Peter Dickinson (musician)

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Peter Dickinson (born 15 November 1934) is an English composer, musicologist, author, and pianist,[1] best known for his experimental musical compositions and writings on American music.


He was born in Lytham St Annes, Lancashire, and studied organ at Queens' College, Cambridge, where he was a student of Philip Radcliffe.[2] In 1958 he became a student at the Juilliard School in New York City, and studied with Bernard Wagenaar, and encountered the works of experimental composers such as Cowell, Cage, and Edgard Varèse. Returning to England in 1962, he established courses in improvisation and experimental music at the College of St. Mark and St. John, Chelsea. After a lectureship at Birmingham (1966–1970), he became the first professor of music at Keele University in 1974, where he created an important center for the study of American music. He held that position until 1984.[1] He served as chair of music at Goldsmiths College, University of London from 1991 to 1997, and in 1996 became a Fellow and head of music at the Institute of United States Studies in London.

In July 1964 he married Bridget Jane Tomkinson, and they have two sons.[3] As a pianist, he has often performed works by Charles Ives with his sister, mezzo-soprano Meriel Dickinson, reflecting his affinity for that composer. He has also accompanied several acclaimed instrumentalists, such as violinist Ralph Holmes and oboist Sarah Francis. He has also made several international lecture-recital tours.

In 1980 he became a founding member of the Association of Professional Composers and was named a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts a year later. He has also been a board member of Trinity College of Music since 1984 and a member of the Royal Society of Musicians since 1985.[4] He is also chair of the Bernarr Rainbow Trust, a charity set up in 1997 for the benefit of music education.[5]


His musical compositions include experimental and aleatoric elements, and are compared to works by Stravinsky, Ives and Satie.[2] Other influences include the music of John Cage,[6] as well as ragtime, blues, and jazz.[7] He layers both serious and popular musical styles together to create what he calls a style modulation.[7] The composer explained his interest in combining musical styles: "Ever since hearing live performances of Charles Ives in New York in the late 1950s and first meeting John Cage there, I have been interested in the effect of hearing different types of music simultaneously."[8] His layering is achieved in a different manner to William Bolcom's "aggressively parodic and deconstructive manner", using more of a "genuine warmth of enthusiasm for the material he is exploiting which suggests something closer to a homage.",[6]

His instrumental compositions are for a great variety of musical ensembles, from full orchestra to a single instrument, and there are many keyboard works. He has also composed many songs for solo voice and pieces for various choral ensembles. His modern works for historical instruments are notable. He has composed for better-known historical instruments such as recorder and harpsichord, as well as for less-familiar ones, such as the clavichord and baryton. In contrast to the use of these instruments, he has also added electronic sounds to some works.


As a prolific writer, he has often shown his varied interests in American music. He wrote a series of articles on improvisation in 1964, and more recently has discussed postmodernism, coining the term 'style modulation' to describe the weaving together of serious and popular or past and present music. The term can be applied to his own music, which adds a mix of ragtime, jazz, serial music, and even electronic playback to more traditional types of instrumental musical forms.

Musical compositions[edit]

Vocal music

Stage works

  • The Judas Tree (music theatre, T. Blackburn), actors, 2 T, chorus, brass, perc, str, 1965

Choral works

  • Jesus Christ is Risen [Born] Today, SATB, 1955
  • Mag and Nunc, unison chorus, organ, 1963
  • 2 Motets (Blackburn): John, Mark, ATB, 1963, rev. SATB, 1990
  • Christmas is Coming, SATB, 1964
  • 4 Poems (Gerard Manly Hopkins), Bar soloists, chorus, org, 1964
  • Mass, SATB, 1965
  • When I was a Sailor, chorus, 2 insts, perc, 1965
  • For the Nativity, SATB, 1966
  • Martin of Tours (Blackburn), T, Bar, chorus 2vv, chbr org, pf duet, 1966
  • 3 Complaints, unison chorus, insts, perc, 1966
  • The Dry Heart (A. Porter), SATB, 1967
  • Communion Service, 2 pt chorus, org, 1968
  • Outcry (W. Blake, J. Clare, T. Hardy), A, SATB, orch, 1968
  • Late Afternoon in November (Dickinson), 16 solo vv, 1975
  • A Mass of the Apocalypse, SATB, spkr, perc, pf, 1984
  • Tiananmen 1989, double SATB, tubular bells, 1990

Solo vocal

  • Four Songs (W. H. Auden), S, pf, 1956
  • A Dylan Thomas Cycle, Bar, pf, 1959
  • Let the Florid Music, T, pf, 1960
  • Three Comic Songs (W. H. Auden), T, pf, 1960, rev. 1972
  • An e. e. cummings cycle, Mez, pf, 1965
  • somewhere i have never travelled (W. H. Auden)Mez, pf, 1965
  • Elegy (Swinburne), Ct, vc, hpd, 1966
  • A Red, Red Rose (Burns), Mez, pf, 1967 [from Songs in Blue]
  • 4 Poems (A. Porter), Ct, hpd, 1967
  • Extravaganzas (G. Corso), Mez, pf, 1970
  • So We'll go no more A-Roving (Byron), Mez, pf, 1971 [in Songs in Blue];
  • Winter Afternoons (Emily Dickinson), 6 solo vv, db, 1971
  • Surrealist Landscape (Lord Berners), Ct/Mez, pf, tape
  • Lust (St. Augustine, Dickinson), 6 solo vv, 1974
  • A Memory of David Munrow (wordless), 2 Ct, 2 rec, va da gamba, hpd, 1977
  • Schubert in Blue (William Shakespeare), Mez, pf, 1977 [after Franz Schubert; in Songs in Blue]
  • Songs in Blue, med voice, pf, 1977
  • Reminiscences, Mez, sax, pf, 1978
  • The Unicorns (J. Heath-Stubbs), S, brass band, 1982
  • Stevie's Tunes (S. Smith), Mez, pf, 1984
  • Larkin's Jazz, spkr/Bar, fl + a fl, cl + b cl + E cl, s sax, tpt, vc, pf, perc, 1989
  • Summoned by Mother (J. Betjeman), Mez, hp, 1991
  • Three Carols, SSA, 1997

Instrumental works

Orchestral works

  • Vitalitas, 1959/1960[9]
  • Monologue, strings, 1959
  • Five Diversions, 1969
  • Satie Transformations (based on Trois Gnossiennes), 1970
  • Concerto for strings, percussion, and Electronic organ, 1971 [withdrawn]
  • Organ Concerto, 1971
  • A Birthday Surprise (Three variations on Happy Birthday to You), 1979
  • Piano Concerto, 1984
  • Violin Concerto, 1986
  • Jigsaws, chamber orchestra, 1988
  • Merseyside Echoes, 1988

Chamber and solo instrumental

  • Fantasy, cl, pf, 1956;
  • Threnody, vc, pf, 1956
  • String Quartet no. 1, 1958
  • Air, fl, 1959
  • Fantasia, vn, 1959
  • 3 Juilliard Dances, fl, cl, bn, tpt, trombones, perc, pf, vc, 1959
  • Sonata, vn, pf, 1961
  • Baroque Trio, fl, ob, hpd, 1962
  • 4 Duos, fl/ob, vc, 1962
  • Music for Oboe and Chamber Organ, 1962
  • Sonatina, solo bassoon, 1966
  • Fanfares and Elegies, 3 tpt, 3 trombones, org, 1967
  • Metamorphosis, fl, 1971
  • Translations, recorder, bass viol, harpsichord, 1971
  • Recorder Music, recorder, tape, 1973
  • String Quartet no.2, with tape/pf, 1975
  • Solo for Baryton, tape/b viol/baryton, 1976
  • Aria, ob, cl, bn, hn, 1977
  • Lullaby, ob/cl, pf, 1982
  • The Unicorns, brass band, 1984 [arr. of vocal work], 1982–1984
  • American Trio (Hymns, Rags and Blues), vn, cl, pf, 1985
  • London Rags, 2 tpt, hn, trombones, tuba, 1986
  • Auden Studies, ob, pf, 1988
  • Cellars Clough Duo, 2 guitars, 1988
  • 5 Explorations, guitar, 1989
  • Suffolk Variations, guitar, 1992
  • Swansongs, vc, pf, 1993
  • Celebration Trio, vn, cl, pf, 2009
  • Bach in Blue,vn, cl, pf, 2012
  • Three Early Pieces, arr. recorder, piano, 2012


  • A Cambridge Postlude, organ, 1953
  • Postlude on Adeste Fideles, organ, 1954
  • Toccata, organ, 1955
  • Vitalitas Variations, piano, 1957, orchestrated for ballet, 1959
  • Variations on a French Folk Tune, harpsichord, 1957
  • Meditation on Murder in the Cathedral, organ, 1958
  • Study in Pianissimo, organ, 1959[10]
  • Paraphrase 1, organ, 1967
  • Paraphrase 2, piano, 1967
  • Satie Transformations, piano, 1970
  • Suite for the Centenary of Lord Berners, clavichord, 1972
  • Conc. Rag, piano, 1973, rev. 1984
  • Piano Blues, 1973
  • Quartet Rag, piano, 1975
  • Blue Rose, piano, 1979
  • Hymn-Tune Rag, piano, 1985
  • Wild Rose Rag, piano, 1985
  • Blue Rose Variations, organ, 1985
  • Patriotic Rag, piano, 1986
  • Sonatas for piano, piano & tape playback, 1987
  • A Millennium Fanfare, organ, 1999
  • Bach in Blue, piano, 2004

Written publications[edit]

  • 'Charles Ives 1874–1954', MT, cv (1964), 347–9[11]
  • 'Improvisation', MT, cv (1964), 294–5, 377–8, 538–9, 612–13, 688–9, 766–7
  • 'John Cage', Music and Musicians, xiv/3 (1965–66), 32–4, 54 only, 56 only
  • 'Erik Satie (1866–1925)', MR, xxviii (1967), 139–46
  • 'A New Perspective for Ives', MT, cxv (1974), 836–8
  • ed.: American Music: Keele 1975
  • ed.: Twenty British Composers (London, 1975) [incl. ‘Transformations of Erik Satie’, p. 47]
  • 'A Note on Some Recent Works', MT, cxviii (1977), 559 only [on Dickinson's works]
  • 'Recent Research on American Musical Traditions', IMSCR XII: Berkeley 1977, 353–82[12]
  • ‘The Achievement of Ragtime: an Introductory Study with some Implications for British Research in Popular Music’, PRMA, cv (1978–79), 63–76
  • ‘Lord Berners, 1883–1950’, MT, cxxiv (1983), 669–72
  • ‘William Schumann: an American Symphonist at 75’, MT, cxxvi (1985), 457–8
  • ‘Stein, Satie, Cummings, Thomson, Berners, Cage: Toward a Context for the Music of Virgil Thomson’, MQ, lxxii (1986), 394–409[13]
  • ‘Directors of a Decade’, MT, cxxviii (1987), 15–17
  • The Music of Lennox Berkeley (London, 1988; 2nd enlarged edition Woodbridge, 2003)[1]
  • ‘The American Concerto’, A Companion to the Concerto, ed. R. Layton (New York, 1989), 305–325
  • ‘Style-Modulation: an Approach to Stylistic Pluralism’, MT, cxxx (1989), 208–11
  • ‘Virgil Thomson (1896–1989)’, MT, cxxxi (1990), 31 only
  • ‘Nationalism is Not Enough: a Composer's Perspective’, Music and Nationalism in 20th-Century Great Britain and Finland, ed. T. Mäkelä (Hamburg, 1997), 27–34
  • Marigold: the Music of Billy Mayerl (Oxford, 1999)
  • Copland Connotations: Studies and Interviews (Woodbridge, 2002)
  • CageTalk: Dialogues with & about John Cage (Rochester, NY, 2006)
  • Lord Berners: Composer, writer, Painter (Woodbridge, 2008)
  • Samuel Barber Remembered (Rochester, NY, 2010)
  • Lennox Berkeley and Friends: Writings, Letters and Interviews (Woodbridge, 2012)
  • Words and Music (Woodbridge, 2016)
  • Many other articles and reviews in the Musical Times, Music and Letters, The Musical Quarterly, The Independent, The Times Literary Supplement, Musical Opinion and The Times Higher Education Supplement Supplement[14]


  1. ^ a b c Baker's 20th Century Composers, p. 317
  2. ^ a b Grove online
  3. ^ Morton, Contemporary Composers, p. 224
  4. ^ Morton, Contemporary Composers, p. 225.
  5. ^ Peter Dickinson's web site
  6. ^ a b Morton, Contemporary Composers, p. 227
  7. ^ a b Baker's Biographical 20th Century, p. 317
  8. ^ Quoted in Morton, Contomporary Composers, p. 226
  9. ^ Mentioned in Morton, Contemporary Composers, p. 225
  10. ^ Most of these earlier keyboard works are listed in Morton, Contemporary Composers, p. 225
  11. ^ MT refers to The Musical Times
  12. ^ International Musicological Society Congress Report
  13. ^ The Musical Quarterly
  14. ^ Morton, Contemporary Composers, p. 226


  • Cole, Hugo & Malcolm Miller. "Dickinson, Peter". In Deane L. Root (ed.). Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press. (subscription required)
  • Peter Dickinson's Webpage
  • Morton, Brian (1992), "Dickinson, Peter", in Morton, Brian and Pamela Collins (ed.), Contemporary Composers, Chicago and London: St. James Press, pp. 224–227, ISBN 1-55862-085-0
  • Slonimsky, Peter (1997), "Dickinson, Peter", in Kuhn, Laura (ed.), Baker's Biographical Dictionary of 20th Century Classical Musicians, New York: Schirmer Books, p. 317, ISBN 0-02-871271-4.