The Organ Works of Sir George Dyson – Some thoughts

Daniel Cook (Westminster Abbey) has just recorded Dyson’s Complete Organ Music for Priory (available here). Here are my notes for the recording…

Sir George Dyson (1883 – 1964) was one of the foremost British composers and educators in the first half of the twentieth century; starting from the lowliest of working-class roots, he became a key figure in the musical life of the nation. The son of a blacksmith, he was born in the industrial town of Halifax in the West Riding of Yorkshire; “Coal pits, quarries and ‘dark Satanic mills’ alternated with hill-side pasture and remote farms”. His first musical experiences where at the local Baptist church and he took organ lessons from an early age, making remarkable progress and passing his Fellowship Diploma from the Royal College of Organists at the age of 16. Composition too started around this time and included a Sonata for Organ (now lost), featuring a movement entitled ‘Variations on St Ann’s Tune’.
In 1900 Dyson gained an open scholarship to the Royal College of Music in London, studying composition with Sir Charles Stanford. Further success came with a Mendelssohn Scholarship in 1904, allowing additional study in Italy and Germany. With the help of Sir Hubert Parry, he gained the post of Director of Music at the Royal Naval College at Osborne on the Isle of Wight upon his return to England in 1907. Dyson’s teaching career flourished and in 1911 he was appointed to Marlborough College. This period was clearly notable as Paul Spicer’s 2014 biography of Dyson quotes the satirical magazine Punch: ‘Since he has been at Marlborough Mr Dyson has given a large number of much-appreciated recitals in the college chapel. The organ is still undergoing repair. We make no comment.’
At the outbreak of war, Dyson enlisted and put his teaching skills to good use writing a guide on hand grenades. At the end of the war he submitted for the Oxford DMus degree and subsequently began teaching at the Royal College of Music and Wellington College. With his early writings for the journal Music & Letters, Dyson became one of the leading commentators on contemporary music, publishing New Music (OUP 1924) and following it with the equally important The Progress of Music (OUP 1932). 1924 also saw Dyson’s appointment as Master of Music at Winchester College where his duties included substantial work with the chapel choir. Dyson’s profile continued to grow and in 1938 he was appointed Director of the Royal College of Music. Compositions during this period included the Sibelius-like Symphony in G (1937) and a remarkable Violin Concerto (1941). During the Second World War, he took the brave decision to keep the Royal College open, thus supporting its staff financially and setting a courageous example to the outside world. He was knighted in 1942. Dyson retired to Winchester in 1952 but he remained active as a composer and his appointment as President of The Royal College of Organists renewed his interest in the instrument.
The Fantasia and Ground Bass, Dyson’s most substantial organ work, was written in 1960, and demonstrates his skills at handling large forms. After a grand but agitated and melancholic Maestoso, Dyson introduces a much more incisive Allegro moderato whose syncopated pedal gives it real drive. The quieter contrasting sections introduce more of a modern idiom, the lyricism of which has much in common with Percy Whitlock’s fine organ music. The multiple sections and frequent build ups allow the performer to make full use of the range of colours available on a large romantic organ such as St Mary Redcliffe. The Ground Bass takes a pedal theme as the basis for a set of expressive variations, the harmonic basis of which is set early on and retained throughout. Again the constant changing of stops required makes the most of the romantic organ and builds to a climax of extraordinary volume.
The revolution in hymnody which occurred at the start of the twentieth century in Britain is demonstrated in the various hymn books (and new editions) that were published such as Hymns Ancient and Modern (1904) and The English Hymnal (1906/1933). Under editors such Ralph Vaughan Williams, out went many of the high-church Victorian tunes and in came a collection of either newly- written melodies, folksongs or resurrected tunes from earlier periods, particularly the 17th and 18thcenturies. In the world of English public schools, where hymn singing in the school chapel was seen as an important corporate activity, Songs of Praise (1925), The Clarendon Hymn Book (1936) and particularly The Public School Hymn Book (1903/1919) paved the way for an renewed interested in hymn singing. In the Variations on Old Psalm Tunes (1960/1), Dyson took a variety of late-sixteenth and early-seventeenth century melodies and used them as the basis for short voluntaries, to be played before (often quiet) and after (much louder) Anglican services. This was practical music, written for the abilities of the average organist, but Dyson also cared about providing quality pieces in the vein of Parry’s Chorale Preludes, Stanford’s Short Preludes & Postludes and more modern writing such as Percy Whitlock’s Seven Sketches on Verses from the Psalms or Ralph Vaughan Williams’ 3 Preludes Founded on Welsh Hymn Tunes. All of them have a distinctly British feel, thus for example, Thomas Campion’s modal tune to ‘By the waters of Babylon’ is treated to an English pastoral setting, more suggestive of an English riverbank than ancient Mesopotamia and the Scottish tune to ‘I was glad’ is treated to a jaunty Elgarian scherzo, which builds to a fortissimo climax, complete with tuba. Although entitled Variations, the pieces are really short miniatures during which Dyson was not afraid to let the tune itself take the central stage and thus they demonstrate a directness and clarity which was typical of the straight-talking Yorkshireman.
The gentle Prelude (1956) takes the form of a lyrical ternary intermezzo (or song without words) and was a commission for Novello’s Organ Music Club. Written just after the famous Magnificat in F, there is a notable similarity here with the texture of solo tune, syncopated accompaniment and 8ft pedal. The functionally-named Voluntary in D (1958) was written for a collection entitled ‘An Album of Praise’ (published by Oxford University Press) and develops an energetic fanfare motif heard at the outset through to a loud climax in a quasi-chorale. The Postlude (1956) was published as a companion piece to the Prelude and takes the form of a brisk minuet in ternary form, contrasting the full choruses and, in final section, using both the enormous Solo Tuba and 32ft Double Ophicleide of the Pedal division. Taken as a whole, Dyson’s organ works are about accessibility and emotional directness; confident and full-bodied they reflect the spirit of the age as much as this organ itself does – Arthur Harrison’s 1912 masterpiece, an instrument of unique beauty and power.
 Copyright 2015 – Jonathan Clinch

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