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Peter Dickinson: Words and Music
The Boydell Press, Woodbridge, 318pp Illustrated

Musical scribes seldom stick Anton Bruckner and Charles Ives together in one sentence. But Peter Dickinson is not your usual scribe.

In the United Kingdom, the 81-year-old Dickinson is famed for his sensitive piano-playing, his elegant composition, and yes, his essays. In the United States, where he resided during much of the past half century, as Juilliard student, pianist, critic and composer, the Lancashire-born writer seemed to know everybody who was anybody. As well as doing everything it was possible to do, as scholar, critic, composer and performer.

Like Verdi, Boulez, and Elliott Carter, Mr. Dickinson has reached his octogenarian status without ceasing to produce and create. And in Words and Music, a forty-essay tribute to his own life and writing, he casually injects rare facts and singular information about those musical and literary icons that have come into his very full life.

Within these pages, liberally illustrated with pictures from his own achievements, Mr. Dickinson offers information from his staggeringly variegated editing of music (by Erik Satie, Lord Berners, Aaron Copland, John Cage, and others). He gives a potted (yet essential) history of the American piano concerto, from Gottschalk to Sessions to Cage. And he shies from hagiography, offering criticism where it’s due.

True, this writer had trouble placing Peter Dickinson amongst the better-known musical scribes in America. At a recent Carnegie Hall concert, I asked two well-known critics and one visiting conductor if they knew his name. Two were ignorant of the name. The single knowledgeable critic recognized Dickinson because his own book had been favorably reviewed by Dickinson himself.

P. Dickinson (© Music Sales Classical.com)

Then too, initially one looks at the back-cover picture of the man—perfectly coiffed in a natty black suit, white shirt, blue tie, with a gnomic smile —so one imagines that his writing will be dry, slightly witty, affectionate. Lacking, perhaps, Donald Tovey’s outlandish metaphors or George Bernard Shaw’s fearless insults. But perfectly adequate.

Adequate, though, is not the right word. This volume of essays does include a few appreciations by other musicians. But Dickinson’s own essays deftly balance personal and semi-technical analyses with gingerly appropriate quotes. Those who long for gossipy behind-the-scenes anecdotes on the likes of Aaron Copland, Virgil Thomson, W.H. Auden, and John Cage will be disappointed. Yes, Mr. Dickinson does reveal a few sexual nuances to their music. But these artists are more noted for their own insightful comments, evolutions, and even possible motivations behind their individual works.

It must first be stated that Peter Dickinson is not one of your British writers who looks down on America. Quite the opposite. This writer, having been too long in one of Her Majesty’s Crown Colonies, was tired of being told off as “You Americans...,” as if I had suddenly been cloned as a Doppelgänger. Instead, ever since coming to these shores, Mr. Dickinson has been delighted with the diversity of American music.

Like Antonín Dvorák 80 years before, he had been seriously—repeat seriously—fascinated by African-American music not by its influence in America by having an essential role in British serious composition. He starts with a most startling fact. That Frederic Delius, during his last years was fascinated by Duke Ellington — and that Ellington, hearing of this, bought recorded music by Delius! (Talk about the sightless composer being literally color-blind!)

Walton’s Façade was an obvious product of the Jazz Age, and Sir Michael Tippett’s love of jazz was equally political and musical. Yet it is still one of music’s miracles that Sir Michael, with his love of Bessie Smith’s blues singing, should work this into his interpolation of Beethoven’s Ninth in his own Third Symphony.

A curious case is Constant Lambert, who seemed to love jazz and American frontier music in equal measure. Mr. Dickinson wisely ignores that the first edition of Lambert’s Music Ho! (brilliant as it still is) was anti-Semitic, vilely asserting that “Negroes” were the creators, while Jews existed only to exploit them.

His most technical essay comes from The Musical Times (virtually all the essays are reprinted from magazines over the past 50 years). Style “Modulation as a Compositional Tool” goes far deeper into the history of music than his mainly 20th Century writings. He does begin with Charles Ives, but goes back to Monteverdi, Bach, and Gottschalk. And he is most persuasive when showing how a kind of stylistic plagiarism comes into the music of Satie and even George Crumb.

Alas, Mr. Dickinson doesn’t touch here on the one composer who made eccentric modulation a virtual trademark: Alfred Schnittke. (In fact, Shostakovich, Tchaikovsky, and Shchedrin are happy reprobates in these matters.)

While his stolid seriousness about American music is sound, Mr. Dickinson is equally at home in matters literary. He has more than an admiration for Philip Larkin and W.H. Auden. He meets them on their own terms: he speaks of music and poetry together. And in a revelatory chapter called, “Eliot, Stravinsky, Britten & Rawsthorne,” he gives us not only opinions, but some treasurable new facts. Facts mainly about the planned compositions of Stravinsky and Britten with the poems of T.S. Eliot. He writes extensively about their hesitations, their conversations, the anxieties on the parts of both composers and the poet. The opera that Stravinsky had planned with Dylan Thomas is mentioned, and Mr. Dickinson feels that “Eliot, [Gerard Manley) Hopkins, and Dylan Thomas were for long felt to be so complete on their own terms that the addition of another layer—music—seemed superfluous.”

That, of course, goes to the heart of opera itself. Mr. Dickinson has so much to say about so many facets of music, that he doesn’t dare quote from the letters of Mozart and Da Ponte or Strauss and von Hofmannsthal.

He is most enjoyably at home with Lord Berners, who is hardly ever played in America, and with American composers of the 1950s and 1960s In fact, his essays about Virgil Thomson and Gertrude Stein are masterly. He evidently knew and enjoyed Thomson’s company, and Thomson’s words about his own music are worth reading. As well as his friendly competition with Aaron Copland, to whom he wrote a piece of music that cryptically explored Copland’s homosexuality.

Mr. Dickinson is usually too modest to offer non-musical stories about himself. But he does offer one splendid example. When hearing that the author was performing his Eight Poems of Emily Dickinson with his sister and longtime collaborator, mezzo-soprano Muriel Dickinson, Copland sent a note complimenting the idea of having "all" the Dickinsons on one program.

Peter Dickinson, an ardent admirer of Emily (and a critical admirer of Aaron), would obviously love to have been related to the Poetess of Amherst, and his essay on the music inspired by her works is enlightening not only about Emily but vocal-settings in general. Including mention that Emily Dickinson’s poems have inspired 1,600 songs, with more to come.

As for Charles Ives, Peter Dickinson obviously recognized him long before his British peers. He also becomes a genial detective for a long-lost mystery. To wit: Did Gustav Mahler know Charles Ives? Was he ready to perform an Ives symphony? Was he an admirer? Ah, for that, Mr. Dickinson probes many a source, much detective work. And a not very revelatory answer.

Perhaps the rumor of their acquaintance started with Schoenberg’s comments extolling Charles Ives. Somebody may have put together Schoenberg with Mahler with Ives, though nothing else exists, alas.

This writer’s imagination would have to fill in the gaps. Charles Ives, would have relished a few days with Mahler, with whom he had so much musically in common. Perhaps Dvorák could have dropped in for a bottle of schnaps. Schoenberg, one feels (had he entered this sacred imaginary salon), would be lost in another universe.

As astute as he may be, Mr. Dickinson is never averse to giving out the most remarkable information. Not to spoil the book, but who knew that a movement from Erik Satie’s Parade.

How, though, could Mr. Dickinson, as eclectic as he might be, could have brought in Ives and Bruckner in the same sentence. That was both parenthetical and prosaic. Both were organist-composers, and both were interested in hymns of a sort. Bruckner, of course, never quoted a hymn at all. Ives used hymns ironically and as parts of Americana.

And while Mr. Dickinson rarely delves into matters of prurient nature, he gives a rather addled, but probably true account of why Virgil Thomson, unlike his peers during the McCarthy period, never made a statement about politics. Having been arrested in a men’s toilet once, he was rescued from notoriety (probably by the patrician publisher of the Herald Tribune, though the writer doesn’t say so), because didn’t want to take a chance on being outed in those antediluvian days.

Much of the book, about one-third, is devoted to Peter Dickinson himself. His compositions, his discography, his education, his British mentors. (This writer has never heard the compositions, but his YouTube performances of Satie are as delicate as they are elegant.)

But why not talk about himself? It was published on Dickinson’s 80th birthday, it is his book, his list of admirers past (in America) and present (in England) are manifold. As manifold as his interests. His words are never polemics. His criticisms are based on the sounds he hears, the unbelievable number of determinants which permeate the music of the 20th Century. And most of all, on his diversity of interests. That kind of diversity is hardly unknown, but Mr. Dickinson can take two or three notions and create a new idea.

Obviously that is the purpose of Mr. Dickinson, or any scholar-musician. To his credit, his enthusiasms are restrained, his scholarship (except in the highly technical essays) is never bruited about. Words and Music, in one way, reflects Wagner’s comment on Mozart (“His music speaks as words. His words are music”). But Peter Dickinson’s eloquence, coming from decades of knowledge, innate taste and experience on both sides of the Atlantic, is its own reward. Not in glittering, anecdotal histories. But in understated eloquence and unexpected treasures.

Harry Rolnick




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