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A ‘new’ Sonata by George Dyson

The Cello Sonata by Sir George Dyson (1883–1964) is the most substantial of the composer’s earliest surviving works. Indeed, within his small yet distinguished output, it merits recognition both as a significant instrumental score in its own right, and as precursor of a corpus of scores expertly written for solo or ensemble strings: the Three Rhapsodies for string quartet (1920), the Prelude, Fantasy and Chaconne for cello and small orchestra (1936), the Violin Concerto (1942), and two concertante essays, the Concerto da Camera and the Concerto da Chiesa (both 1949). Dyson, who was himself a very capable pianist and organist, premiered the sonata with fellow collegian Arthur Trew on 11 March 1904 at a Royal College of Music chamber concert, in his last term as a student there. In June of the same year he was awarded the coveted Mendelssohn Scholarship, enabling him to study in Italy and Germany for the next four years. With a piano trio and setting of Thomas Hood’s Faithless Nelly Gray for chorus and orchestra, both now lost, the sonata was among the pieces submitted for the award. Its astonishing confidence must surely have impressed the judges, one of whom, the singer, pianist and composer William Shakespeare, described the candidate as being ‘of very great ability’.

Though Dyson was a gifted student, his great talent was as much the fruit of his early experience of music-making at the local Baptist church of his birthplace, Halifax, Yorkshire, and of his assiduous self-discipline and ambition. At the age of only sixteen, he became a Fellow of the Royal College of Organists. Enlisting in 1914 and serving with the Royal Fusiliers in the First World War until invalided out with shellshock in 1916, he seems to have internalised his ordeal in the trenches, like many another combatant who survived the fighting. Even so, he used his time in uniform productively, writing the standard infantry manual on the use of the hand grenade. After the war, he taught in a number of distinguished public schools before becoming Director of Music at Winchester College in 1924, whose city became his spiritual home. By the time he was appointed Director of the Royal College of Music in 1938, a string of notable cantatas and oratorios, In Honour of the City (1928), St Paul’s Voyage to Melita (1933), The Blacksmiths (1934), Nebuchadnezzar (1935) and above all the outstanding and widely performed Canterbury Pilgrims (1931), had confirmed his position as a figurehead of his profession. With the later Quo Vadis (1949) and Agincourt (1956), these works held an enduring place in the affections of singers and choral societies, with a passion that is rekindled whenever dedicated performers encounter afresh his remarkable contribution to the British choral tradition.

Like the first movement of Rachmaninov’s Cello Sonata Opus 19, which was published in 1902 by Gutheil and received its British premiere in January 1904, that of Dyson’s essay draws greatly on the interval of a rising second for its thematic substance, and begins with the cello unaccompanied. Nonetheless, dating of the autograph manuscript would seem to preclude borrowing or assimilation by the younger composer. Moreover, even if he were already familiar with the Russian’s score, the most striking feature of his own sonata is the lack of discernible influence from other predecessors, whether the sonata of Grieg, the two sonatas of Dyson’s teacher Stanford, or the two by Brahms.

Evident throughout, however, is Dyson’s appealing and characteristic strain of melody and harmony, both recognisably English and distinctly personal. It infuses the first movement, which from its opening paragraph loses no time in presenting its themes in new lights and tonalities, within a lyrical sonata structure. Additionally, a pleasing rhythmic ambiguity animates the central, intermezzo-like scherzo, exploiting the alternation of cello pizzicato and cantabile phrases, with pulsing, wide-ranging piano accompaniments, before the music closes in a mysteriously minor-mode recollection of the sonata’s initial idea. Some of the music here also foreshadows Dyson’s mastery of the instrumental miniature, as in his pedagogical works for violin, for cello and for piano, and above all in the delightful numbers of the Woodland Suite and Children’s Suite, both dating from the early 1920s.

Though terse by comparison, the sonata’s finale is likewise a parade of exuberant musical thoughts, shared equally between the players, and fashioned into a free rondo form as further proof of the composer’s ‘great ability’ both in terms of vivid invention and command of material. The time for reflection having passed, the music moves without hesitation or doubt (but with a fleeting harmonic allusion to the climax of the scherzo), to its affirmative conclusion. It exudes the confidence not only of a young composer assured of his artistry, but also of an Edwardian age as yet undarkened by forebodings of a nightmare European conflagration. Unlike his contemporaries Butterworth, Farrar and Gurney, Dyson himself returned from that conflict to follow an upward path and a full creative life, meanwhile forgetting this early work, which only now finds its rightful place both in the composer’s oeuvre, and as a welcome addition to the repertoire of romantic British cello music.

The publisher thanks the Sir George Dyson Trust for their generous support with this publication.

© Copyright 2021 Stainer & Bell Ltd

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