PETER DICKINSON AND AMERICAN MUSIC

Peter Dickinson, the British composer, writer, pianist and Emeritus Professor of the Universities of Keele and London was eighty on 15 November 2014. There have been a number of tributes in the form of concerts, articles, interviews, broadcasts and new recordings but there is little general awareness in the US today of his long history of dedication to American music. His family enjoyed connections with the US and his father, the internationally known contact lens specialist Frank Dickinson, received awards and honorary degrees there. In 1958-59 Peter Dickinson was awarded a Rotary Foundation Fellowship which enabled him to become a graduate student in composition at the Juilliard School of Music, where he studied with Bernard Wagenaar.

The following year he worked as a pianist (with a spell on the staff of the New York City Ballet playing for Balanchine to choreograph), church organist, and critic (Musical Courier, the Musical Times). In 1960-61 he was a lecturer at Fairleigh Dickinson University, New Jersey, and Organist of Hillside Presbyterian Church, Orange.

During that three-year period Dickinson wrote his first article about American Music – ‘Education at the Juilliard School of Music’, for the Musical Times (May, 1960) with his first report the following month on ‘The Avant-garde in New York’. [Reprinted in Peter Dickinson: Words and Music, 2016] His violin and piano recital with Dinos Constantinides (then a violinist) at what was then Carnegie Recital Hall (23 March 1961) included Copland’s Sonata and the premiere of Dickinson's own Sonata and he was featured with two works in the Composers Forum Concerts. The series of recitals he put on at the Rutherford campus of Fairleigh Dickinson included many works by American composers.

On returning to England in 1961, where he was teaching in London, Dickinson kept in touch with American composers he had met in New York. In 1965 he wrote the earliest full-length study of John Cage for any British periodical (Music & Musicians, February 1965); in 1966 he put on the first all-Feldman concert in England; and he started a long series of illustrated BBC broadcast talks and reviews, many on American composers he had met such as Cowell, Cage, Copland, Carter and Thomson. In the later 1960s Dickinson began a long partnership with his sister, mezzo-soprano Meriel Dickinson, and they regularly gave recitals based on American composers.

In 1974 Dickinson was appointed to the first Chair of Music at Keele University in Staffordshire. Since this was a new department he had the opportunity to shape its course in a unique way. As a result of his experiences in New York he set up a Center for American Music program which he ran for ten years. (The New Grove Dictionary of American Music contains an entry on it.) This was a pioneering venture at a time when American music was far from established as a university discipline in the US. Keele ran an MA in American Music and there were three international conferences on aspects of American Music. The last of these was in 1983 in conjunction with the Society for American Music (then called the Sonneck Society), supported by the US Embassy and the BBC, which attracted some 80 visitors from the US. Arising from this conference Dickinson co-edited a special issue of American Music (Vol. IV, No 1, Spring 1986).

Many American composers and performers visited Keele during Dickinson’s regime including Aaron Copland, Elliott Carter, George Crumb, Steve Reich, Philip Glass, Ben Johnston and Elliott Schwartz. The faculty included Stephen Banfield and, as Visiting Fulbright-Hays Professors in succession, William Brooks, Cecil Lytle, Dwight Peltzer and Karl Kroeger.

The new Music Department opened in 1974, the centenary year of Charles Ives. Dickinson was invited to the Charles Ives Festival Centennial Conference in New York and New Haven (his contributions are in An Ives Celebration, edited by H. Wiley Hitchcock and Vivian Perlis, University of Illinois Press, 1977). At the same period Dickinson had a leading role in the BBC2 TV documentary for the Ives centenary – he started the Charles Ives Choir at Keele, which he directed, especially to perform some of the larger Ives songs. They appeared in the TV program and so did Meriel Dickinson.

Throughout this period the Dickinsons were active in recitals and broadcasts throughout the UK but also in Holland, Denmark, Belgium, Germany, Austria and Italy. Their programs of American music focused on the bicentennial year of 1976 but from before then until the early 1990s they gave hundreds of recitals and broadcasts featuring their American repertoire. Their recording American Anthology was released on LP two years later [CD reissue on Heritage as American Song HTGCD 231, 2011]. This included first recordings of songs by Carter, Thomson and Cage and of Copland’s Night Thoughts for piano. The release was exceptionally well received by the composers and the press, including the New York Times (Allen Hughes, ‘Anglicized American Song’, 22 June 1979). On receiving the LP Carter wrote on 22 December 1978:

‘Thankyou very much for the lovely record that you both made. I have enjoyed it very much – what beautiful singing and playing – I used it for a birthday program over the air and they were very impressed.’

William Schuman wrote on 15 October 1981:
‘Thank you so much for sending me your excellent recording. I have listened to the performances with the greatest pleasure. Your playing is absolutely top-flight, and your sister’s command of the Gershwin style, let alone all the others, is superb.’

After Dickinson left Keele in 1984 the Department was taken over by David Nicholls, the leading British American music specialist of the next generation, who was able to build on earlier foundations.

Returning to London, Dickinson continued recitals and broadcasts with his sister and made regular visits to the US. Some of his lectures and lecture-recitals there were on British music, including his own, but more frequently American music. Institutions he was invited to visit have included: City University of New York; NYU; Vassar; University of Kansas; Louisiana State, Baton Rouge; Northeastern; Harvard; Juilliard; Bowdoin; The Paterson College, New Jersey; Maine College of Art; Michigan State; Phillips Collection, Washington; Berkeley; Wesleyan; Dartmouth; and Washington University, St Louis (the prestigious T. S. Eliot Lecture 25 October 2001: ‘From St Louis to Europe: the International Influence of Scott Joplin’s Ragtime Rhythms’).

Important book chapters from this decade include: ‘The American Concerto’ in A Companion to the Concerto, ed. Robert Layton (Helms, 1988, 305-25; OUP, 1996); ‘Charles Ives and Aaron Copland’ in The Heritage of Music (OUP, 1989, 235-45) [both included in Peter Dickinson:Words and Music, Woodbridge 2016]; many entries on American composers in The Viking Opera Guide, ed. Amanda Holden (Penguin Books, 1993). For almost thirty years Dickinson was an influential critic on Gramophone magazine where he  covered hundreds of American music releases. He has also written regularly about American music for the Musical Times, Music and Letters, Musical Opinion, and in many reviews, occasional articles and dictionary entries. He has written major obituaries for the London daily newspaper The Independent, including Copland, Bernstein, Thomson, Cage, Menotti, Babbitt and many lesser-known figures.

In the 1990s Dickinson held the Chair of Music at Goldsmiths, University of London, where he was responsible for a large department but when he left in 1997 he became Head of Music at the Institute of United States Studies, where he set up the MA course component in American Music and presented a series of lectures and recitals including major jazz events until 2004.

In the last decade Dickinson has drawn on his extensive archives and contact with composers to produce books on American subjects:

Copland Connotations: Studies and Interviews, edited by Dickinson (Boydell & Brewer/University of Rochester Press, 2002) including his own chapter ‘Copland’s Earlier British Connections’; an Open Forum at the Copland Centenary Conference Dickinson put on in 2000; and interviews with Copland himself. The book has a foreword by the distinguished American music historian H. Wiley Hitchcock who said:
’Professor Dickinson has been an indefatigable author of publications on American composers and their works and an enthusiastic inciter of younger scholars and performers. In fact, he must be regarded as a crucial figure in the rise of American music, over the past quarter-century, to musicological status as an appropriate field for scholarly attention on its own account – not just as a country cousin of European music.’

Neil Lerner in Music and Letters (May 2004, 332-5):
’Peter Dickinson’s collection is an important contribution not just to Copland studies, in which it will immediately become a central source, but to the study and understanding of twentieth-century US music and its reception’.

Copland Connotations was launched in 2002 at the Institute of United States Studies, University of London, and at Steinway Hall, New York, as part of the Copland House program.

Dickinson’s next monograph was:
CageTalk: Dialogues with and about John Cage (University of Rochester Press/Boydell & Brewer, 2006; paperback edition with new Foreword, 2014).
With a long introduction by Dickinson, this book is based mainly on a series of interviews he conducted for a BBC Radio 3 documentary interviewing Cage, friends and colleagues in 1987. Cited as ForeWord Magazine Book of the Year: Bronze Award 2006 Music.

Kenneth Silverman, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning study of Cotton Mather and then engaged on his major biography of Cage, emailed on 5 September 2006:
‘Laura Kuhn (Director of the John Cage Trust) gave me a copy of CageTalk. I can’t think of anyone else who has done anything about Cage that is more scrupulous and informative. The book is of course of great help to me. That aside, I send you many mighty congratulations on your superlative work, and hopes for its deserved great success.’

Email from H. Wiley Hitchcock, 12 December 2006:
‘It is by all means the very best book of its kind I've ever looked through... So often, these anthologies are just thrown together and published with hardly any annotations or linkage between the separate components, and no sense of the compiler's serious intentions, if any. Not you, and not this book! I hope you get the kind of thoughtful plaudits by reviewers that your book not only invites but demands…’

Stephen Brown in The Times Literary Supplement, 8 December 2006, p28
'Dickinson's book is the ideal introduction to Cage. Floating along the top of each page are reminiscences, backstage gossip and the entertaining but revealing anecdotes of bright and charming people. Underneath runs a dense undercurrent of footnotes, which label, categorize and pin down every fact, publication and event.'

On 29 March 2008 Dickinson gave the Eccles Center keynote lecture, ‘John Cage was all the Rage’, at the annual conference of the British Association for American Studies in Edinburgh and repeated it at the British Library in London on 30 March 2009. The lecture was published by the British Library. In February 2009 Dickinson was invited to participate in the Ives Vocal Marathon at Wesleyan University.

His Samuel Barber Remembered: a Centenary Tribute includes a series historic interviews conducted for a BBC Radio 3 documentary made in 1981. This was published by Rochester University Press in March 2010. Barbara Heyman: ‘As a biographer I find Peter Dickinson’s beautifully annotated book an indispensable resource.’ Vivian Perlis: ‘Peter Dickinson applies his considerable talents to create a scholarly and absorbing portrait of Barber, as he has done previously with Copland and Cage.’

Dickinson’s British honors have included an Honorary Doctorate from the University of Keele and an Honorary Fellowship of Trinity College of Music, both in 1999. There are four CDs of his music on the American record label Albany and three more came out on Naxos between 2009 and 2011. There are also seven CDs on Heritage of his music or performances with various artists, followed by the historic recording of the acclaimed 1967 production in Washington Cathedral of his musical drama, with Thomas Blackburn,The JudasTree. His three concertos were released on Heritage in November 2014: a further CD of seven orchestral works followed in 2016. Dickinon's book Words and Music is an anthology of over fifty years of his writings with a great deal about American music.

© 2008-17 Peter Dickinson

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