George Dyson: Choral Symphony / St Paul’s Voyage to Melita

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This enjoyable CD is made remarkable because it was written by Dyson as part of his DMus of Oxford, conferred in 1917. The work was unknown before researcher Paul Spicer found it in the Bodleian Library at Oxford.

Born into a working-class family in Halifax, Dyson became one of the most important musicians and composers of his day. He was the son of John William Dyson, a blacksmith, and his wife, Alice, a weaver, and rose to become (in 1938) director of the RCM. Along the way he fought in WWI with the Royal Fusiliers and wrote a training pamphlet on grenade warfare, for which he became well known. In 1916, incapacitated by shell-shock, he was invalided back to England. An interesting life.

According to Wikipedia, Dyson said of himself as a composer: “My reputation is that of a good technician…not markedly original. I am familiar with modern idioms, but they are outside the vocabulary of what I want to say.”

That appears to mean he never really found his own sound but merely repeated what others were doing, a move that never did Oasis any harm. That is this programme’s strength, as its lack of any drive to be original means it is easy to listen to, despite being an ambitious choral symphony. It also sounds modern, and before checking we thought he was a modern writer, probably American, as it sounds so fresh.

The main piece, the choral symphony, is 40 minutes long and divided more or less equally into four movements.

The sleeve notes say the symphony should be widely performed as an alternative to the other great maritime work of the period, Vaughan Williams’ A Sea Symphony.

The opening is gentle orchestral music; the sea is calm and it’s early morning. The words are based on Psalm 107, and the choir comes in towards the end of the first movement, never over-powering and possibly a venture an amateur could attempt.

The sleeve notes say he chose the psalm because of its variety of dramatic images and its suitability for breaking down into a four-movement format. While it is not particularly technical, it’s also not flat and has a few stirring moments.

The final movement begins as a seascape taking its cue from the words: “They that go down to the sea in ships, and occupy their business in great waters; these men see the works of the Lord, and his wonders in the deep.”

Dyson is clearly following Elgar and Vaughan Williams, and the nautical feel continues with St Paul’s Voyage to Melita, composed — appropriately enough given that event’s links with his famous predecessors — for the Three Choirs Festival in 1933, performed in Hereford. This time he chose the dramatic story from chapter 27 of the Acts Of The Apostles, telling of St Paul’s journey to Rome up to the point of his shipwreck on the island of Malta (Melita).

The recording features the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra and Elizabeth Watts, (soprano), Caitlin Hulcup (mezzo-soprano), Joshua Ellicott (tenor) and Roderick Williams (baritone) as well as The Bach Choir, but it never feels like either a heavy orchestral or choral piece. Dyson arranges complex music with a light touch.

Out on Naxos 8573770.

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