Biography All Music Guide
All Music Guide:
A post-Romantic composer standing somewhere between Ralph Vaughan Williams and Herbert Howells, Sir George Dyson's music achieved its greatest popularity in England during the 1930s and 1940s with the choral pieces In Honor of the City, The Canterbury Pilgrims and Nebuchadnezzar. His work faded from view after the 1940s, but some 40 years after that, has been rediscovered by a new generation of listeners and performers. Dyson's music is bold, optimistic, melodic, and effervescent, with a rich melodic content that recalls the work of Vaughan Williams, Herbert Howells, and Sir Arthur Bliss. His inspiration derived not from the folk material associated with Vaughan Williams, but from the mainstream aspects of the latter's work, as well as traditions extending back from Elgar and Richard Strauss to Mendelssohn.
Dyson was educated at the Royal College of Music as a student of organ and composition, and after graduation in 1900, he toured Italy and Germany as the recipient of a Mendelssohn scholarship. He began his teaching career after returning to England, and after service in World War I was appointed to the faculty of the Royal College of Music. In 1924, he wrote a major text about contemporary composition entitled The New Music. That same year, he was appointed the head of the music department at Winchester College, and began conducting and organizing numerous competitive choral festivals. It was during the second half of the decade that he began writing the choral works that would make him famous, starting with In Honor of the City. Throughout the 1930s, his new works were happily received by the public and performers alike, and as late as 1939, with the premiere of the first half of his oratorio Quo Vadis, Dyson was an important figure in England's musical landscape. By 1949, when the second half of Quo Vadis was heard, this had all changed. He'd begun broadening the focus of his work into instrumental music in the 1940s, but those pieces, including a symphony and a violin concerto, weren't received with anything like the enthusiasm of his earlier choral pieces. Even in his sixties and seventies, amid experiments with genres new to him, Dyson wrote music displaying an unabashedly youthful spirit.
Dyson never had a serious following outside of England, and as with many post-Romantic musical figures, his work fell out of favor even there with the scholars and musical intellectuals of the 1950s, who became wedded to atonalism. He was almost entirely forgotten by the 1960s. At the time of his death in 1964, at the age of 91, some four years had transpired without a London performance of even his best-known work, The Canterbury Pilgrims.
The late music scholar Christopher Palmer discovered Dyson's work during the 1980s and came to champion its performance, which led to a revival of interest in his music in England. This, in turn, led to the first recordings of his music, conducted by Richard Hickox for the Chandos label.