I was appointed to the first Chair in Music in 1973 and moved with my family to Keele in April 1974. There George Pratt (1935-2017) had been a successful Director of Music since 1964 and had founded the Lindsay Quartet, named after Keele’s first vice-chancellor, where they were in residence from 1967-71 and became one of the most prominent British quartets of their generation. Pratt’s assistant was Norman Josephs (d.2008), a violinist who became a specialist in American popular music.
Keele had a large and well-established Department of American Studies under Professor David Adams which suggested a productive connection with American music. Arnold Goldman came to a second chair early in the period and the Department included Mary Ellison, a specialist in African American music. To justify another Music Department, I felt it was necessary to have a teaching and research programme that would differentiate Keele from elsewhere. Apart from traditional areas there were three new aspects – American music; popular music; and the electronic and recording studio and work that went with it.
1974 was the centenary year of the American composer Charles Ives (1874-1954) and, as a British delegate, I was invited to the centenary events in New York and New Haven. At Keele I started the Ives Choir immediately from any available singers, with John Pattinson at the piano. They performed under my direction in a BBC TV documentary, Who was Charles Ives?, broadcast on 20 October 1974, which I devised with Kenneth Corden, and the choir gave concerts at Keele and elsewhere.
The aim was to develop a degree in Music within the Keele joint honours system and the Music Department was formally opened by Sir Lennox Berkeley in December 1974: he was later an Honorary Professor for three years and a distinguished series followed. To begin with, the Music Department crouched in the Walter Moberly Hall until a purpose redesigned half of the Clock House became available and has been the headquarters of Music ever since. The philosophy of the new Department was ground-breaking, although it owed something to the work of Wilfrid Mellers at York as well as to my own post-graduate study at the Juilliard School in New York. American music, in the Centre for American Music programme, became a research interest, with an MA course, and popular music was a feature in undergraduate courses. In addition to traditional material, style composition could be done, for example, in 1930s popular song or ragtime. Another feature was exemplified by the building of the recording studio. Tristram Cary gave advice; Cliff Bradbury was appointed technician and served for many years; and Tim Souster (1943-94) became Leverhulme Research Fellow. Souster’s group OdB, founded at Keele with Bradbury in 1977, gave two Arts Council Contemporary Music Network Tours. Electro-acoustic music has remained a Keele specialism in the years since with staff who have gained an international reputation.
A major step forward for the Department was the opportunity to appoint three lecturers in 1978. These were Stephen Banfield, who later became Elgar Professor of Music at Birmingham and Badock Professor at Bristol; Roger Marsh, the composer who founded the Keele New Music Ensemble with regular presentations, and later held a chair at York University and gained an international audience for his work; and Philip Jones, a gifted conductor and authority on Delius. These appointments transformed the Department’s offering and must be seen alongside the visiting Fulbright Hays Professors from the United States - William Brooks (1977-78), composer and musicologist, who went on to an Assistant Professorship at the University of Illinois, and then a chair at the University of York; Dwight Peltzer, pianist (1978-79), whose wife, the soprano Marla Waterman, enhanced the concert offerings; Cecil Lytle (1979-80), pianist and specialist in black music studies, who then taught at the University of California at San Diego and became Provost of Thurgood Marshall College there; and, as a Leverhulme Fellow, Karl Kroeger (1980-81), specialist in the early American composer William Billings, who became head of the Music Library at the University of Colorado at Boulder. These American offerings, involving many concerts, helped to make Keele a leading European centre for American Music studies. I was extremely fortunate in having been able to make new appointments and invite visitors, who enhanced my vision for the future of the Department in both graduate and undergraduate teaching, and we were supported by the Vice-Chancellor, W. A. Campbell Stewart.
A landmark which took Keele students to London, was the 50th anniversary of the eccentric French composer Erik Satie’s death in 1925. Music Circus of Keele University performed Satie’s play Le Piège de Méduse at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in April 1975 following performances at Keele and elsewhere with Alison Turner at the piano.
The first of three American Music conferences took place at Keele on 18-21 April 1975. This was a collaboration with BBC Radio 3 which recorded the concert and the final panel discussion. Performers included Roger Smalley, playing Cage and Feldman and me and my sister Meriel Dickinson (mezzo soprano), performing Ives, Copland and Carter. On 13 November 1975 we presented a recital to mark Copland’s 75th birthday, supported by the BBC and broadcast. Apart from Copland’s In the Beginning, the programme included the premiere of my own Late Afternoon in November, commissioned for the twenty-first anniversary of the BBC Northern Singers, with Stephen Wilkinson – out on CD in 2020. On 19 October 1976 Copland himself came to Keele, answered questions in front of a large audience in the Moberly Hall and heard a programme of his own music with Levon Chilingirian and Clifford Benson (violin and piano) and my sister and me. At the dinner before the concert Copland sat next to the president of the concerts for that season, the then Duchess of Westminster. The following day Copland also spoke to students in the Music Department. These talks were recorded and published in my book Copland Connotations (Boydell, 2002) and in Tempo, April 2003. The Second American Music Conference – Blues/Country/Rock – took place on July 21-23, 1978 and focused on popular music. It involved Wilfrid Mellers, William Brooks and Charles Hamm came from the US: it was co-ordinated by Norman Josephs with Alexandra Scott.
In these years the University’s chancellor was Princess Margaret, who was interested in music. On her annual visits she heard the Ives Choir; the Constant Lambert Piano Concerto, which I played under Philip Jones; and Dwight Pelzer and I played for her. The library at Keele has a large representation of American music thanks to music publishers whom I persuaded to donate their catalogues to the new Department. In 1977 I was invited to the Twelfth Congress of the International Musicological Society, held at Berkeley, California, where I reported on British work in American music with a prominent place for Keele.
The University had a series of chamber music concerts on Mondays that had been running since well before the Department with regular appearances by the Lindsay Quartet. These continued and, for example, the 1978-79 season opened with a recital by John Ogdon making a welcome return after illness. Some of these were recorded, such as my recital with the distinguished violinist Ralph Holmes (9 February 1981), now on CD. There were also concerts on Thursdays with a focus on modern music, some of which were regularly broadcast. Peter Maxwell Davies came with The Fires of London (4 November 1975). There were Meet the Composer events with Alexander Goehr; Gordon Crosse; Tristram Cary; and Sir Lennox Berkeley in 1975.
Other American composers who visited Keele in this period were Elliott Carter (17 October 1977), Philip Glass (22 November 1975), Steve Reich (3 February 1976), Ben Johnston, Christian Wolff (a period in residence), George Crumb (16 October 1978) and Elliott Schwartz (2 November 1978).
The regular choral events at Keele under Philip Jones included ambitious works such as Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast, Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms, Mendelssohn’s Elijah and requiems by Mozart, Brahms and Verdi. The choir visited the Loire valley on a British Council sponsored tour. Throughout most of the decade, George Pratt conducted the Keele Orchestra and arranged chamber music summer schools. A major achievement was the Fourth Delius Festival, held at the University and in Stoke-on-Trent from March 8-14, 1982, which attracted a large international audience. Philip Jones was the artistic director, with Mark Pargeter as chairman. The Festival contained a galaxy of lectures, chamber and orchestral concerts and the first performance in England of Parliament, a play by Gunnar Heiberg for which Delius wrote incidental music, given by Keele Drama Society and the University Orchestra under George Pratt. Ralph Holmes played the Violin Concerto with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic. The climax of the Festival was A Mass of Life in the Victoria Hall, Stoke-on-Trent, under Philip Jones, combining the Keele choir with the city choir which had given the work’s first complete performance nearly seventy-five years earlier. Another major event was the British Music Week from 12-18 March 1984, ending with the The Dream of Gerontius with Keele Choral Society and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic at the Victoria Hall, Hanley, under Jones, who remained at Keele until 1989 and launched a series of commissions, from Wilfrid Mellers, John Tavener, Robin Holloway, Richard Rodney Bennett and own my Larkin’s Jazz with the Keele performance now on CD. George Pratt’s theories of harmony led to his book The Dynamics of Harmony (Open University 1984).
In some ways the summation of the decade’s work in American music came with the Third American Music Conference in July 1983. It was a collaboration with the Sonneck Society (now the Society for American Music) with over 150 delegates, half from the US. Many of the leading authorities on American music came and contributed. Wiley Hitchcock discussed the New American Grove; Stanley Sadie the forthcoming New Grove Second Edition. Henry Herford, who had won the 1982 International American Music Competition, gave a BBC recital with Robin Bowman. Social events included a visit to the Jodrell Bank telescope hosted by Sir Bernard Lovell, who gave a talk on astronomer-composer William Herschel (1738-1822), and a visit to Combermere Abbey, at the invitation of the then Viscount Garnock (1926-89). The Conference was widely reviewed – Peter Dickinson, The Musical Times, July 1983; Wilfrid Mellers, The Musical Times, September 1983; Elliott Schwartz, High Fidelity-Musical America, November 1983; Peter Dickinson, Composer, Spring 1984; the papers were published in a special issue of American Music, Spring 1986.
The University suffered major cuts from 1983 and staff were invited to take early retirement. The original music team gradually broke up, moving to other things, and George Pratt, after directing, in 1985, the first production of Handel’s Berenice since 1737, went as Head of Music to Huddersfield Polytechnic, later University. However, David Nicholls, an authority on American music, was appointed to the academic staff from 1987-2000, rising to a professorship. A blow to music was the loss of the university’s only free-standing concert hall, the Walter Moberly Hall, in 1990. By 2020 the offering in Music was mostly confined to combinations with Music Technology. Some influential students emerged from the visions of the Department’s first decade – jazz musician Kenneth Rattenbury’s MA thesis became a standard work on Ellington (Yale 1990); Dalya Alberge, became a prominent journalist, gained the MA in American Music with others; composers included Andrew Hugill, Sean Rourke and John Abram; prominent in the recording industry were Alison Wenham and Jackie Newbould; and Matthew Spring in lute and early music research. In 1984 I returned to London as an Emeritus Professor to take up composing commissions, broadcasts, recordings and international recitals with my sister, Meriel Dickinson. I completed my Piano Concerto, begun at Keele, which was in the Proms in 1986 and recorded. In 1999, twenty-five years after I had started the Department, I was awarded an Honorary DMus from the Chancellor, Lord Moser.
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His academic appointments have included the first Chair at Keele University (1974-84: now Emeritus) where he started the Department with its Centre for American Music; the first Chair at Goldsmiths College (1991-97: now Emeritus); he was Head of Music at the Institute of United States Studies, University of London from 1997-2004; and has lectured at many American universities.
Dickinson has been active as a pianist, notably in recitals, broadcasts and recordings through a twenty-five-year partnership with his sister, the mezzo Meriel Dickinson, who studied at the Royal Northern College in Manchester and with Hans Karg in Vienna. Her repertoire in opera ranged from Handel to Kurt Weill and Ivor Novello; the Dickinsons commissioned a number of British composers including Lennox Berkeley, Andrzej Panufnik, Gordon Crosse and Jonathan Harvey; and they became well-known at festivals and in broadcasts for presented recitals devoted to single composers such as Erik Satie, Charles Ives and Lord Berners as well as programmes based on settings of poets such as Auden, Joyce and E. E. Cummings. One of their most characteristic records is Rags, Blues and Parodies (Albany TROY 369) and Dickinson’s literary interests are reflected in settings of poets such as Auden, E. E. Cummings, Dylan Thomas and John Heath-Stubbs (all on Albany TROY 365) as well as Emily Dickinson, Philip Larkin and Stevie Smith. Dickinson is heard as a pianist, along with Eric Parkin, on Albany TROY 760 which also includes the famous Swedish soprano Elisabeth Söderström in The Unicorns.
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Peter Dickinson’s writings include the first book on Sir Lennox Berkeley (Thames1989, enlarged 2nd ed. Boydell 2003); a study of the popular pianist-composer Billy Mayerl (OUP 1999); Copland Connotations: Studies and Interviews (Boydell 2002); CageTalk: Dialogues with and about John Cage (University of Rochester Press 2006); and Lord Berners: Composer – Writer – Painter (Boydell 2008). Dickinson has written chapters for various books, dictionaries and periodicals; for over thirty years he was a regular contributor to BBC Radio 3; and is a critic on the Gramophone.