Thursday, 17 July 2014

A first rate, thoroughly researched biography of Sir George Dyson by Paul Spicer, published by Boydell Press, gives a detailed insight into his life and music, as well as covering many other related subjects

Sir George Dyson’s (1883-1964) music was still very well known in Choral Society circles right up to the post war period before a decline in interest set in. It was the record companies, particularly Chandos Records , that started a revival of interest with recordings of his Symphony in G and Violin Concerto as well as two major choral works, the Canterbury Pilgrims and Quo Vadis all conducted by the late Richard Hickox.

Back in 1983, the late Christopher Palmer provided a small volume published by Thames Publishing. This modest book was valuable in that it went some way in providing a basic insight into Dyson’s life and music. However, a much larger biography was needed, a gap more than filled by Paul Spicer whose large and expertly researched book Sir George Dyson – His Life and Music has recently been published by Boydell Press 
Published: 15 May 2014
ISBN: 9781843839033
Pages: 480
Size: 23.4 x 15.6
Binding: Hardback
Imprint: Boydell Press

This new book takes us from Dyson’s humble origins as the son of a blacksmith in Halifax to Director of the Royal Academy of Music by way of a Mendelssohn Scholarship to the RCM; the Royal Naval College, Osborne; Director of Music at Marlborough College and Rugby School; the First World War as a Brigade Grenadier Officer; his commission as a Major in the Royal Air Force just after the war, organising military bands; and Director of Music at Wellington College and Winchester College.

It was his Mendelssohn Scholarship, awarded for the years 1904-1907, that enabled Dyson to travel to Italy, on Stanford’s advice, where he visited Florence and Rome before heading to Vienna then Berlin, where he met Joseph Joachin and Richard Strauss. It was this travelling that brought forth his Three Rhapsodies for String Quartet

Sir Hubert Parry encouraged the young Dyson to take a post at the Royal Naval College, Osborne to develop musical activities for the Naval Cadets, something of an innovation in those days.

Typical of Spicer’s attention to detail are the insights he gives into other personalities such as the writer, Beverley Nichols, a pupil at Marlborough College in Dyson’s time. Dyson’s sudden move to Rugby School, in 1914, following a likely scandal over a relationship at the school, possibly with a staff member’s wife, comes as something of a surprise, though it seems likely that it was a one sided attraction, with Dyson the innocent party.

Dyson’s well known writing of the first manual for grenade warfare, a publication that received widespread circulation, is covered in depth, together with a reproduction of the title page and a diagram from its contents. But Spicer gives us much more about Dyson’s war time experiences and subsequent shell shock. There are interesting asides such as Dyson’s opposition to conscription. He himself had volunteered before being commissioned. Spicer quotes AJP Taylor who wrote that conscription ‘…was not due to any shortage of men, on the contrary, more volunteers were still coming forward than could be equipped. Parliament and the politicians wanted to give the impression that they were doing something…’ This may be a revelation to many, particularly on this centenary of the First World War.

Dyson had met his future wife, Mildred Atkey, before the war and, on his return, married her after ‘proposing’ to her in a rather indirect and vague way. She was the sister of a Marlborough friend, Freeman Atkey and the daughter of a solicitor and thus cemented Dyson’s position amongst the middle classes.

In 1920 Dyson took the post of Director of Music at Wellington College leading to a fruitful time for composition which brought The Canterbury Pilgrims, St Paul’s Voyage to Melita, The Blacksmiths and Nebuchadnezzar. Spicer gives us much about Dyson’s busy life organising, teaching, lecturing and writing as well as composing. He goes into depth about such activities as Dyson’s Presidential address to the Conference of Educational Associates with a typical Dyson topic Broadening of Education to take account of skills as well as academic subjects, giving an insight into Dyson’s character and views; and his involvement with the Rural Music Schools Association.

1938 saw Dyson taking up his appointment as Director of Music at the Royal College of Music in succession to Sir Hugh Allen. Dyson was the obvious choice for this post, though its challenges didn’t stifle his creative urge, composing, in the first six years of his time at the RCM, his Symphony in G, Part I of Quo Vadis, the Violin Concerto, the Overture to The Canterbury Pilgrims and At the Tabard Inn.

Dyson was Director at the RCM during the difficult period of the Second World War with this volume giving fascinating insights into the war damage to the RCM as well as the destruction of the Queen’s Hall in London including a plan for a possible New Queens Hall, something that we know didn’t occur.

To some, Dyson could be a rather forbidding personality yet, as his daughter Alice explained ‘…you see these grim photographs and you have no idea how amusing he was. He was a great and amusing talker.’ Malcolm Arnold, who could often be pretty forthright, thought he was ‘…a marvellous man. He was a great friend to me.’ A photograph reproduced in this book on page 286, showing a relaxed, smiling Dyson at the 1946 Hereford Three Choirs Festival, perhaps gives an indication of this other side to the man.

During the Second World War he reduced his own salary by half when, due to a lack of students, it was believed the College might have to close. His modernising of the RCM took some curious twists such as, in 1938, when he had just arrived, at his second council meeting announced that £2,000 was required for new lavatories and other internal improvement and £3,000 for extensions and re-arrangements of the professors’ and students’ dining rooms, later commenting on the ‘queer new Director you have got, who seems to be so inartistically concerned with wash basins and food.’

Spicer’s book is peppered with extracts of Dyson’s letters and writings. One such is Dyson writing, during the war, ‘ There is no doubt that some of us older people sometimes feel tired, bothered and occasionally fretful under the responsibility of trying to carry on our normal activities under quite abnormal circumstances…’ perhaps recognition of how his exterior demeanour was perceived. 

Spicer acknowledges that Dyson was ‘a complex and controversial person …’ He was certainly unpopular with many over his apparent attitude to the College’s library and valuable collection of musical instruments and portraits. Dyson wanted to develop a lending library to complement the reference library, a laudable idea that would help students. Sadly, this led to many valuable books and manuscripts being moved to the lending library and their subsequent loss or damage.

Other aspects of Dyson’s personality are shown by the RCM’s 1948 centenary tribute to Parry. Apparently Dyson’s address didn’t even mention Parry but talked about economics in relation to the state of the country’s finances, rationing etc. Dyson, ever the practical one, thought it would be more useful for students.

His concern for the students seemed to be paramount, particularly the most talented such as the guitarist, Julian Bream to whom he showed much understanding over Bream’s choice of instrument, even though during the 1940’s the RCM had no guitar teacher.

Dyson’s music is well covered with analysis and numerous musical examples of a vast number of his works. There is a complete list of works, an index of texts set by Dyson, a list of the performances of Canterbury Pilgrims conducted by Dyson, a select bibliography, an up to date discography, index of Dyson’s works and a very complete general index.

I could go on at great length about this first rate, thoroughly researched biography. It is the best kind of musical biography in that it not only gives a detailed insight into Dyson’s life and music, but covers so many other related subjects.

I cannot imagine any Dyson enthusiast or lover of British music wanting to be without this fine volume.

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