SIR GEORGE DYSON: HIS LIFE AND MUSIC
Paul Spicer · The Boydell Press 450 pp. H/B 978-1-84383-903-3 £45.00
Every now and then one comes across an unexpected and pleasant surprise in book form. At first glance this is yet another musical biography, but within lies a compelling read. Paul Spicer’s fluent narrative style almost makes Dyson’s life story into a novel, where you cannot put it down because you want to read what happens next.
Conceived over many years and with invaluable help from Dyson’s family, he transports the reader back to the early 20th century and holds you in that era by using contemporary letters and reports. Especially poignant are the WWI letters; I guess that few CMQ readers will know that George Dyson wrote the definitive WWI guide to using hand grenades. Don’t let the musical examples make you think that these early chapters are full of academic musical analysis. They are extracted from concert programmes, because most of Dyson’s early music was lost and these themes are some of the only clues about his early compositions. Later chapters do contain some musical analysis and the book contains all that one would expect in a composer biography, such as work lists, discography and photographs.
Dyson was an extraordinarily intelligent and perceptive man with an analytical mind and financial acumen which made him a brilliant administrator, especially in his years as Director of the Royal College of Music. Thought by some to be a cold fish, Paul Spicer reveals that there was a great deal more to this man and also that his music is worth exploring. The story of Dyson allowing guitarist Julian Bream into the RCM (where there was no guitar tuition) without fee or exam is one of many stories which show his compassion for talented students.
A name known to few now, except perhaps church musicians, the flyleaf claims that ‘Dyson touched almost every sphere of musical life in Britain and helped to change the face of music performance education in this country.’ In terms of the latter, surely we need another Dyson now. Do read this marvellous book.
MUSIC, MODERNITY AND GOD: ESSAYS IN LISTENING
Jeremy Begbie · Oxford 261pp. H/B 978-0-19-929244-8 £35.00
‘Modernity’ here refers not to what music historians call ‘modernism’ at the start of the 20th century, but rather to the changes in attitude from ‘pre-modern’ to ‘modern’ occasioned by the Renaissance and Reformation. The book is written primarily for people interested in theology, to ask them to take music into account when considering theological ideas. But it also works the other way round and invites church musicians to think about the ways in which music and theology intertwine.
After an opening introduction, ‘Listening to Music’, come chapters on ‘Calvin and Music’ (including a comparison of the attitudes towards music of Calvin and Luther), ‘Bach, modernity and God’ (including an examination of John Butt’s Dialogue with Modernity discussing Bach’s Matthew and John Passions), ‘Rameau, Rousseau, and Natural Theology’ exploring the dispute between composer Rameau and philosopher Rousseau, and ‘Early German Romanticism’, taking as its starting point E.T.A. Hoffmann’s glorification of Beethoven’s instrumental music. The views of writers such as Nicholas Cook, Daniel Chua and Andrew Bowie are presented and studied in some detail.
Begbie quotes Daniel Barenboim writing of Edward Said, ‘Edward … understood the fact that every musical masterpiece is, as it were, a conception of the world. And the difficulty lies in the fact that this conception of the world cannot be described in words – because were it possible to describe it in words, the music would be unnecessary. But he recognizes that the fact that it is indescribable doesn’t mean it has no meaning.’ This welcome book helps us to understand how a piece of music can have a power and a meaning of its own that transcends any accompanying text or programme and that engages not just with the world but with God.