Peter Dickinson’s works have many musical influences including ragtime, jazz, musicals, and pop, coupled with electronic playback, serial music, aleatory and traditional forms. Composers who have a clear impact on Dickinson include Stravinsky, Berkeley, Satie and Ives. Yet all this is not just pieced together like beads on a string, but is cleverly synthesised into the composer’s unique voice. For newcomers to Peter Dickinson’s music, I suggest listening to the Satie Transformations first. This is an excellent essay, a masterpiece really, that exhibits his method of working to great advantage. One of the composer’s tools is a device known as ‘style modulation’ where ‘serious’ and ‘popular’ musical styles are mixed together in a subtle and satisfying manner.
The liner notes explain that Transformations is ‘a dream-like fantasy about the eccentric French composer Erik Satie (1866-1925). It was commissioned by the Feeney Trust for the 1970 Cheltenham Festival and received its first performance there on 31 July. The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra was conducted by Meredith Davies.
The Transformations are based on three of Satie’s best known piano pieces: the first three Gnossiennes (there are seven in all). The concept is to bring together ‘straight and swung’ elements, sometimes played consecutively: at times concurrently. The music has considerable sophistication at a formal and orchestral level, in spite of its undoubtedly accessible style.
It should be recalled that Peter Dickinson and his sister, the mezzo-soprano Meriel Dickinson, played an important role in the re-discovery of Satie’s music in the 1960s and 70s. In fact, the composer’s recording of Satie’s solo piano music has been ‘an international best seller for over 20 years.’ (ALC 1276).
For a bit of fun, A Birthday Surprise cannot be overlooked. Dickinson has provided three variations that breathe a refreshing sense of innovation into this quotidian and hackneyed tune. It was commissioned for the 100th birthday of the great classical music impresario Sir Robert Mayer (1879-1985). The Surprise was premiered at the old Free Trade Hall, Manchester by the Hallé Orchestra under Elgar Howarth on 30 June 1979.
The Five Diversions: Prelude, Aria, Ragtime, Saraband and Finale was originally devised for clavichord. Dickinson had acquired a Hugh Gough instrument in 1963 and had decided that this required ‘modern’ music as well as ‘old.’ He made arrangements of Duke Ellington as well as the present ‘Diversions’. The composer regards these five pieces as being ‘light’. I disagree. In spite of being immediately approachable, with the usual Dickinsonian eclecticism, they have a profundity, especially in the slow movements, that is both moving and thought provoking. In 1970 Dickinson made this present striking orchestral version of the score.
Bach in Blue (2004) has been ‘dished up’ for piano solo, for violin, clarinet and piano (2012) and now in the present version for clarinet, violin, piano and strings (2015). The thematic material is garnered from the ubiquitous 1st Prelude of JSB’s ‘48’. Not at first obvious, the composer soon reveals the well-known keyboard figurations into the music, supporting blues-infused clarinet and violin solos. It is a lovely piece.
Merseyside Echoes is fantastic, enjoyable and evocative. Few people in the world will not have heard of Liverpool’s greatest export –The Beatles. Folk of my generation prized every song and album and hung on every word uttered by the ‘Fab Four.’ What Dickinson has achieved is a definitive piece of crossover music: it also showcases his skill at working with ‘dissimilar genres and sound worlds.’ The score was a commission for the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and was first heard in 1988. It is dedicated to the composer’s son, Jasper.
The formal characteristic of Merseyside Echoes is a ‘rondo’ based on a ‘fanfare’ culled from an early organ piece (I am not sure which particular one). The ‘episodes’ of this rondo are the songs. Often the melodies are presented simultaneously reminding the listener of Charles Ives. Interestingly, and perhaps perversely, there are no direct quotations from the ‘Boys.’ Yet listening to this piece I felt that I ‘knew’ and ‘remembered’ these tunes from the ‘Summer of Love.’ It is not a criticism to say that the songs are pure pastiche: they are exceptional pastiche. Dickinson could have been employed by Brian Epstein any day!
I have noted before that Merseyside Echoes ought to have a direct appeal to all ‘baby-boomers’ and all who love the music of the ‘Fab Four’. It demands to be heard on Classic FM as well as on the concert platform.
All enthusiasts of the eccentric Gerald Hugh Tyrwhitt-Wilson, 14th Baron Berners (1883-1950) will be grateful for Peter Dickinson’s masterly book on the composer, artist, novelist, man of letters, and aesthete, published in 2008. The present ‘Suite for the Centenary of Lord Berners’ originally saw light of day in 1974 as incidental music for the Granada TV adaptation of H.E. Bates’ short story A Great Day for Bonzo and adapted for its present purpose in 1983. It was formerly written for clavichord, but was arranged for orchestra in 2015. There are six diverse movements: Blues, Jig, March, Dirge, Waltz and a final Blues. All these numbers are delightful, but I am always particularly attracted to the Waltz.
The earliest, and most challenging, piece on this disc is Monologue for strings. It was composed in 1959 whilst the composer was a graduate student at the Julliard School of Music in New York. Dickinson writes: ‘We knew that the contest required quiet music, and that the sponsor’s tastes were rigidly conservative… [yet]… I simply wrote what I wanted.’ It is a dark, lugubrious work that derives its musical material from the notes, but not the tune, of ‘People will say we’re in love’ from the 1943 Rogers and Hammerstein musical Oklahoma.
This is an outstanding retrospective of the Peter Dickinson’s orchestral music. It is brilliantly played, finely recorded and well-presented. The liner notes by the composer make essential reading. I get the distinct impression that the BBC National Orchestra for Wales under the baton of Clark Rundell, thoroughly enjoyed recording these varied pieces of music.
This is an essential CD for all admirers of Dickinson’s eclectic style of composition in particular, and for approachable, sometimes challenging, but always enjoyable ‘modern’ music, in general.
Peter DICKINSON (b. 1934)
A Birthday Surprise (1979)
Satie Transformations (1969-70)
Five Diversions (1963 rev. 1970)
Bach in Blue (2004/12/15)
Merseyside Echoes (1988)
Suite for the Centenary of Lord Berners (1974/83/2015)
Monologue for Strings (1959)
Lesley Hatfield (violin), Robert Plane (clarinet) (Bach in Blue)
BBC National Orchestra for Wales/Clark Rundell
HERITAGE HTGCD 211
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.