Sunday, 21 March 2010

Peter Dickinson: Blue Rose Variations for Organ (1985)

It quite simply comes down to this: Would the Blue Rose Variations make a good recessional at St Swithun’s after Sung Mass on a Sunday morning. And the answer is an emphatic NO! This work can no more be used in a liturgical context than Charles Ives’s Variations on ‘America’ would be used at a service of the Accession of the reigning Sovereign! Yet both works are masterpieces for the instrument and demand our attention. This said, the Blue Rose Variations is certainly not out of place in the organ loft and it can be given at a recital in any cathedral or parish church in the land that has an organ up to the task. Furthermore, organs are located in all sorts of places. For example, this work would sound terrific on the Albert Hall organ or the Huddersfield Town Hall instrument and perhaps even more creatively (and controversially) on the Leicester Square Odeon Compton. Technique-wise this powerful piece is no cinch for the gifted amateur: it is a major challenge for even the most talented professional.

Peter Dickinson has embraced a number of styles over the years, including serialism and aleatoric music although some of his early organ works are well within the ‘approachable’ genre of the mid twentieth-century English Cathedral organ loft. Yet it is his interest in early jazz, blues and ragtime and rock that informs the Blue Rose Variations.
The present piece achieves a balance between what may be regarded as secular and as sacred: it is an excellent example of how different genres of music can be successfully fused.

The Blue Rose Variations, which was commissioned by Jennifer Bate, was composed in 1985. It consists of a theme and six variations and lasts for about fifteen minutes. The opening theme is a ‘bluesy’ version of To a Wild Rose. The strange thing is that it is not obvious to the listener. Interestingly, the composer himself notes that the MacDowell tune is never explicitly stated (The Musical Times, December 1987) ‘but appears as a blues and a classical rag, often as both at once.’ The keynote of the work is economy – not of scale but of material. Even the briefest of studies of the score shows phrases being continually recycled. In fact, Peter Dickinson had already made experiments in this direction in 1979 with his Organ Blues in the volume Rags, Blues & Parodies: he shows a judicious economy of material and inspiration.

The first variation is a massive pedal solo that would be taxing to even the most accomplished of organists. The defining element of this music is the complex changes of rhythm and metre. The next, the first ‘rag’, is the slow heart of the work: it is here that the listener comes closest to the mood of Edward MacDowell’s well-loved tune in ‘rag’ guise. Yet the romance of the original A Major piece is somewhat obscured by the use of the conflicting blues with the 2ft pedal solo. It gives the music a sense of the fairground organ complete with roundabouts and showmen’s engines. The third variation underlines the economy of this work: it is nearly in the same rhythm as the pedal solo variation re-presented with manual chords adding weight on the full swell. The second ‘rag’ is based on the ‘rag’ version of the original theme with a solo 8ft reed stop provides a blues commentary. The pedal part here has the ‘vamping’ sound of a cinema organist. Variation 5 is similar to the first, again in the rhythm of the pedal solo. The main difference being that the musical material is spread out over both manuals and the pedals. Chords are added on most first beats of the bar supported by the pedal. The metrical changes are identical to the first variation in virtually every detail.

The composer notes that the final ‘confrontation between the blues on full pedal and the rag appears in the last variation’. He further suggests that is ‘an orgy of secularity invading the once-sacred organ loft.’ This is perhaps an exaggeration as since when has the devil had all the best tunes? But perhaps ‘conflagration’ would be a better noun to use. This is a major warhorse that theoretically, but not desirably, could stand on its own as a ‘toccata-like’ voluntary. There is no let-up in the motion, the virtual ‘rock’ beat or the dynamics. Use is made of a-rhythmical groups of five and seven notes. The work concludes with a loud pedal glissando rising to a ‘pp’ A major chord with added major seventh on the string stops. It is a deliberate anti-climax, yet it is an effective conclusion.

The first performance of the work was by the dedicatee Jennifer Bate on the organ of the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York on 2 April 1986. The British premiere was at the Brangwyn Hall, Swansea on 9 April 1986 and was first heard in London on 26 November of the same year at the Royal Festival Hall.

I can find no reviews of this premiere in the American press, however in February 1987 The Musical Times commented on the Festival Hall performance. The Variations were part of a recital including Bach’s Fantasia in G BWV 572, one of Robert Schumann’s B-A-C-H Fugue, Marcel Dupre’s Equisse Op.41 No.3 and the recitalist’s Introduction and Variations on an Old Christmas Carol. The reviewer, Rosemary Potter, wrote [p.105] ‘Those who nurture a sneaking fondness for MacDowell’s To a Wild Rose may not relish its appearance in different guises as blues and rag, here both in turn and simultaneously …” She noted that the organ ‘ciphered in protest’ during the impressively difficult pedal solo. However it is the fourth variation that caught her imagination. Unfortunately there was a sting in the tail – she felt that it ‘was a pity that Dickinson chose to run to six variations: individually they are intriguing, but neither the idea nor the theme holds sufficient profundity for a lengthy piece.’ However the performance was well done and received much applause.

More recently the work was given by David Titterington at a Promenade Concert on 25 July 2009 at the Royal Albert Hall. Tim Ashley writing in the Guardian (27 July 2009) notes that Dickinson was born in the same year as Sir Edward Elgar’s death. He suggests that ‘where Elgar makes the organ sound like an orchestra, Dickinson, wonderfully and impudently, turns it into a jazz combo.’ This recitalist also played the work at Coventry Cathedral in a recital for U.S. Independence Day. It was broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on 4 July 1989. This programme, which included works by Ives, was introduced by Peter Dickinson.
Jonathan Woolf reviewing the latest Naxos release of the composer’s organ music on MusicWeb International gives a compelling view of the work. He suggests that this piece is ‘tinged with a soupçon of cocktail hour blues’. He points out that ‘the Fairground meets the Varsity Rag in this variational pleasure ground, full of contrasts and fun and ebullience. There are some strongly ‘comping’ left hand chords … which have an almost boppish urgency – and then a resplendent ending to conclude a work of good humour and freedom; freedom, that is, from unwanted academic expectations and constraints’.

Malcolm Miller, writing in Tempo, (January 2010) is impressed by the ‘often witty harmonic and rhythmic tapestry [that is] unique to the organ repertoire.’ He completes his review by noting that ‘the set is brought to a rousing finish with the symphonic closing variation, the theme heard in swirling arpeggios and in pedal augmentation in the bass.’ The Blue Rose Variations was published by Novello & Company Ltd. in 1999. The work has recently been released on Naxos 8.572169 with Jennifer Bate as soloist on the organ of St John’s Duncan Terrace. It has also been recorded by Keith Jarvis on PRIORY PRC 239 (1988) and Christopher Hughes on OXRECS OXCD-66 (1996)

With thanks to Peter Dickinson for his help and encouragement in writing this essay.

This essay was first published on MusicWeb International on 9 March 2010

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