Obituary of Peter Dickinson by John Turner

John Turner writes about his friend and fellow musician, the composer, pianist, teacher and writer Peter Dickinson.

Peter Dickinson, who died after a short illness on 16 June 2023, at the age of 88 (but his youthful demeanour and activity, both mental and physical, quite defied his age), was the most knowledgeable, the most erudite, the most inquisitive, the most literary, and altogether the most interesting composer I have ever known.

As well as being a brilliant and prolific composer of often wonderfully eccentric and enticing music, Peter was a distinguished academic (holding chairs at both Keele and Goldsmiths’ College, London), an accomplished pianist and piano accompanist (his partnership with his sister, the mezzo-soprano Meriel Dickinson, was particularly fruitful), a music critic, music editor, an elegant and engrossing writer on widely diverse subjects, and even a visual artist – his was the cover design for his last book, Words and Music (Boydell, 2016). Peter was an inveterate documenter, and that last, fascinating book contains substantial biographies of himself, his parents (his father was a church organist and a distinguished pioneer of contact lenses), and his sister Meriel.

His interests were legion, but top of the tree were, first, his love of American music (he established a centre for American music at Keele University, and enticed there many of the connections he had made during his post-Cambridge studies at the Juilliard School in New York, including Copland, Carter, Cage, Virgil Thomson, George Crumb, and Steve Reich); and, second, Lennox Berkeley, whose music he adored, and about whose life and work he wrote three books, having been inspired by Chester’s striking sky-blue music covers in Millers Music shop in Cambridge while he was the Organ Scholar at Queens’ College. As an organist, following in his father’s footsteps, the love of Bach remained with him always, and playing Bach gave him perhaps his greatest pleasure.

My connections with Peter arose through the musical polymath and broadcaster David Munrow, with whom (after I had come down from a very happy four years in Cambridge, reading law whilst enjoying stimulating musical company and performance opportunities) I played recorder on countless occasions. Professionally speaking, these started with a performance in The Maltings, Snape, of Britten’s Alpine Suite and John Gardner’s Occasional Suite with the English Chamber Orchestra.

John Turner (Photograph Teresa Dietrich).
John Turner (Photograph Teresa Dietrich).

I vividly recall on one occasion hearing David practising for hours on end Peter Dickinson’s Recorder Music for recorders and tape, and gently grumbling about how testing it was to play. But what a tour de force! I invited David to come up to Manchester to perform it, in what turned out to be a memorably poignant concert with James Bowman and Charles Brett, in a programme that includes John Blow’s Ode on the Death of Mr Henry Purcell (for two countertenors, two recorders, cello and harpsichord). David’s tragic suicide intervened, and as the piece was so personal to him (it involved the use of no fewer than five sizes of recorder – often two simultaneously – together with an Andean quena and a pre-recorded tape), I did not wish to learn and play it myself.

The concert was to be broadcast on Radio 3, so I asked Peter if he could write an elegy for David to put in the concert in its place. Thus came about A Memory of David Munrow, for the same combination as the Blow Ode (a line-up later used by both Gordon Crosse and Judith Bingham in pieces they wrote in memory of David). Not knowing Peter’s earlier recorder pieces, from which the material had been taken, we were all somewhat discombobulated, as there was no score, but purely a set of separate parts. The two recorders played in canon a virtuosic cadenza from Peter’s earlier Translations; the voices hocketed on a phrase – I think by Satie; the cello played some mournful plainsong; and the harpsichord plonked down occasional chords – and none of the parts coincided at any one time. James Bowman could hardly contain a few giggles, which he was forced to suppress as the concert was going out live on Radio 3. However, it all worked miraculously, and lives long in the memory. We subsequently gave the piece a second performance in The Cloisters, New York, in David’s memory.

I was for a few years on the local advisory board of Sir Robert Mayer’s Live Music Now, and was instrumental in commissioning from Peter A Birthday Surprise to be played by the Hallé for Sir Robert’s 100th birthday. I recall that the great man was staying at the Midland Hotel, and he retired to bed after the concert, while the rest of our party stayed behind for some refreshments. After a little while Lady Mayer asked me to go up to their bedroom and check that her husband was securely asleep and hadn’t fallen out of bed. I duly complied and, opening the bedroom door, I was greeted by an indignant Sir Robert, indeed in the middle of the bed but wide awake, asking what I was doing.

My friendships with other composers resident in Suffolk – William Alwyn and his wife Doreen Carwithen, Gordon Crosse, Elis Pehkonen and Christopher Wright – and the establishment of the William Alwyn Festival in Blythburgh, resulted in several trips to the area and I greatly enjoyed many meetings with both Peter and his hospitable and delightful wife, Bridget. In the festival I gave premieres of a recorder version of Peter’s early Flute Sonatina – three idiomatic arrangements of early pieces (Pastorale, Blues and Homage) – and, for a concert in The Red House in 2019, I played yet another version of the cadenza for two recorders from A Memory of David Munrow, an arrangement entitled Elegiac Canons.

Although the flow of brand new pieces had more or less come to a halt, Peter was able to quarry earlier works for friends, and these arrangements included short and memorable tributes to his late colleagues, John McCabe (A Rag for McCabe), and Sir John Manduell (Strings in the Earth and Air). His very last work was a short piece, A Winter Afternoon, for me to play with my friend, the double bassist Leon Bosch, in concerts for my 80th birthday. It used material from an earlier work he wrote for The King’s Singers, whose original line-up consisted of Cambridge contemporaries of mine, so it felt like coming full circle. I treasure all of Peter’s contributions to the recorder repertoire, and all the music he wrote for me. What a wonderful legacy he leaves behind.