George Dyson’s Choral Symphony is a remarkable rediscovery. The work was written for Dyson’s Doctor of Music examination in 1917. It was dutifully evaluated (he passed), then filed away and forgotten with countless other such examination pieces. There it remained until Paul Spicer ran across it while researching Dyson’s biography.
It’s an impressive work for a student. Dyson had an early mastery of orchestration and a fascination with the sea. Both come together in this massive work. The symphony is a four-movement setting of Psalm 107. I heard some influences of Elgar’s “Dream of Gerontius” and Vaughan William’s “Sea Symphony.” But the music is Dyson’s own.
Dyson writes from the English choral tradition, using the inherent drama of the text to great effect. This is especially true in the final movement, The text begins “They that go down to the sea in ships… these men see the works of the Lord and in wonders in the deep.” The orchestra rises and swells, depicting the roiling sea. In the end, though, the storm cloud dissipates, and the work ends with calm assurance.
St. Paul’s Voyage to Melita was commissioned by the Three Choirs Festival. Dyson conducted the 1933 premiere. This is a more mature work. It’s not quite an oratorio, and not quite an opera. Rather, it’s a musical drama for choir, orchestra, and soloists. The choir sets the stand and comments on the action.
And what action! The apostle Paul is arrested and shipped off to Rome for trial. The vessel is engulfed in a storm, then shipwrecked. Only Paul’s demonstration of faith saves him and the other prisoners.
Tenor Joshua Ellicott makes an effective Paul. At the center of the work, Dyson pares down the ensemble to just Paul, contemplating his faith. Ellicott’s plaintive performance imbues that monologue with just a hint of self-doubt.
Large-scale works such as these can sometimes just lumber along. Conductor David Hill keeps the performances focussed and moving forward. Highly recommended for anyone who loves modern English music.
George Dyson: Choral Symphony; St. Paul’s Voyage to Melita
Elizabeth Watts, soprano; Caitlin Hulcup, mezzo-soprano; Joshua Ellicott, tenor; Roderick Williams, baritone; The Bach Choir; Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra; David Hill, conductor