The Trust has just sponsored the first recording of the Choral Symphony (alongside Dyson’s St. Paul’s Voyage to Melita) with The Bach Choir and Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, under David Hill.
In this blog, Dr Jonathan Clinch introduces the symphony.
Although written in 1910, Dyson’s Choral Symphony wasn’t performed during his lifetime and was unearthed in Oxford’s Bodleian Library by Paul Spicer during the research for his 2014 biography of the composer. In March 2014, The Sir George Dyson Trust supported its premiere in St John’s Smith Square under conductor Ronald Corp.
Born in Halifax in 1883, an open scholarship enabled Dyson to move to the Royal College of Music from 1900, studying with Charles Stanford. A Mendelssohn Scholarship (1904) allowed him to travel to Italy and Germany, and on his return to England Sir Hubert Parry help him to secure his first job as Director of Music at the Royal Naval College, Osborne on the Isle of Wight. Dyson’s duties weren’t very onerous and allowed time for him to submit for the external degrees of Bachelor of Music (1909) and Doctor of Music (1917) of Oxford University. Despite completing the BMus degree in 1909, regulations prevented Dyson from completing the next degree unto at least five years had passed. He got straight onto writing the required DMus submission of a cantata for full orchestra and picked verses of Psalm 107. In October 1917, ‘Psalm CVII (107) Symphony (for solo, chorus and orchestra)’ was submitted and the degree conferred upon him.
Set in 4 movements, the early Symphony demonstrates a remarkably fluent command of the large scale form in a rich late Romantic idiom, showing a wide range of influences from Brahms, Elgar and Parry, to more overt models of English Wagnerism. The first movement starts with a lengthy orchestral overture around E minor, which builds through the ‘Allegro energico’, but which dies down unexpectedly before the pianissimo chorus entry in E major, whispering ‘O Give Thanks unto the Lord’. Although the music gets more animated as the chorus tell of being delivered ‘from the hand of the enemy’, the whole movement is understated and centres on the delicate and warm sound of that initial chorus entry.
By contrast the second movement – Allegro agitato – moves to a remoter C minor, focusing on a very arresting descending chromatic motif. There is remarkable similarity here between the initial imitative entries – ‘They went astray in the wilderness, out of the way’ – and the fugue subject of Julius Reubke’s (a young pupil of Franz Liszt) Sonata on the 94th Psalm which deals with vengeance: destroying the ungodly in their wickedness. Nevertheless, Dyson’s setting, with its long pedal notes and driving compound rhythms is remarkably original. The tension reaches a climax as ‘they cried unto the Lord in their trouble’, where an angry fortissimo diminished seventh resolves into a beautiful C major. This sudden molto tranquillo, with its magical change of mode, gives this aural sense of transcendence before the chorus delicately re-enter: ‘and he delivered them from their distress’. A further orchestral interlude transforms the troubled opening motif into the C major of redemption, a sentiment which is then reinforced by the entry of the soprano soloist: ‘O that men would therefore praise the Lord’. The formal handling here and rich diatonic dissonance shows English Wagnerism at its very best.
The third movement – Largo – contrasts this initially with much thinner textures, beginning with a single unison string line, with the chorus entering unaccompanied 21 bars later – ‘Such as sit in darkness and in the shadow of death’, after which the orchestra take up a solemn funeral march. Once again this leads the faithful to cry ‘unto the Lord in their trouble’, whereupon the same transformational modal change from A minor to major (still pianissimo) brings deliverance: ‘He derived them out of their distress’. This section is unaccompanied, but when the orchestra re-enter it is with the transformed funeral march figure, now triumphantly in the tonic major, with a descending bass – a ceremonial procession which recalls the great anthems of Parry and adds to the overall grandeur with a quartet of soloists augmenting the full chorus.
The opening section of the final movement conjures up a dramatic stormy seascape: ‘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’. The influence of Felix Mendelssohn is not far away (not just of oratorios such as Elijah, but sea-related overtures such as Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage, and The Hebrides), but several of Dyson’s modal harmonies mark this out as distinctly English, and the voice of his teacher, Stanford (whose own Songs of the Fleet are contemporary to this), is never far away. The turbulent waters (in E minor) are calmed by an orchestra interlude taking us to the major: once again the faithful are delivered as the soprano soloist declares: ‘For he maketh the storm to cease’, after which the chorus continue the hymn of praise – ‘O that men would therefore praise the Lord’, building with double chorus (most likely to satisfy the examination requirement for 8 part counterpoint). The grandiose rhetoric reaches its apotheosis with the re-entry of the soprano soloist, soaring above the massed forces – ‘Whoso is wise will ponder these things’, but the dynamics here are mostly quiet and match the understated chorus entry in the first movement. Dyson’s writing throughout shows this mastery of being able to command vast forces in a subtle and understated expressive manner. The most direct comparison is likely to be with that other great choral symphony premiered in 1910, Vaughan Williams’ Sea Symphony. Although it’s around half the length of the Vaughan Williams, Dyson’s Symphony is arguably more symphonic in a formal sense and certainly demonstrates that the young composer had a formidable technique, which of course would come to full maturity in later works such as the Symphony in G (1937) and the Violin Concerto in E flat (1941).
Copyright 2017, Dr Jonathan Clinch
Photo credit: Lewis Foreman
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