About this Recording
8.572654 - DICKINSON, P.: Piano Music (Dickinson)

Peter Dickinson (b. 1934)
Piano Music


The British composer, writer and pianist Peter Dickinson was born at Lytham St Annes, Lancashire, on 15 November 1934. After attending The Leys School, Cambridge, he became Organ Scholar of Queens’ College and then spent three formative years in New York. Initially he was a graduate student at The Juilliard School of Music, on a Rotary Foundation Fellowship, where he studied with Bernard Wagenaar. In this period many of his compositions were performed both at Juilliard and in New York itself. Freelance work as a critic and pianist followed, with a final year on the faculty of Fairleigh Dickinson University, New Jersey. After returning to England he taught at the College of St Mark and St John, Chelsea, and at the University of Birmingham. In 1974 he started the Music Department at Keele University, where he set up a Centre for American Music. His involvement with American music continued through regular recitals, broadcasts and recordings with his sister, the mezzo Meriel Dickinson, as well as BBC Radio 3 features, articles and reviews. Many of his compositions appeared prominently in the 1980s and in 1986 Melvyn Bragg’s South Bank Show made a programme about him. From 1991 to 1997 Dickinson held the chair at Goldsmiths College, University of London, and then he was Head of Music at the Institute of United States Studies, University of London, until 2004.

As a composer Peter Dickinson has been commissioned to write works for some of the leading international performers, including Simon Preston (Organ Concerto); Howard Shelley (Piano Concerto); Ernst Kovacic (Violin Concerto, a BBC commission); Elisabeth Söderström (The Unicorns); The King’s Singers (Winter Afternoons); David Munrow (Translations and Recorder Music); The Verdehr Trio (American Trio and A Celebration Trio); and Jennifer Bate (Blue Rose Variations). Much of his music has been on CD for some years and in 2008 Jennifer Bate recorded his Complete Solo Organ Works (Naxos 8.572169). This was followed by another CD Apocalypse-Larkin-Forgeries containing Larkin’s Jazz for baritone-speaker, five instruments, piano and percussion with the Nash Ensemble, the Mass of the Apocalypse as well as piano duets and solo piano and flute pieces (Naxos 8.572287). This new recording of piano music complements the one of organ music and similarly provides another panoramic view of Dickinson’s varied keyboard output. As a pianist his partnership with his sister lasted some thirty years in recitals, broadcasts and recordings. He is an Emeritus Professor of the Universities of Keele and London, has doctorates from both, and his writings include books on Lennox Berkeley, Billy Mayerl, Aaron Copland, John Cage, Lord Berners and Samuel Barber.

Composer’s Notes

This recording contains my rags, blues and take-offs as well as two extended pieces. As Christopher Palmer wrote, ‘Conflicts, juxtapositions, attempted syntheses—Peter Dickinson’s work is full of them, all shook-up, all mixed-up, all jazzed-up…yet always keenly imagined and meticulously reasoned and realised’.

These rags are in the notated tradition of Scott Joplin, James Scott and Joseph Lamb rather than the more improvisatory approach of Jelly Roll Morton, whose rags led to Dixieland jazz. Some of my rags are contained within a large piece, as in the Piano Concerto, or a blues becomes the basis, as in the Organ Concerto. There are connections between the various shorter pieces here and longer works, which will be indicated in these notes.

[1] Wild Rose Rag (1985)

This is a classical rag version of ‘To a Wild Rose’ (Woodland Sketches, Op. 51, No. 1, 1896) by the American composer Edward MacDowell (1860–1908). Along with Blue Rose, a blues version of the same piece, which came first, it forms the basis of my organ work Blue Rose Variations, written for Jennifer Bate, who gave the première on 2 April 1986 at Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church, New York and has recorded it. (Complete Solo Organ Works: Naxos 8.572169). The Trio of Wild Rose Rag is based on Blue Rose.

[2] Blue Rose (1979)

It is less easy to follow MacDowell’s melody in this blues version but it is still there throughout. Since a blue rose, which does not appear in nature, was traditionally associated with the mystery of the unattainable the piece reaches its climax on Scriabin’s mystic chord: C-F sharp-A sharp-E-A-D.

[3]–[9] Paraphrase II (1967)

This is the second of two extended keyboard works based on short choral pieces setting poems by Thomas Blackburn (1916–77). Paraphrase II began with a motet for ATB male voices, Mark (1963): it is dedicated to John McCabe who gave the première on 3 December 1968 at the Barber Institute, University of Birmingham. The sections, which are indicated solely by metronome marks, are not traditional variations but are transformations and extensions of ideas not possible in a short vocal piece. The first, in A-B-A form (track 3) telescopes the main theme in loud attacks and a secondary texture, soft and unchanged from the motet, is its centrepiece. There are various serial workings and canons in the sections that follow. The sixth (track 8) presents the main theme as a kind of Satie waltz and the last is the most extended, with the notes of the main theme in its simplest form, softly, at the end.

[10] Concerto Rag (1980)

As its name implies, this is the rag that features in my Piano Concerto (1979–84), heard at the Proms in 1986 and on CD with Howard Shelley and the BBC Symphony Orchestra under David Atherton. The Concerto Rag contains diatonic versions of the main themes of the work. After one of the later climaxes in the concerto’s single movement, a second piano, an upright with percussion backing, infiltrates this rag into the elaborate texture.

[11] Quartet Rag (1976)

This rag was put together as the basis for my String Quartet No. 2, commissioned by the Alberni Quartet and given its première on 30 January 1977 at Harlow, Essex. The Quartet requires either tape-playback or an offstage pianist. Whilst the strings play the rag slowly, like an adagio, the piano puts it together snippets at a time. When the pianist has completed the rag the quartet plays it too—but hilariously out of synchronisation. The first two strains come from a destroyed student piece; the C strain is from another student piece, a scherzo from Seven Diversions; and the D strain is from the last of the Juilliard Dances (1959) written for a ballet when I was a graduate student at The Juilliard School of Music, New York.

[12]–[19] Vitalitas Variations (1957)

Originally called simply Piano Variations, this piece was renamed following what became the highly successful ballet by Mexican dancer and choreographer Gloria Contreras (b. 1934). She choreographed the piece in 1959, shortly after I had arrived in New York, and has described the whole process in detail in her book What I have learned from Balanchine: Diary of a Choreographer (2008). I lent her some tapes of my music and when I met her a short time later she said she had been up for three days and nights choreographing the Variations. I then played for several dance rehearsals and noted the striking Mexican intensity she brought to the task. It became one of the first of her ballets to establish her reputation and has been performed in Mexico virtually every season since. We presented Vitalitas to Balanchine along with Lincoln Kirstein and Menotti. I orchestrated it; there was a version for chamber group made in Mexico; but the single colour of piano finally suited the dance best.

When I composed the piece I was fascinated by Satie’s mosaic constructions such as Prélude en tapissérie and took the technique further. So textures and snippets recur like symbols moving in and out of focus. The first section (track 12) is like a page of contents. Several motifs develop an obsession with a single repeated note, especially the Lento (track 15); melodies appear but are frustrated (track 17); an explosion comes in the last section (track 19) followed by the repeated note, uncertain fragments from earlier, and a peremptory loud dismissal.

[20]–[22] Three Satie Transformations (1970)

Satie himself sent up Clementi in his Sonatine bureaucratique and swiped an Irving Berlin song for the ragtime in his ballet score Parade (both 1917) so Satie himself can be considered fair game. These versions of his Gnossiennes (1890) were made for my orchestral work Satie Transformations, commissioned by the Feeney Trust for the CBSO and first performed at the Cheltenham Festival under Meredith Davies on 3 July 1970. In the orchestral work the first Gnossienne becomes a trumpet solo; the second a blues shared between clarinet and cor anglais; and the third is a big band number.

[23] Bach in Blue (2004)

This piece was one of a number of tributes to Michael Berkeley in his tenth and final season as Director of the Cheltenham Festival. The première was given by Llyr Williams at the Pittville Pump Room on 10 July 2004. Several composers, famously Gounod and later Arvo Pärt, have become involved with the first prelude in Bach’s 48 Preludes and Fugues. I have often felt that there must be a blues lurking somewhere beneath Bach’s chords and I found it here.

[24] Hymn-Tune Rag (1985)

Like many rags, the material comes from different sources. Strain A is based on a hymn-tune in Victorian style I invented for my American Trio (1985), originally called Hymns, Rags and Blues, commissioned by the Verdehr Trio and recorded by them. Strain B is based on the hymn-tune Bullinger by E.W. Bullinger (1837–1913) and strain C is a version of a Sunday School tune I remembered but cannot now trace. The style of this rag is closely based on that of the blind American player and composer Charles Hunter (1876–1906).

[25] Patriotic Rag (1986)

This rag was written as the basis for my London Rags (1986) for brass quintet. It has only two strains in the pattern A-B-A (different key)-B. The A strain is the National Anthem and the B is ‘Rule Britannia’.

[26]–[29] Four Blues (1973)

These trance-like blues versions of hymn-tunes were originally made for a work for string quartet, piano and tape playback called Hymns, Blues and Improvisations (1973). The piece was withdrawn but reworked as my American Trio in 1985 which uses these blues as well as rags based on the same sources. (See note on Hymn-Tune Rag). There is no need to trace the original tunes but Blues I elaborates the hymn-tune Bullinger; Blues II is based on the Sunday School tune I can no longer trace; Blues III is based on He is love sung to ‘Praise Him, praise Him, all ye little children’; Blues IV is based on the invented hymn-tune.

[30]–[34] Five Diversions (1963)

In 1963 I had just acquired a Hugh Gough clavichord and thought the instrument, with its unique characteristics, ought not to be confined to old music. In 1989 I took this idea further and even included Ellington tunes as well as the Five Diversions in some clavichord recitals for BBC Radio 3. These light Diversions in various styles were published as ‘for keyboard instruments’ and I dedicated the set to my wife Bridget. I gave the first public performance on the harpsichord on 18 January 1966 at the College of St Mark and St John and the first performance of the orchestral version was given in Leamington Spa Town Hall by the Warwickshire Symphony Orchestra under Timothy Reynish on 22 November 1970.

The first solo performances of Concerto Rag, Wild Rose Rag, Hymn-Tune Rag, Blue Rose and Blues Nos. 1 and 2 were when I gave a BBC Radio 2 broadcast in the series ‘At the Piano’ (producer Tim MacDonald) on 14 July 1985. I gave the first public performances of all the rags and blues—except the Satie Transformations and the Patriotic Rag—at the British Music Information Centre on 6 December 1985.

© Peter Dickinson

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