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ClassicsOnline Home » DICKINSON, P.: Organ Works (Complete) (Bate)
Peter Dickinson’s strikingly original approach to organ music, which the composer
himself has described as ‘far from the English cathedral tradition’, reflects a background
that was not typical of British organists or composers during the mid- to late-twentieth
century. The award-winning, internationally-renowned organist Jennifer Bate is an ideal
interpreter of his works, which range from the introspective A Cambridge Postlude to the
improvisatory Three Statements and the awe-inspiring Millennium Fanfare.
By David Denton
Peter Dickinson (b. 1934)
Complete Solo Organ Works
My father, the contact lens specialist Frank Dickinson
(1906–78), had been a church organist from well before I
came on the scene so the instrument was virtually in the
family. I went to The Leys School, Cambridge, on a music
scholarship, and the Director of Music, Hugh Davis, thought
it would be a good idea if I learnt the organ; then I could play
for chapel. I followed in his footsteps as Organ Scholar of
Queens’ College, Cambridge, a post he had held in the year
I was born. Playing the organ works of Bach was a
revelation. When I was a prefect, with more freedom, there
were times when I went to play the chapel organ during the
night in my dressing-gown. I also started to compose.
The Cambridge Postlude (1953) was one of the first
pieces I wrote after becoming Organ Scholar at Queens’. It
now seems close to the English cathedral tradition but there
is a slightly bluesy figure in the pedal part. The Prelude
(1954) is a more introspective piece that would not have
survived my burning some old manuscripts in 1970 if my
father had not kept a copy in his collection of organ music.
I can remember that Patrick Hadley, Professor at
Cambridge, called the opening bar a ‘pretty dissonance’.
The Postlude on ‘Adeste Fideles’ (1954) is a toccata with the
tune of ‘O come all ye faithful’ in the manuals and also in
long notes in the pedal. It has been in print since 1964 and
has been quite widely played at Christmas services.
The Three Preludes on Songs 46, 20 and 34 by Orlando
Gibbons (1954/55) are in a different category since they
have never been published and cannot have been performed
for fifty years. They stem from the start of the early music
revival—the musicologist and performer Thurston Dart was
on the faculty at Cambridge—and my admiration for
Gibbons, but their style is close to some of Howells, whose
organ music I played at that time, and includes some of the
false relations found in Elizabethan music.
I wrote the demanding Toccata (1955) for Ian D.
Howard, a brilliant organist and contemporary at Queens’
who became a physicist. I never played it myself, although
I had gained the FRCO and given my first BBC broadcasts
as an organist before leaving Cambridge, but I was very
pleased when Jennifer Bate revived it at the Albert Hall,
Nottingham on 6 June 1982.
The Meditation on ‘Murder in the Cathedral’ (1958)
arose from some incidental music I wrote for a production
of Murder in the Cathedral at Embley Park School,
Hampshire, where I was teaching Music and English.
Afterwards I used some of the material for this kaleidoscopic
piece that juxtaposes a kind of sensual hymn with
moments of violence. The score is headed: ‘…that the wheel
may turn and still be forever still…’—words and title used
by permission of Mrs Valerie Eliot and Faber & Faber. The
première was given by Donald Reeves in Beirut, Lebanon,
early in 1959 to the sound of gunfire as the American
marines were landing on the beaches.
In 1958 I went to New York for three years, which was
with American music, the setting up of the Music
Department at Keele in 1974 with its Centre for American
Music, and articles and books about American composers.
Initially I was a graduate student at the Juilliard School of
Music; then I freelanced as critic and performer, including
a spell with the New York City Ballet where I played for
Balanchine to choreograph; and for my last year I was on the
faculty of Fairleigh Dickinson University, New Jersey. I
met Cowell, Carter, Cage and Varèse, much of my music
was performed, and I reviewed concerts for various
The liberating atmosphere in New York brought a
change in my musical style, taking my organ music far from
the English cathedral tradition. The fragmentary but highly
organised Study in Pianissimo (1959)—the only organ piece
from my American period—uses elements of serial
technique. Jennifer Bate gave the première at St James’,
Muswell Hill, on 26 June 1979. The portentous Dirge (1963), written when I was on the staff of the College of St
Mark and St John, Chelsea, rotates its melody relentlessly
over a recurring set of chords.
The Three Statements (1964) are freer and arose from
some work in improvisation I was doing with students,
documented in a series of six articles in The Musical Times.
In No. 1 the wide melodic leaps and note clusters were
unusual in organ music at that time. The dramatic No. 2 has
a sustained symbolic major chord held throughout, always
in the distance, and it expands towards the end before
returning. No. 3 alternates between a type of chorale, based
entirely on chords built in fourths, against two-part passages
where the melody usually disagrees with its stepwise lower
The Carillon (1964) is a jumble of bell sounds in variable
metres—rhythms rarely heard from church steeples perhaps
but developed from them all the same. I gave the first
performance at the wedding of Virginia and Andrew Evans
at Kingswood, Surrey, on 8 August 1964.
Paraphrase I (1967) was written for a chamber organ
designed by Grant, Degens and Bradbeer and I gave the
première in Pershore Abbey on 8 October 1967. It works
very well, however, on larger instruments. There are ten
separate sections with the last one a repeat of the first with
a triumphant final C added. The starting point of this piece
was my ATB motet John (1963) to a poem by Thomas
Blackburn, first sung by the chapel choir of the College of
St Mark and St John. I remember conducting it in St Paul’s
Cathedral and—such was the echo—wondering why the
choir had continued singing even after I had cut off the last
chord. I enjoyed reworking the details of the motet for the
organ piece. That was also the year in which I wrote
Fanfares and Elegies for organ and brass, a single twenty-minute
span designed to be heard in large resonant buildings.
My Organ Concerto (1971) came next. It was a Feeney
Trust Commission, written for Simon Preston and the City
of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. Then Christopher
Robinson played it and Jennifer Bate made the first
recording in the Royal Festival Hall in 1986. By then my
music was becoming involved with ragtime, blues and
aspects of early jazz.
When I came back to the organ for the Blue Rose
Variations (1985) the saturation was fairly thorough. The
piece was written for Jennifer Bate who gave the first
performance at Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church, New
York, on 2 April 1986. Some time before I had made a
transformation of Edward MacDowell’s popular piano piece
To a Wild Rose into both a blues and a classical rag, pieces
that now have an independent existence in piano versions,
and I used these to make a virtuoso show-piece. The theme
appears first as a quiet blues, then there are six variations
combining the blues and the rag in various ways. After the
theme, the first variation is a pedal solo; variations 2, 4 and
6 set the blues melody against the rag in ways that never
quite fit; and variations 3 and 5 elaborate the rhythm of the
pedal solo with chords. Variation 6 has been regarded an
orgy of secularity invading the once sacred organ loft.
When I wrote my Millennium Fanfare (1999) for Keith
Bond at Aldeburgh Parish Church I looked back to the awe-inspiring
chords that open the Organ Concerto and
interspersed them with trumpet passages based on the
musical letters found in the name Aldeburgh.
I have been extremely fortunate to have had the support
of Jennifer Bate who has played my organ music widely
for many years—and now in this fine recording.
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DICKINSON, P.: Organ Works (Complete) (Bate)