12 February 2019

Dysonian Ethics

My good friend Peter Almond was so smitten by a recording he had come across of George Dyson’s Choral Symphony that he sent me not one, but two copies (thanks to Amazon, whose respect for the environment is equalled only by their respect for the tax laws in the various territories in which it operates, and who sent me two copies in two different and extravagant packages which travelled separately from an address less than 10 kms from my home in Scotland to Singapore).  I almost joined Peter in my admiration of the Dyson Symphony, but found it a little uneven with many passages of sublime beauty and power countered by one or two rather weak and insipid gestures where, one suspects, a need to set the text overcame the seam of musical invention. 

But then you can’t register any surprise at that, since the work was written as a graduation exercise at Oxford University in 1917 and was never intended either for performance or publication.  Indeed, it was a Dyson enthusiast, preparing a biography of the composer, who unearthed the manuscript in the Bodleian Library and, seemingly dribbling at the mouth with excitement, prepared it for posthumous publication.

Should he have done so?  Is it fair to put up to public scrutiny a work which, it would seem, was merely prepared as an academic exercise and never expected to be used to assess the quality of a composer’s work over half-a-century after his death? Dyson went on to become a significant figure in British choral music, and in my days as a choral conductor I frequently programmed his music, knowing that choirs would love singing it and audiences would enjoy hearing it.  I reckoned he was one of the great unsung heroes of British music who, along with Stanford, Parry and Bax, deserved then, and deserves even moreso today, recognition on the international front.  But does that mean that every single note he ever committed to paper is worth preserving and, if necessary, unearthing?

Surely there is no such thing as a composer who has written something and not regretted it?  How often do we hear of composers substantially revising works for publication after having heard them in performance?  Yet Dyson’s Choral Symphony was neither performed nor published, and so the composer never had the luxury of revising it and putting it into a state whereby he would feel it could be passed down to posterity to his professional advantage.  From my point of view, the world is better for having Dyson’s Choral Symphony in the public domain, especially given this outstanding recorded performance from David Hill, the Bach Choir, and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra.  But while I am prepared to overlook the obvious weaknesses in the score, presumably resulting from the extreme inexperience of the composer as well as from his inability to have heard it performed live, others are not.  I read reviews from those who do highlight its weaknesses and use them as a stick to beat Dyson’s reputation into the ground. Andrew Mellor in Gramophone writes of its “dullness and impressionability” and its “parochial rum-ti-tum”, and the danger is that those to whom the name George Dyson is an unknown quantity will read this and assume Dyson is a third rate composer.  Mellor is not wrong; it is just that he is forced into a position where some may read his justifiable criticism of an immature work as an ultimate assessment of an entire compositional output.   

So we have an ethical issue here, which extends to much of the repertory musicians now regard as their own property.  Mahler’s 10th Symphony (indeed, we could also suggest the Ninth), Mozart’s Requiem, symphonies by Bruckner, Elgar, Schubert, concertos by Bach, the list goes on and on.  All these would be lost to us if we insisted on performing works which existed only in a format which the composer decided was finished and complete.  There is a strong case for taking unfinished works by established composers and getting some scholarly authority to turn them into performance-ready artwork.  But should we do that with the juvenilia of a composer whose maturity produced well-rounded works by which the world can more fairly assess him?  I think most student composers would be horrified to imagine that exercises submitted to their professors might one day be wheeled out by over-enthusiastic researchers intent on laying bare their every musical utterance to the world at large.  Is it right to make an exception of Dyson just because his music has recently run out of copyright protection?

That said, I would strongly urge anyone to listen Dyson’s Choral Symphony.  I’d far rather you called me a hypocrite, than missed out on the opportunity to hear a wonderful, if not perfectly-formed, musical work.

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