- Words and Music by Peter Dickinson
Words and Music is a collection of writings from over half a century by the prolific English composer, scholar, and pianist Peter Dickinson. Born in 1934, he became immersed around 1960 in the New York contemporary music scene. A mixture of various English and American influences shaped his artistic and academic profile, and his contributions to the history of British and American music include several monographs and interview collections (listed on p. 2, n. 1): books on Lennox Berkeley (1988 and 2012), the ragtime composer and pianist Billy Mayerl (1999), Aaron Copland (2002), John Cage (2006), Lord (Gerald Hugh Tyrwhitt-Wilson) Berners (2008), and Samuel Barber (2010).
One may object to the bland and over-used title of this collection, which could have at least have included an appropriate subtitle (such as "Selected Writings, 1958–2014"). It is organized in eight sections: an introductory essay "Peter Dickinson at Eighty" by Stephen Banfield (first published in Tempo 69, no. 272 [April 2015], 53–59), followed by "Some Autobiography," "An American Apprenticeship" (containing New York concert reviews, 1958–1961), "Writings about Music" (with thirteen chapters, the most substantial section), "Literary Connections," "Peter Dickinson on his Own Music," "Interviews and a Memoir," and "Travels."
This organization, and particularly the lack of any discernable order among the Writings about Music, does not give the reader much help in tracing the manifold connections throughout the volume. Given its status as a "documentary compilation" (p. ix), one might expect some indication as to how the selection relates to Dickinson's scholarly and journalistic output as a whole, but a full bibliography is not included.
The range of music discussed largely reflects the affinities that shaped Dickinson's own eclectic compositional style. Unlike some of his favorites—Erik Satie, Lord Berners, Virgil Thompson, and Charles Ives, who can in various ways be characterized as eccentrics—the author himself seems to be a model of respectability, graciousness, reserve, modesty, and gentle humor. Too much reserve, maybe—the undated autobiographical sketch ("Three Musical Careers") almost reads like a curriculum vita, telling us much about performances and prizes but little of Dickinson's views of life and art.
Satie stands in the background of the opening piece of Writings about Music: [End Page 463] "Satie–Stein–Cummings–Thomson–Berners–Cage" (1982 and 1999). It traces "a slender but important thread in twentieth-century music" (p. 48), linking through biographical detail and critical observations these six figures who sought to undermine the rhetorical basis of musical and literary aesthetics. Satie comes to the foreground in "Two Satie Reviews," in which the early receptiveness of British and American musicians and critics to Satie's merits is proudly highlighted ("We were right about Erik Satie," p. 158). Those who were right include Berners—forever, it seems, to be known as "the English Satie," but discussed here as "a British Avant-Gardist" (1983; p. 85) and compared with contemporaries including Cyril Scott and Frank Bridge.
If Satie, because of his parodist attitudes and borrowings from popular music, may be cited as a strong influence in the development of Dickinson's own artistic persona, an equally important model is Charles Ives, because of his use of musical objets trouvés (or rather objets souvenus) in the creation of complex, multilayered soundscapes. Ives is discussed in "Charles Ives and Aaron Copland" (1989), originally a book chapter, and "Two Ives Reviews" (2009 and 2011). As the author admits, "It is becoming extremely difficult to find anything new to say about Charles Ives" (p. 147). The book chapter seems somewhat outdated, with its cautious introductory character that is out of place in an essay collection (the same may be said of "The American Concerto," 1988), as it fails to do justice to the very complex and problematic natures of Ives's personality, aesthetics, and oeuvre. While Dickinson recognizes "the extraordinary visionary intensity of his finest scores, products of a deeply spiritual...