Sunday, 27 July 2008

George Dyson: Three Rhapsodies

One of the great losses to English music is George Dyson's tone poem 'Siena'. Unfortunately, it is unlikely to turn up, as it is believed to have been destroyed by the composer after its first performance. This is unfortunate as it removes one of the reference points for any consideration of his Three Rhapsodies for string quartet’
Let me explain: George Dyson, like so many English composers, studied at the Royal College of Music. He was of the same generation as John Ireland, Frank Bridge and Rutland Boughton. Dyson won the Mendelssohn Travelling Scholarship in 1905 and proposed to go to Leipzig to study German music and no doubt come under the influence of the shade of Wagner. One of his tutors was the Charles Villiers Stanford - well known for speaking his mind. Stanford tried to dissuade the young composer from his German trip. He is reputed to have said to Dyson, "Go to Italy, me bhoy, and sit in the sun."
And ‘go to Italy’ is just what the young composer did. He travelled to Rome and then to Florence and literally soaked up the 'southern' atmosphere. The outcome of this sabbatical was two works - the Three Rhapsodies and the tone poem Siena' The tone poem was later performed under Nikisch, however it received a bad press from the great music critic, Ernest Newman: it has never been heard since.
George Dyson, of course, went on to great things. He was later to become better known as an administrator and educator. In recent years, however, there has been a re-discovery of much of his music. Always remaining popular in the organ loft and in 'quires and places where they sing,' Dyson's orchestral works and choral masterpieces have become available on CD in the last fifteen years. We are now in a position to judge this highly competent and imaginative composer.
The Rhapsodies are not only the earliest surviving work by Dyson; they are also his only surviving major essay in chamber music. They make a fine introduction to his secular music.
The composer’s sound world is not ‘classic’ English Pastoral- there are no cows and fences here. This piece is no evocation of the English countryside or even a lost generation's response to it. Furthermore, Dyson was immune to the folksong revival and he hardly notices the popularity of the ecclesiastical modes that so influenced Ralph Vaughan Williams. If any composer can be said to have influenced Dyson it was Richard Strauss. The critics of the tone poem Siena picked up on this influence and it is quite apparent to listeners to this chamber music. In spite of the fact that the title of this work implies three separate 'rhapsodies' the finished product is much more like a three-movement string quartet. There is a definite internal unity between each of the three movements. The piece lasts for more than half an hour so it is a substantial composition.
Each 'rhapsody' is prefaced by a quotation from Dante. Dyson's ability to handle string writing is well understood and is obvious these Rhapsodies; he was later to develop this facility in his Concerto da Camera and Concerto da Chiesa - both composed for string orchestra.
The music of these pieces are typically lyrical. Certainly, a breath of Mediterranean air blows through the pages of this score. There is no doubt that Dyson's study time in Italy was put to good use.

The Three Rhapsodies can be heard on Hyperion CDA66139. It is coupled with Herbert Howells String Quartet “In Gloucestershire”

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