A biographical sketch by Lewis Foreman
George Dyson came from a working class background in Halifax , West Yorkshire , the son of a blacksmith. Although from a poor family in the industrial north, Dyson’s parents were musical and encouraged him as an organist in the local church. The young Dyson became an FRCO at the age of sixteen, and he won an open scholarship to the Royal College of Music in 1900. Despite his background, Dyson was to become the voice of public school music and later Director of the RCM, the first College-trained musician to do so (a fact of which he was very proud). At the RCM, Dyson became a pupil of Sir Charles Villiers Stanford then at the height of his influence as a composition teacher.
Little of Dyson’s early music had been thought to have survived, but in 2001 the discovery of an engaging and romantic Cello Sonata dating from 1903, now recorded by the cellist Joseph Spooner, has reminded us that he was an avid composer from the outset. In 1904, he won the Mendelssohn Scholarship, the award intended to help promising young composers travel abroad, and at the instigation of Stanford he went to Italy, later journeying on to Vienna and Berlin where he met many of the leading musicians of the day, including Strauss and Nikisch, and the latter produced Dyson’s early tone-poem Siena, though after four performances Dyson withdrew it.
It was thanks to the influence of Sir Hubert Parry, Director of the RCM, that on returning to England , and needing to find a job, Dyson became Director of Music at the Royal Naval College , Osborne. Dyson soon used this experience to move on to Marlborough College , but on the outbreak of war in 1914 he enlisted, his war experiences being an interlude rather than a major turning point in his musical development. During the war he became celebrated for his training pamphlet on grenade warfare, which he produced as brigade grenadier officer of the 99th Infantry Brigade, and which was widely disseminated.
Dyson saw action in the trenches. In a letter dated 5 December 1915 he vividly describes the life he was living at this time. ‘We are continually under shellfire . . . and at this moment he has unfortunately caught a squad of men in the open outside with appalling results. Our own guns are blazing away like mad, so that you can’t hear yourself think . . . The trenches are simply vile in this weather. Between knee-deep and thigh-deep in mud, in addition to the havoc wrought by the Bosch.’ Inevitably, in due course he was invalided out, and in his diary Parry writes in shocked terms when he saw Dyson back in College, a shadow of his former self. Later, Dyson worked in the newly-founded Air Ministry where he realised the march RAF March Past that Henry Walford Davies had sketched in short score. Dyson’s wartime experiences surely meant that when over 20 years later he started work on his major choral work Quo Vadis, he wrote from a powerful inner vision: he had seen hell first hand.
In 1920 Dyson became more widely known as a composer when his Three Rhapsodies for string quartet, revised from earlier works written before the War soon after his return from the continent, were chosen for publication under the Carnegie UK Trust’s publication scheme. He took up the threads of his earlier working life when he was appointed to Wellington College , and he also became a professor at the Royal College of Music. It was at this time that he produced his celebrated book The New Music, widely admired in its day for its learning and apparently commonsense view.
Around the end of the war Dyson wrote many short choral pieces and in 1920 he completed a children’s suite for small orchestra after poems by Walter de la Mare called Won’t You Look Our of Your Window (later renamed Suite after Walter de la Mare) which had a notable success at the 1925 season of Queen’s Hall Promenade Concerts when Dyson himself conducted.
In 1924 Dyson moved to Winchester College where he enjoyed possibly the most productive part of his life as a composer. At Winchester , as Director of Music he was organist and had a choir and an orchestra and also an adult choral society. It was for these forces that he started writing music, and for them he developed choral music of a tuneful vigorous cast. This started in 1928 with In Honour of the City which was so successful he soon produced a more ambitious piece, The Canterbury Pilgrims, a succession of evocative and colourful Chaucerian portraits written for Winchester in 1931 and, in the 1930s, certainly his most famous score.
Soon he was commissioned by the Three Choirs Festivals to write further works, and for Hereford in 1933 he produced St Paul ’s Voyage to Melita (repeated in 1934, 1937 and 1952). Other Festivals soon followed, and The Blacksmiths was written for Leeds in 1934, and then Nebuchadnezzar for Worcester in 1935.
Dyson was not only a choral composer - there were also orchestral works. These included the Prelude, Fantasy and Chaconne for cello and orchestra in 1936 and a symphony in 1938, a symphony full of glorious pageantry and now twice recorded. During the Second World War Dyson’s Violin Concerto was played by no less a figure than Albert Sammons, now recorded by Chandos.
For the 1939 Three Choirs Dyson had been commissioned to write what we know as the first part of Quo Vadis, though the festival was cancelled on the outbreak of war in September 1939. In the event it would not be heard until near the end of the war, and was first performed in London ’s Royal Albert Hall and then at Hereford in September 1946, and as part of the complete work in 1949. This is by a long way Dyson’s most ambitious score. In nine substantial parts, for it he assembled a remarkable anthology of extracts from English Literature as his text. Notable is the fourth movement, the Nocturne “Night hath no wings”, sometime heard separately. Here Dyson sets poems by Robert Herrick (1591-1674) and one by the much less well known Victorian poet Isaac Williams (1802-65), who was influenced by Keble and involved in the Oxford movement. The singer waits for the leaden minutes to creep past. He cannot sleep and, sick at heart his entreaty is underlined by the plangent questioning of the intertwining viola. Eventually, as the supplicant pleads for comfort, in a simple but almost transcendental moment, the chorus enter with a hushed vision of the dawn. At the end the soloist and his shadow, the interceding viola, plead for comfort, but now in a mood of serenity. It is also worth drawing attention to the remarkable final movement “To find the western path”. At over 18½ minutes this has the stature of a separate work. Indeed the text that Dyson has assembled is striking it its own right. Here Dyson takes his text from Blake, Shelley and ends with a most affecting setting of the Salisbury Diurnal (“Holy is the true light”) which Howells also featured in Hymnus Paradisi, first heard in 1950. It is a typical Dyson choral movement, the headlong succession of memorable ideas breathtaking in its cumulative impact. The second section is taken from “Adonais”, Percy Bysshe Shelley’s well-known poem on the death of Keats, and here we may see Dyson’s typical method in taking just what he wanted from a poem – in fact making it his own.
During the war Dyson, as Director of the Royal College of Music, kept the college open and functioning, even sleeping at the office, and he remained there until 1952. After his retirement he enjoyed a remarkable Indian summer of composition, though by this time his music was beginning to sound ‘old hat’ to some and although it all achieved publication and performance at the time, it did not have quite the immediate following of his earlier scores. We now know better that this is delightful and evocative music.
These late works include Sweet Thames Run Softly (1954), a mellifluous setting for baritone, chorus and orchestra of words from Edmund Spenser’s Prothalamion. In 1955 there followed Agincourt , a brilliant return to the scale and style of that first choral work, In Honour of the City, now setting well-known Shakespearean words. Hierusalem, a beautiful setting of a 15-verse hymn adapted from St Augustine for soprano solo, chorus, strings, harp and organ, was written for Harold Darke in 1956. Finally came a 20-minute nativity sequence, A Christmas Garland, in 1959.
Dyson died in Winchester in 1964.
A 200-page anthology of Sir George Dyson's wide-ranging writings and talks on music, selected, edited and introduced by Christopher Palmer.
Available from Amazon.
George Dyson: Man and Music
A study written in 1983 as a centenary appreciation. It was published in 1996 shortly after the untimely death of the author, Christopher Palmer. A shrewd and well-informed study of the man and his music.
Available from Amazon.
Sir George Dyson: His Life and Music
Full scale biography and study of works by Paul Spicer (with appendixes by Ray Siese) published in June 2014 by Boydell & Brewer.
Available from Amazon
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