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra recorded the Symphony in G major (1937) as well as the Concerto da Chiesa for string orchestra (1949) and At the Tabard Inn. The disc was reviewed in detail when it first came out by Christopher Howell and Rob Barnett.
The Lloyd-Jones recording of Dyson’s only symphony was the work’s second appearance on disc. As so often with British music, Richard Hickox had led the way with a 1993 recording for Chandos. When first issued this performance was the sole item on a full-priced disc and since the symphony plays for 44:21 in Hickox’s performance – two minutes longer than the Lloyd-Jones version – it didn’t offer outstanding value in purely monetary terms. It has now been much more economically re-packaged with Hickox’s performances of At the Tabard Inn and In Honour of the City. That still means potential duplication for a Dyson collector but the disc is at budget price (review). I own the recording of the symphony in its original format and I don’t know if it was re-mastered for the reissue: my comments refer to the original release on which the sound is excellent.
The Symphony is a good piece though perhaps one reason it fell into complete neglect by the early 1940s is that it may seem somewhat lacking in grit when compared to some of the other British symphonies that were unveiled in the late 1930s, notably those by Vaughan Williams and Walton. Lewis Foreman draws attention to influences of Sibelius in the first of its four movements. I admire the piece but I’m not sure it’s Dyson at his best. Both David Lloyd-Jones and Richard Hickox make excellent cases for it and no one acquiring either recording is likely to feel short-changed.
The David Lloyd-Jones Naxos disc also includes the Concerto da Chiesa. This dates from around 1949 and the late Christopher Palmer commented of this work and the Concerto da Camera for String Orchestra, which was composed around the same time, that the scores “belong to a great English tradition of writing for strings”. The Concerto da Chiesa includes references to two Advent/Christmas hymns, ‘O come, O come, Emmanuel’ and ‘Of the Father’s Heart begotten’. It’s a fine piece though it gets off to a very introspective start with what Palmer calls a “frozen C minor lament” based on ‘O come, O come, Emmanuel’. The Lloyd-Jones recording, and that of the Symphony, was made in 2004.
The Concerto da Chiesa received its premiere recording from Richard Hickox and Chandos some years earlier. On that same disc, recorded in 1991 and 1992, Hickox also included two other works for string orchestra which, so far as I know, have not been otherwise recorded: the Concerto Leggiero for Piano and String Orchestra (1951) and the Concerto da Camera for String Orchestra (1949). These three attractive works have now been re-packaged by Chandos into a bargain-priced CD pairing (CHAN103372X) which also reissues his 1994 recordings of the Violin Concerto (1941) and the much earlier Children’s Suite after Walter de la Mare (1925). Again, I don’t know if re-mastering was involved in this reissue; so as far as sonic considerations are concerned my comments on all these recordings relate to the original CD issues.
All three of these works for string orchestra receive highly persuasive readings from Richard Hickox – I think these were his first Dyson recordings – and the Chandos sound is excellent. The Concerto da Camera is particularly appealing and Eric Parkin is the excellent piano soloist in the Concerto Leggiero though that is scarcely a display piece.
The Violin Concerto (1941), on the other hand, gives the soloist ample opportunity to shine. It’s a very big piece in four movements which in the fine 1994 recording by Lydia Mordkovitch and Hickox plays for just over 43 minutes. It was written for Albert Sammons, who first championed it though, like the symphony, it soon fell into neglect. It’s a most attractive and worthwhile score and Mordkovitch is an excellent, often passionate soloist.
Sadly, her death was announced just after this article was submitted
for publication: this performance is a fine example of her art and of
her willingness to champion unfamiliar concertos in the recording
studio. The first movement is on an expansive scale, playing for over twenty minutes, and it carries the main burden of the concerto’s argument. The poco andante, which is placed third, is a lovely, lyrical movement.
Hickox also set down two other major choral/orchestral scores for Chandos. First, in 2002, came a recording of a work for soloists, chorus and orchestra that is even longer than The Canterbury Pilgrims: Quo Vadis (1947). This recording was warmly welcomed in a comprehensive review by Rob Barnett. Rob was equally enthusiastic about a 2006 disc which contained as its major offering Nebuchadnezzar, a piece written in 1934 and first heard the following year at the Three Choirs Festival.
Quo Vadis was Dyson’s magnum opus. It’s a very substantial score indeed – the Hickox plays for 101:16 – and Lewis Foreman suggests in his notes that Dyson may have envisaged an even bigger work since the vocal score includes ‘Part I’ in the title. It’s an anthology work in the course of which Dyson takes the listener on what is, in Lewis Foreman’s phrase, “a voyage of the spirit”. Among the many authors whose words are included in the libretto, which Dyson compiled himself, are William Wordsworth, Sir Walter Raleigh, Robert Herrick, Henry Vaughan, George Herbert and Cardinal Newman. Though Quo Vadis contains a good deal of fine and eloquent music it is rarely heard. I suspect its length may have counted against it. Furthermore, it requires substantial forces: four vocal soloists; an SATB semi-chorus; a full chorus (also SATB) and orchestra. I suspect it’s likely that the Chandos recording, made in 2002, is the only one it’s likely to receive, at least in my lifetime; fortunately, it’s a very good one. The four vocal soloists – Cheryl Baker, Jean Rigby, Philip Langridge and Roderick Williams – are on top form and the Welsh choirs and BBC National Orchestra of Wales respond with great commitment. Particularly memorable among its nine sections are the fourth, a haunting piece for tenor, solo viola and semi-chorus, and the penultimate section, a deeply felt setting of words by Newman.
Part of Quo Vadis was first performed in 1945. There were partial performances at the Three Choirs Festivals of 1946 and 1947 and the completed score was finally unveiled, also at Three Choirs, in 1949. As already mentioned, Nebuchadnezzar was also first heard at the Three Choirs Festival. Appearing in 1935 and dealing with an Old Testament story, the work inevitably invites comparison with Belshazzar’s Feast, which had burst on the scene just a few years earlier. Dyson’s score, which relates the story of the three youths in the burning fiery furnace, is resourceful, colourful and often dramatic but it lacks the blazing originality of Walton’s masterpiece. The performance is a very good one and Neal Davies relishes the title role.
Richard Hickox has dominated this survey – and rightly so, given his substantial pioneering work - but he’s not the only conductor who has recorded Dyson’s music. The contribution of David Lloyd-Jones has already been noted. That doughty champion of British music, Vernon Handley recorded two choral/orchestral works for SOMM in 2002: St. Paul’s Voyage to Melita (1933) and Agincourt (1956). Rob Barnett reviewed the disc for MusicWeb International and we carried an equally enthusiastic appraisal by Ian Lace.
St. Paul’s Voyage to Melita is yet another Three Choirs work: it was first performed at the 1933 festival. I don’t find it quite as interesting as either The Canterbury Pilgrims or Quo Vadis, though it’s much more compressed, playing for thirty minutes. Still, it’s very good to have it on disc. Agincourt is a setting of words selected by the composer from Shakespeare’s Henry V. It’s a colourful score for chorus and orchestra. I particularly admire the noble lyricism of the third of its six sections while the piece ends with a setting of the Hymn after Agincourt which is suitably rousing, especially towards the end. The two criticisms I have of this release, both relatively minor, are that the chorus is recorded a bit closely, which rather emphasises the lustiness of some of the singing. I wish SOMM had divided the two choral works into tracks, rather than presenting each as a single track.
SOMM have also reissued a valuable Dyson recording conducted by Sir David Willcocks, recorded as long ago as 1985 and 1987 and originally issued by Unicorn-Kanchana (UKCD9061). This includes In Honour of the City but, even more valuably Sweet Thames, Run Softly (1955), A Spring Garland (1958) and The Blacksmiths (1934) are also on the programme. So far as I know, none of these three works is otherwise currently available. It’s highly appropriate that Sir David, a successor of Dyson as Director of the Royal College of Music should conduct this programme and that the choir involved should be the Royal College of Music Chamber Choir.
The programme is shrewdly chosen and offers an excellent and varied overview of Dyson’s choral music. In Honour of the City, later recorded also by Hickox, is colourful and confident. The choral writing is very fine – that’s especially remarkable given that this was Dyson’s first choral work of any significance – and the orchestral scoring is vivid and expert. By contrast, Sweet Thames, Run Softly is a much more relaxed composition. The music is fresh and charming. The performance is a very good one and Stephen Roberts is the excellent baritone soloist. The Blacksmiths is a remarkable piece for chorus and orchestra, setting an alliterative Middle English text. The piece, dedicated to the memory of Dyson’s father, is usually taken as being an act of filial homage since Dyson père worked as a craftsman blacksmith. However, in his notes accompanying another recording, conducted by Douglas Bostock, Lewis Foreman makes a fascinating point. He notes that the German title, as printed on the vocal score, is Die Waffenschmiede, the ‘war-smiths’ or gunsmiths. This, he says, casts a different light on the music, especially since Dyson was shell-shocked in France in 1916. The Blacksmiths, written for the 1934 Leeds Festival, is for chorus and orchestra but here Sir David conducts Dyson’s alternative scoring for a smaller choir accompanied by two pianos, strings and percussion. It’s a dynamic score full of energy and drive. The original full scoring has been recorded by Douglas Bostock on a now-deleted ClassicO CD (review). However, even if that version were still available – and it’s valuable to hear – my preference would still be for the SOMM performance which has a punch and immediacy to it that the Bostock doesn’t achieve. The two timpanists on Sir David’s recording are thrilling, by the way.
Mention should also be made of a couple of anthologies of shorter choral pieces. The Choir of St Catherine’s College, Cambridge offer a useful anthology of choral and organ pieces on a Regis disc (review). There’s a Hyperion Helios disc on which The St Michael’s Singers and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra are conducted by Jonathan Rennert. As the programme includes a significant late score, Hierusalem (1956) this disc is very valuable. I believe it has been deleted but it can be obtain
direct from Hyperion either as a download or, as a CD, through their archive service. It’s well worth seeking out (CDH55046). Hyperion also issued Dyson’s Three Rhapsodies for String Quartet, composed between 1905 and 1912. These are likeable early pieces. This disc, too, has been deleted but, like the choral disc just mentioned, can be obtained direct from Hyperion as a download or archive CD.
So, there’s a good representation of Dyson’s music on CD and, to be honest, I doubt many more recordings will be added to the catalogue in the immediate future, though I hope I’m wrong. At least most of his significant scores have now been recorded.
How should we assess his music? I think I can do no better than quote the Dyson champion, the late Christopher Palmer who, in his notes for the disc conducted by Sir David Willcocks wrote the following comments. He began by dismissing the notion held by some that Dyson was an ‘academic’ composer: “he was too keen an enjoyer of the good things of life for that; his students remember a twinkle in the eye, and his music registers a relish. Certainly it’s very English-traditional, and perhaps best described as a kind of enriched Parry. Think of Parry, with his feeling for English poetry, for vocal colour and texture, his ability to construct broad and sonorous climaxes; complement these qualities with a richly and fitly-developed orchestral sense …., a poetic feeling for ‘colour-harmony’ indebted perhaps more to Delius than anyone else, consistent warmth of romantic, lyrical expression, and a strong penchant for the dramatic and you have something approaching the Dyson idiom. Not an original idiom, as Dyson himself was the first to admit; but you don’t have to be original to compose interesting or worthwhile music. Dyson’s is above all very musical music: it always sings as music should, is expertly-crafted and as grateful to play or sing as to listen to. One goes away feeling that life is the more worth living for having listened.”
If you’re coming new to Dyson’s music and your curiosity has been stimulated by the above discussion of the recordings – and even more so by Christopher Palmer’s justifiable eloquence on Dyson’s behalf – where should you start? The Naxos disc by David Lloyd-Jones offers an inexpensive entry point; though the Symphony is not the most memorable Dyson piece in the catalogue the Concerto da Chiesa and At the Tabard Inn will give you a good introduction to his world and the symphony is far from negligible. The Chandos collection that couples the Violin Concerto and the three works for string orchestra entails a slightly larger outlay but is the ideal way in to Dyson’s orchestral music. If you want to sample his choral writing then the SOMM disc conducted by Sir David Willcocks is a must. After that, be entertained by The Canterbury Pilgrims before moving on to the Quo Vadis. George Dyson’s music is rewarding to explore and the excellent recordings discussed in this article allow us to do at our leisure.
The Canterbury Pilgrims. LSO/Hickox Chandos CHAN24143
Symphony in G , Concerto da Chiesa. At the Tabard Inn. Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra/Lloyd-Jones NAXOS 8.557720
Symphony in G, At the Tabard Inn, In Honour of the City LSO/Hickox CHANDOS CHAN10308X
Violin Concerto, Concerto Leggiero, Concerto da Camera, Concerto da Chiesa. Mordkovitch/Parkin/City of London Sinfonia/Hickox CHANDOS CHAN103372X
Quo Vadis. Soloists/BBC National Chorus & Orchestra of Wales/Hickox CHANDOS CHAN100612
Nebuchadnezzar Soloists/BBC Symphony Orchestra & Chorus/Hickox CHANDOS CHAN10439
St. Paul’s Voyage to Melita, Agincourt Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra & Chorus/Handley. SOMMCD 234
The Blacksmiths etc. RCM Chamber Choir/Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Willcocks SOMM CELESTE SOMMCD 014
Choral and Organ Music. St Catherine’s College Choir/Rees REGIS RRC 1161
Hierusalem and other choral works.St Michael’s Singer/RPO/Rennert HYPERION HELIOS CDH55046
Three Rhapsodies for String Quartet. Divertimenti HYPERION CDA66139