Obituary of Peter Dickinson by Tony Scotland

Tony Scotland writes about the composer, pianist, teacher and writer Peter Dickinson, champion of the music of Lennox Berkeley.

The composer Professor Peter Dickinson, pianist, writer, broadcaster and teacher – and one of Lennox Berkeley’s most vocal and effective advocates – died in hospital, on 15 November 2023, after a short illness. He was 88. In the words of the music journalist Norman Lebrecht, he was a ‘polymath … of ceaseless curiosity’. 1

A Juilliard graduate from Lytham St Annes, Peter was an authority on American music – from Ives and Cage to present-day composers. In 1973 he was appointed first Professor of Music at the University of Keele, where he set up the Music Department with its Centre for American Music, and in 1991 he was appointed first Professor of Music at Goldsmiths, University of London. He was also Head of Music at the Institute of United States Studies, University of London, until 2004.

Peter Dickinson composed concertos for organ, piano and violin, as well as a vast amount of vocal music, much of it performed and recorded with his sister, the mezzo-soprano Meriel Dickinson. And he wrote ceaselessly – from articles and reviews in the music press to composer biographies. He was also a frequent broadcaster on Radio Three. Classical Music magazine was right to claim that ‘he deserves his place among music’s elder statesmen.’

He was one of the foremost champions of the music of Lennox Berkeley and an acknowledged authority, constantly consulted by musicians, publishers and other musicologists for guidance on ambiguities in manuscripts and published editions, and always ready to help other researchers in the field. Along with books on Billy Mayerl, Aaron Copland, John Cage, Lord Berners and Samuel Barber, he wrote the definitive musical biography, The Music of Lennox Berkeley (Boydell, second edition, 2003), edited a volume of writings by and about Berkeley, Lennox Berkeley and Friends (Boydell, 2012); and produced a lifetime of miscellaneous articles and reviews about Berkeley and his music.

As he explained in a long article in the 2023 issue of the Berkeley Society Journal, Peter first came across Berkeley’s music while he was still at school, met the man himself not long afterwards and, with his wife Bridget and sister Meriel, remained close friends of Lennox and Freda and the family.

He will be greatly missed by a wide circle of family and friends, by an ever wider circle of colleagues and collaborators throughout the world of music, by the young musicians who were beneficiaries of his Rainbow Dickinson Trust, and by all of us in the Lennox Berkeley Society, of which he was a founder member, a former Committee member, and a senior Patron.