About this Recording
8.572169 - DICKINSON, P.: Organ Works (Complete) (Bate)

Peter Dickinson (b. 1934)
Complete Solo Organ Works


My father, the contact lens specialist Frank Dickinson (1906–78), had been a church organist from well before I came on the scene so the instrument was virtually in the family. I went to The Leys School, Cambridge, on a music scholarship, and the Director of Music, Hugh Davis, thought it would be a good idea if I learnt the organ; then I could play for chapel. I followed in his footsteps as Organ Scholar of Queens’ College, Cambridge, a post he had held in the year I was born. Playing the organ works of Bach was a revelation. When I was a prefect, with more freedom, there were times when I went to play the chapel organ during the night in my dressing-gown. I also started to compose.

The Cambridge Postlude (1953) was one of the first pieces I wrote after becoming Organ Scholar at Queens’. It now seems close to the English cathedral tradition but there is a slightly bluesy figure in the pedal part. The Prelude (1954) is a more introspective piece that would not have survived my burning some old manuscripts in 1970 if my father had not kept a copy in his collection of organ music. I can remember that Patrick Hadley, Professor at Cambridge, called the opening bar a ‘pretty dissonance’. The Postlude on ‘Adeste Fideles’ (1954) is a toccata with the tune of ‘O come all ye faithful’ in the manuals and also in long notes in the pedal. It has been in print since 1964 and has been quite widely played at Christmas services.

The Three Preludes on Songs 46, 20 and 34 by Orlando Gibbons (1954/55) are in a different category since they have never been published and cannot have been performed for fifty years. They stem from the start of the early music revival—the musicologist and performer Thurston Dart was on the faculty at Cambridge—and my admiration for Gibbons, but their style is close to some of Howells, whose organ music I played at that time, and includes some of the false relations found in Elizabethan music.

I wrote the demanding Toccata (1955) for Ian D. Howard, a brilliant organist and contemporary at Queens’ who became a physicist. I never played it myself, although I had gained the FRCO and given my first BBC broadcasts as an organist before leaving Cambridge, but I was very pleased when Jennifer Bate revived it at the Albert Hall, Nottingham on 6 June 1982.

The Meditation on ‘Murder in the Cathedral’ (1958) arose from some incidental music I wrote for a production of Murder in the Cathedral at Embley Park School, Hampshire, where I was teaching Music and English. Afterwards I used some of the material for this kaleidoscopic piece that juxtaposes a kind of sensual hymn with moments of violence. The score is headed: ‘…that the wheel may turn and still be forever still…’—words and title used by permission of Mrs Valerie Eliot and Faber & Faber. The première was given by Donald Reeves in Beirut, Lebanon, early in 1959 to the sound of gunfire as the American marines were landing on the beaches.

In 1958 I went to New York for three years, which was with American music, the setting up of the Music Department at Keele in 1974 with its Centre for American Music, and articles and books about American composers. Initially I was a graduate student at the Juilliard School of Music; then I freelanced as critic and performer, including a spell with the New York City Ballet where I played for Balanchine to choreograph; and for my last year I was on the faculty of Fairleigh Dickinson University, New Jersey. I met Cowell, Carter, Cage and Varèse, much of my music was performed, and I reviewed concerts for various magazines.

The liberating atmosphere in New York brought a change in my musical style, taking my organ music far from the English cathedral tradition. The fragmentary but highly organised Study in Pianissimo (1959)—the only organ piece from my American period—uses elements of serial technique. Jennifer Bate gave the première at St James’, Muswell Hill, on 26 June 1979. The portentous Dirge (1963), written when I was on the staff of the College of St Mark and St John, Chelsea, rotates its melody relentlessly over a recurring set of chords.

The Three Statements (1964) are freer and arose from some work in improvisation I was doing with students, documented in a series of six articles in The Musical Times. In No. 1 the wide melodic leaps and note clusters were unusual in organ music at that time. The dramatic No. 2 has a sustained symbolic major chord held throughout, always in the distance, and it expands towards the end before returning. No. 3 alternates between a type of chorale, based entirely on chords built in fourths, against two-part passages where the melody usually disagrees with its stepwise lower part.

The Carillon (1964) is a jumble of bell sounds in variable metres—rhythms rarely heard from church steeples perhaps but developed from them all the same. I gave the first performance at the wedding of Virginia and Andrew Evans at Kingswood, Surrey, on 8 August 1964.

Paraphrase I (1967) was written for a chamber organ designed by Grant, Degens and Bradbeer and I gave the première in Pershore Abbey on 8 October 1967. It works very well, however, on larger instruments. There are ten separate sections with the last one a repeat of the first with a triumphant final C added. The starting point of this piece was my ATB motet John (1963) to a poem by Thomas Blackburn, first sung by the chapel choir of the College of St Mark and St John. I remember conducting it in St Paul’s Cathedral and—such was the echo—wondering why the choir had continued singing even after I had cut off the last chord. I enjoyed reworking the details of the motet for the organ piece. That was also the year in which I wrote Fanfares and Elegies for organ and brass, a single twenty-minute span designed to be heard in large resonant buildings.

My Organ Concerto (1971) came next. It was a Feeney Trust Commission, written for Simon Preston and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. Then Christopher Robinson played it and Jennifer Bate made the first recording in the Royal Festival Hall in 1986. By then my music was becoming involved with ragtime, blues and aspects of early jazz.

When I came back to the organ for the Blue Rose Variations (1985) the saturation was fairly thorough. The piece was written for Jennifer Bate who gave the first performance at Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church, New York, on 2 April 1986. Some time before I had made a transformation of Edward MacDowell’s popular piano piece To a Wild Rose into both a blues and a classical rag, pieces that now have an independent existence in piano versions, and I used these to make a virtuoso show-piece. The theme appears first as a quiet blues, then there are six variations combining the blues and the rag in various ways. After the theme, the first variation is a pedal solo; variations 2, 4 and 6 set the blues melody against the rag in ways that never quite fit; and variations 3 and 5 elaborate the rhythm of the pedal solo with chords. Variation 6 has been regarded an orgy of secularity invading the once sacred organ loft.

When I wrote my Millennium Fanfare (1999) for Keith Bond at Aldeburgh Parish Church I looked back to the awe-inspiring chords that open the Organ Concerto and interspersed them with trumpet passages based on the musical letters found in the name Aldeburgh.

I have been extremely fortunate to have had the support of Jennifer Bate who has played my organ music widely for many years—and now in this fine recording.

Peter Dickinson

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