Sir George Dyson: His Life and Music

By Nicholas, Jeremy | Gramophone, February 2015 | Go to article overview

Sir George Dyson: His Life and Music


Nicholas, Jeremy, Gramophone


Sir George Dyson

His Life and Music

By Paul Spicer

Boydell Press, HB, 480pp, 45 [pounds sterling]

ISBN 978-1-84383-903-3

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

'My repute is that of a good technician, happy with words, but not markedly original. I am I familiar with modern idioms, but they are outside the vocabulary of what I want to say. I am really what the 18th century called a Kapellmeister, an untranslatable word which means a musician equipped both to compose and produce such music as is needed in his position or environment.' This was Sir George Dyson's own self-deprecating view of himself in Fiddling While Rome Burns: A Musician's Apology (OUP: 1954), part autobiography but more a collection of essays on the world of music. His assessment is not far wide of the mark--and typically clear-eyed. Dyson's music, for all its virtues, has never captured the attention of conductors and other musicians, nor fired public enthusiasm, in the same way as has the music of his teachers Stanford and Parry, or his near contemporaries Bax, Scott and Ireland, let alone Vaughan Williams. In the estimation of Percy M Young, Dyson was at his best 'with the conventional native forces of chorus and orchestra ... and, a good, robust craftsman, [was] content with what may be termed the Three Choirs Festival Style.'

Most readers will be as unfamiliar with Dyson's life as they are with his music. Born into a working-class family in Halifax, Yorkshire, in 1883, he studied at the RCM and spent four years from 1904 in Italy and Germany on a Mendelssohn Scholarship. From 1908 to 1937 he was head of music at a succession of English public schools (Marlborough, Rugby, Wellington and Winchester), leaving the first abruptly after, it seems, an affair de coeur. He is certainly the only composer to have written a definitive guide to grenade fighting. His Grenade Warfare sold hundreds of thousands of copies when it was published in 1915. Dyson became director of the RCM in 1938, a post he held until 1952, modernising and greatly enhancing the reputation of the establishment even if, as one of its alumni Joseph Horovitz reveals, many of the students were unaware that their feared (or friendly--opinion was divided) Principal was also a composer. He died exactly 50 years ago.

It does seem extraordinary that such powerful and accomplished works as The Canterbury Pilgrims and Quo vadis? …

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