Wednesday, 24 December 2014

George Dyson - Paul Spicer attempts to get beneath the brusque Yorkshire exterior

Sir George Dyson: His Life and Music - Paul Spicer - Boydell Press
Paul Spicer Sir George Dyson: His Life and Music; The Boydell Press
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Dec 23 2014
Star rating: 4.0

Important biography of a neglected 20th century composer and theorist

Sir George Dyson
Sir George Dyson
Sir George Dyson's life-story could read as a prime example of a working-class Yorkshire boy made good. Born in Halifax, son of a foreman blacksmith, he won a scholarship to the Royal College of Music and became a noted composer, broadcaster and distinguished administrator. Principal of the Royal College of Music at a tricky time in its career, he worked with the Carnegie Trust and helped found the National Federation of Music Societies.

If, 30 years ago, you had mentioned Dyson you would have been lucky if someone remembered Isobel Baillie's recording of the Wife of Bath's aria from The Canterbury Pilgrims (see below after the break a sample), though ex-RCM students might comment on his sales from the RCM collections and re-organising of the ladies lavatories.

Dyson's major works have now appeared on disc and we can appreciate his English, yet distinctive voice. A conservative composer, but an open musical thinker; in print and in lectures he made an important contribution to the dialogue with contemporary music.

Quite how remarkable he was comes over in this comprehensive new biography from Paul Spicer. Sir George Dyson, His Life and Music (Boydell Press) is indeed a very thorough book combining Dyson's life, with much contemporary background plus analysis of Dyson's works threaded through the narrative.


Spicer clearly has a great empathy for Dyson's music, but also a sympathy for Dyson himself. Dyson came over as a brusque Yorkshireman (he never lost his accent) and was rarely emotional, but through Spicer's narrative you sense a more complex being. Dyson was born near Halifax in 1883, and though of my grandfather's generation his character was a type I very much recognised from my own family in North Lincolnshire. Dyson's peculiar combination of brusqueness with a clearly intense inner life and his highly practical sense (he could strip down a car and wrote a hand-grenade manual during the First World War) reminded me of men on my own family. Perhaps it was a particularly Northern trait.

But the problem with such a character is that the inner life is only revealed in the music. Dyson's words do not always tell us quite what was going on. He was clearly a great thinker, and his writings on contemporary music are quite remarkable, showing an willingness to be open to thinking about modernism even if he was not temperamentally inclined to follow it in his own music. Spicer rightly devotes a lot of space to these writings, but here as elsewhere we do not get much glimpse of Dyson the artistic man's inner life.

Similarly, Dyson's New Year addresses to the students of the Royal College give us some delightful hints as to the character of the man. Dyson was principal at a difficult time, having to cope with the effects (both physical and economic) of the First World War. He was clearly a man who relished the the sheer logistical challenges that such a position gave him, but his concerns seem to be purely practical rather than artistic.

Spicer very much has to rely on background detail and an almost forensic comprehensiveness. After a while I found this a little wearing; everyone and everything gets a full background. There are two whole pages devoted to introducing the Carnegie Trust. But Spicer also takes a somewhat thematic view of Dyson's varied activities, so that for instance his work with the Carnegie Trust which involved him for a lot of his later life, is all compressed into one short chapter and there are just two pages covering Dyson's involvement with founding the National Federation of Music Societies,

One revealing and highly amusing episode was when the student Dyson got involved in the circle of the notorious Oscar Browning (notorious for being flamboyantly homosexual and having a taste for young undergraduates), thanks to Stanford's suggestion that his pupil study Greek with Browning to widen his education. Browning took quite a shine to young Dyson, and Dyson's dawning realisation of what this meant can be tracked in the surviving letters.

Dyson studied with Stanford at the Royal College of Music and was the recipient of a Mendelssohn Scholarship. Though Spicer does his best here with surviving material, it would be lovely to know a little more about the effect the seductive south had on Dyson. He clearly loved it, and something of the warmth comes to suffuse his music.

Spicer is clearly highly in sympathy with Dyson's music and covers it all. The major compositions all get sections describing them and analysing them. I did wonder whether this degree of musicological detail was helpful in a book which has potential to have a wider audience. Spicer does bring out the works importance and his own regard for them.

Overall, the book is simply a little too comprehensive, resulting in an admirable but not always a lively read. But it certainly enables us to learn more of this fascinating man.

There are a number of highly useful Appendixes, including a list of Dyson's works, a list of texts he set (helpful in giving us an indication of the breadth of his reading), a list of the performances of The Canterbury Pilgrims that Dyson conducted, plus bibliography and discography. There are copious illustrations, 38 in all plus 17 in the text.
Update: A correspondent has pointed out that I managed to get the RAM and RCM confused! Apologies, all sorted.


Paul Spicer - Sir George Dyson: His Life and Music (450 pages)
The Boydell Press, 2014
ISBN 978 1 84383 903 3

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