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ClassicsOnline Home » DICKINSON, P.: Mass of the Apocalypse / Larkin's Jazz / 5 Forgeries / 5 Early Pieces (Dickinson, Flinders, Nash Ensemble, Bolton, Friend)
Peter Dickinson weaves together musical styles popular and classical, past and present, using a technique of ‘style modulation’. In his Mass of the Apocalypse the Book of Revelations’ visions of a new heaven and earth interact with the liturgical text. The music of Sidney Bechet and Bix Beiderbecke played at Philip Larkin’s memorial service suggested the means for him to set the words of the great British poet, himself a jazz critic. His Five Forgeries spoof the styles of famous composers, while the other works showcase different aspects of his many-sided talent. Jennifer Bate’s recording of Dickinson’s complete solo organ works is available on Naxos 8.572169.
Peter Dickinson (b. 1934)
Lullaby from ‘The Unicorns’ • Mass of the Apocalypse • Larkin’s Jazz
Five Forgeries • Five Early Pieces for Piano • Air • Metamorphosis
The Lullaby from ‘The Unicorns’ arose from an opera libretto I commissioned from John Heath-Stubbs (1918–2006) in the late 1960s. In his story two unicorns are
discovered in a remote part of Africa. Both the East and West want to obtain specimens for research so they send out rival expeditions. The Western technique is to lure the unicorn with a young girl singing a lullaby. Both East and West manage to capture a unicorn each but the mythical animals, who have become attached to each other, escape together in the end.
I never completed the opera—other things got commissioned first—but I made a six-movement suite from it called The Unicorns for Solna Brass of Sweden. There are
three songs and three band numbers and the first performance was given with Elisabeth Söderström and Solna Brass under Lars-Gunnar Björklund at Ekensbergskyrkan, Solna, Sweden on 31 October 1982. This version was recorded (Albany TROY 760) and my arrangement of the three songs for voice and piano was recorded by Marilyn Hill Smith with me (Albany TROY365). The career of the Lullaby continued with an arrangement for clarinet and piano, which I premiered with Jack Brymer aboard the Sea Princess in the Mediterranean on 29
September 1986. The oboe version was for Sarah Francis and this recording with Duke Dobing is the first performance with flute.
The Mass of the Apocalypse for four-part chorus, soprano and mezzo-soprano soloists, speaker, two percussionists and piano, was commissioned for the 300th anniversary of St James’s Church, Piccadilly, and given its premiere there on 15 July 1984 with Shirley Dixon and the performers here. On 31 July 1988 the Mass was given again with the Reverend Donald Reeves as speaker and recorded later that day. Reeves, to whom the work is dedicated, had the idea of linking a Mass to the apocalypse prefigured in the Book of Revelation: it seemed appropriate to the difficulties of living in the late twentieth century. I used the Authorised King James Version (1611) for those portions of the text spoken to a musical background but the more colloquial Alternative Service Book (1980) for the sung passages. The two texts interact so that the apocalyptic moment of revelation spoken at the start leads
to the sung imprecation of the Kyrie, accompanied by marimba and gongs. Visions of a new heaven and earth are imagined in the Sanctus and the Benedictus (linked
together) over a driving beat. The Agnus Dei quotes ‘The strife is o’er, the battle done’. The original hymn-tune was adapted from Palestrina, but I have changed the harmony and added a kind of blues soaring above. The Gloria celebrates the joy of creation over a regular beat. The Ite Missa est—vocalise without text, accompanied with marimba and tam-tam—returns to the sombre mood of the Kyrie in a timeless perpetual prayer that fades into silence.
Larkin’s Jazz for speaker/baritone, flute (doubling piccolo and alto flute), clarinet in Bb (doubling bass clarinet), soprano saxophone in Bb, trumpet in Bb, cello, piano and percussion was commissioned by Keele University and first performed in the chapel there on 5 February 1990. That premiere is the present recording.
My only meeting with Philip Larkin (1922–85) was at Hull University on 30 June 1981. (For a detailed account see The London Magazine August/September 2004 or About Larkin, Journal of the Philip Larkin Society, Spring 2005). We discussed musical setting of his poetry and corresponded. On 31 July he wrote: ‘I should be happy for you to set any of my poems (well, almost any)…but I am rather a heretic about such operations, in so far as I believe that a poem—or at least a good poem—contains everything it needs, including music, painting, vocalising and so on. To add these things afterwards is to my mind superfluous, and while not doing the poem any harm will not do it any good either.’ So I gave up any plans I had altogether. However, on 1 February 1986 I attended his memorial service at Westminster Abbey. It was an impressive occasion that included a jazz group playing Sidney Bechet’s ‘Blue Horizon’ and Bix Beiderbecke’s ‘Davenport Blues’. That cultural confrontation suggested to me how Larkin’s poems could be spoken to a minimal musical background with more elaborate commentaries on either side. I went through all the poems to find jazz references and finally chose recordings of Bechet’s ‘Blue Horizon’ (1944) and King Oliver’s ‘Riverside Blues’ (1923). I transcribed these tracks and, in one form or another, they gave me the material for the entire piece.
Then I chose the four poems. Larkin’s Jazz is laid out in eleven sections. Each poem has a prelude; then the poem itself is spoken to a minimal musical background; and that
is followed by an instrumental commentary. These purely instrumental sections involve the speaker/baritone as a singer but without words. The first poem, ‘Reasons for attendance’ from The Less Deceived (1955), provides ‘The trumpet’s voice, loud and authoritative’ as the poet watches the dance in progress through the window from outside. In the Prelude to ‘Reasons for Attendance’ the trumpet is offstage in the distance. In the commentary, after the poem, Bechet’s blues becomes a kind of popular song, first in clarinet and then alto saxophone. Then there are three poems from The Whitsun Weddings (1964). At the end of the poem ‘For Sidney Bechet’, spoken to a background of the alto flute, Larkin celebrates jazz as opposed to the serious music scene, which he describes as ‘long-haired grief and scored pity’. On either side of this, in the Prelude and Commentary, there are two snappy numbers for all the players. There’s a long Prelude to ‘Love Songs in Age’ where the players erupt into cadenzas leading to the sentimental tinge in the poem itself where an elderly widow finds the sheet music of some songs she used to play when she was young. As a background to the spoken poem, Bechet’s blues becomes a waltz played by the cello in harmonics. The baritone’s sung commentary sums up the regret and even anger in the poem as the succeeding relentless Prelude to ‘Reference back’ drives the message home. Finally, that poem mentions Oliver’s ‘Riverside Blues’ and concludes that ‘We are not suited to the long
perspectives open at each instance of our lives. They link us to our losses…’ The musical background is based on slowed-down reminiscences of both the Bechet and Oliver tunes simultaneously with the offstage soprano saxophone dying away in the distance.
The Five Forgeries for piano duet are simply party-pieces taking off aspects of the styles of the composers indicated. Poulenc, a catchy tune also arranged for flute and piano, is dedicated to Lennox Berkeley, who was a close friend of the French composer; Hindemith to my tutor at Cambridge, Philip Radcliffe; Stravinsky to the painter and later business consultant Harold Lewis, whose cover design is reproduced; Delius to my father Frank Dickinson, the contact lens pioneer, who loved his music; Bartók to Dinos Constantinides, the Greek-American violinist and later composer who was my chamber music partner in New York.
The Five Early Pieces for piano solo were all written in my last year as an undergraduate at Cambridge, where I was organ scholar of Queens’ College. For Part II of the
music degree there was a three-hour exam paper in composition and the two inventions were actually rehearsals done in that time at a sitting. The first Contemplation survives only because my first piano teacher, Miss Constance Haslam, kept a copy. The second one was also destroyed but I remembered most of it in 1993.
The Air for solo flute was written in New York, where I was a post-graduate student at the Juilliard School of Music. It is dedicated to Betty Mills who gave many performances from the early 1960s onwards. Metamorphosis uses a tune I wrote for an eight-note pipe in 1955. The transformation sequence from melody to cadenza, which is the basis of the piece, is taken from Translations for recorder, viola da gamba and harpsichord (1971) written for David Munrow, Oliver Brooks and Christopher Hogwood. The Air also has connections with the recorder since a version of it appears in Recorder Music (1973), for recorders and tape-playback, written for DavidMunrow and recorded by him (Testament SB2-1368).
© Peter Dickinson
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