I was going to title this article “Dean Dixon: The Forgotten Maestro,” and that would have been apropos as well, but in the end I chose to go with invisible because that is what the music industry wished him to be. Not merely forgotten, but to as large an extent as they could help it, invisible. Just like Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man, and for the same reason. Because he was black.
What’s ironic about this is that Dixon was not, though he is often referred to as one, an African-American. His grandparents came, as did those of black comedian Bert Williams, from the West Indies. Most African-Americans do not consider West Indians—Haitians, Dominicans, etc.—to be one of them. But in Williams’ and Dixon’s cases, it didn’t matter. They were called the “N” word just the same, and had the same uphill battles to fight.
As Dominique-René de Lerma put it in the introduction to Rufus Jones Jr.’s groundbreaking biography of Dixon, Negro at Home – Maestro Abroad:
It would have been an absurd fantasy had Edward Anderson or Harrison Ferrell given thought to conducting any ensemble other than the groups they established within their own communities on the East Coast…conductors had no organizational structure to care for funding, no hall for rehearsals or concerts, no administration to address operations, even too few music stands. Dean Dixon changed that, even if as a pioneer he did not properly benefit from his efforts, certainly not in the United States. Rudolph Dunbar and Everett Lee, Dixon’s contemporaries, shared his fate, with even less success.
Charles Dean Dixon, born in Harlem on January 10, 1915, was a musical prodigy whose talents were duly noticed by his working-class parents. They scraped and saved to buy him a $15 violin (nearly two weeks’ pay in those days) so that he could take proper lessons. Ironically young Charles, like so many boys his age, found that he loved his instrument but detested the boring routine of practicing. He would go to the window overlooking the street and watch the other boys playing stickball, wishing he was with them while practicing his scales and etudes. Eventually his mother closed the blinds and shutters on the window so that young Charles had to concentrate on his music.
Dixon was lucky enough to become a student at DeWitt Clinton High School which from its inception was fully integrated, quite uncommon in those days. Its position was supported by then-governor Theodore Roosevelt who in 1900 enacted a law that made it illegal for New York public schools to deny anyone an education on the basis of race. On paper, this ended segregation in New York schools, but in practice many found a way of getting around it.
Eventually, however, he had the burning urge to be a conductor. Listening to the recordings and radio broadcasts of the three biggest name conductors in his area, Leopold Stokowski of the Philadelphia Orchestra and both Willem Mengelberg and Arturo Toscanini with the New York Philharmonic-Symphony, he soaked up the music and their conducting styles like a sponge. He studied conducting with Albert Stoessel at Columbia University and the Juilliard School of Music. In between classes at DeWitt, Dixon, then only 16 years old, first formed an ensemble that initially consisted only of a piano and some of his violin pupils but somehow grew to 70 members, both men and women, black and white, ranging in age from 12 to 70. He called it the Dean Dixon Symphony Orchestra, holding rehearsals at the Harlem YMCA. They gave annual concerts despite financial hardship, but kept going anyway. Eventually a ladies’ club provided them with much-needed cash—this was after Dixon graduated from Juilliard—and performed for First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt in 1941.
Thanks to the publicity from this concert, he came to the attention of the all-powerful Toscanini, then conductor of his radio-based NBC Symphony Orchestra though he still had ties to the New York Philharmonic-Symphony. He gave Dixon two summer concerts with his NBC Symphony and convinced the Philharmonic-Symphony to allow him one concert in their summer series. Pleased with the results, he convinced NBC president and director David Sarnoff to hire Dixon to give several concerts on NBC radio during the fall season. His first was with the NYA Orchestra on November 23, 1941 with guest violist Emanuel Vardi of the NBC Symphony. In addition to Beethoven and Mozart, he also programmed the unusual Viola Concerto of Antonio Rolla. His NBC Symphony regular season debut took place on January 18, 1942, on which he played Weber’s Euryanthe Overture, excerpts from American composer Richard Arnell’s The Land, Prokofiev’s “Classical” Symphony and Enescu’s Romanian Rhapsody. He returned a week later, conducting another American piece by Paul Creston and the Sibelius Second Symphony. Then he disappeared for a while.
The reason, as Jones points out in his book, was racism pure and simple. Several of the white NBC musicians (probably those from the South) objected vehemently to being led by an “N” word conductor and complained to Sarnoff. When the NBC-RCA president refused to budge, they took their case to the New York Musicians’ Union which shamefully sided with them. That was the end of Dixon’s career in New York. A few years later, he was invited to conduct the Philadelphia Orchestra (by Eugene Ormandy) and Boston Symphony, but the results were no different in those supposedly tolerant cities either.
In 1948 he married white classical pianist Vivian Rivkin, a fellow Juilliard pupil who he had conducted in piano concertos, and also made his first record. This was a V-Disc, issued only by the Armed Forces for servicemen to play and not for commercial release, of the second movement of avant-garde American composer Wallingford Riegger’s Third Symphony. It was a gutsy choice to say the least, particularly since only a small percentage of servicemen and women liked classical music and very few of those were partial to new music. Despite the muddy, covered sound, it is an extraordinary performance. You can listen to it HERE.
Finally, by 1949, Dixon had had enough and decided to leave the United States. The clincher came when a building manager refused to allow him admittance for an important meeting he had to attend, but he was fortunate that he had an offer to guest-conduct the French National Symphony Orchestra. As he put it, “I felt like I was on a sinking ship and if I stayed here, I’d drown. I made a start. I had the critics [on my side]. But for five years after that, nothing happened.” After the French engagement, he was hired as music director of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra for two seasons (1950-51 & 1951-52). In 1952 he made his first commercial recordings: an album of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue (with Rivkin at the keyboard) and An American in Paris for Vox, conducting the “Pro Musica Orchestra,” a pseudonym for the Vienna Symphony, and a much more adventurous album of Henry Cowell’s Symphony No. 5 and Walter Piston’s Symphony No. 2 for the American Recording Society, a division of RCA Victor. Once again he conducted the Vienna Symphony Orchestra, renamed for contractural reasons on the label as the “American Recording Society” orchestra. The latter wasn’t released until the following year, in 1953.
Despite the successes he was to have in Europe, there were some bumps in the road. The most embarrassing came in 1952 when a Swedish promoter suggested, quite seriously, that he conduct in “whiteface” and wear white gloves. He got a good break in 1953, however, when the Göteberg Symphony Orchestra hired him as their music director, a post he retained until 1960. In the meantime, he also made guest appearances in West Germany, including a famous concert with the RIAS Symphony Orchestra in which his piano soloist was the world-famous Clara Haskil. From 1961 to 1974 he was music director of the Frankfurt Radio Symphony, and he was also director of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra for three seasons (1964-67).
The American Westminster label also signed him to conduct a fairly large series of LPs for their inexpensive classical catalog. Over the next few years, Dixon recorded a number of interesting discs for the label, including concertos by Mozart and Edward MacDowell with his wife. The orchestras he used on these recording sessions included the Vienna State Opera Orchestra, the London Philharmonic and Royal Philharmonic Orchestras.
Yet even during this relative boom period, Dixon was prejudiced against in odd ways. On the original back cover of the MacDowell piano concerti LP, for instance, both he and his wife Vivian were pictured:
But when the record was reissued a few years later with a different number, his photo was removed:
Even stranger was his phenomenal recording of the Schubert Fourth Symphony (paired with the Fifth). On the original cover his name was clearly evident:
But again, the reissue a few years later completely omitted his name from the cover:
Already, then, the very label that helped preserve some of his finest performances was making him invisible. Perhaps they, too, felt that he should be wearing whiteface.
Yet his career went fairly well in Europe, despite divorcing Vivian Rivkin in 1954 and marrying a Finnish noblewoman, Mary Mandelin. Using Göteberg, Sweden as his home base, Dixon guest conducted orchestras in virtually all of Europe’s major capitals. In addition to his large repertoire of European composers, he also helped introduce Europeans to the American music of William Grant Still, Cowell, Riegger, Copland and MacDowell.
Dixon finally returned to the United States in 1970, guest-conducting a program with the New York Philharmonic. Most people in the U.S. had forgotten about him, and although one critic had the nerve to call his exodus from America in 1949 a “self-imposed exile” (what was he supposed to do in the U.S.? Hawk newspapers on street corners?), the maturity and imagination of his performances were praised. He guest-conducted the Chicago, Detroit, Milwaukee, Pittsburgh, St. Louis and San Francisco Symphony Orchestras in the 1970s—but once again, he wasn’t offered a single permanent post at any major orchestra, even when there were openings. He wasn’t as ignored as he had been in the 1940s, but he wasn’t made to feel welcome either. Eventually he accepted a fairly invisible position (there’s that word “invisible” again!) with the Brooklyn Philharmonic, where he became noted for his children’s concerts. His last American appearance was with the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1975—once again, invited by broad-minded music director Eugene Ormandy, who had initially given him concerts back in the 1940s.
Dixon was scheduled to make a conducting tour of Australia in 1975 but had to cancel due to severe heart problems. He returned to Europe but suffered a stroke in Zurich and died on November 3, 1976. He was only 61 years old.
When one considers all that this man accomplished against staggering odds and systemic racism, it almost seems as if he led three lives instead of one. But the invisibility factor, sadly, didn’t end with his death. Of all his many LP recordings, only one—the 1952 Vox Gershwin album—has been reissued on a cheapo CD label calling itself “Essential Recordings.” Absolutely none of his Westminster LPs have ever come out on CD, nor have his later stereo recordings for Supraphon, although many of them have been uploaded on YouTube (see my selected recommendations below). The German label Audite has released three of his live broadcasts—the Beethoven Concerto No. 4 with Haskil and two performances with famed German tenor Fritz Wunderlich, Stravinsky’s Perséphone and a fabulous Beethoven Ninth Symphony—but the front covers, though listing his name, only plug the star soloists and the back covers only rave about the soloists as well…and there are no photos of him on the album cover art:
Thus he remains an invisible conductor. But let’s try to turn back the clock and investigate some of his finest work, shall we?
Gershwin: An American in Paris / Vienna Symphony Orchestra. An excellent performance which immediately lets even unsophisticated listeners appreciate Dixon’s extraordinary abilities. He was a conductor with his very own way of phrasing. Although this performance is on the same high level as those of Toscanini (1945) and Paul Whiteman (for Capitol in 1952), his phrasing is different from both of them.
Cowell: Symphony No. 5 / Vienna Symphony Orchestra, available for free streaming on YouTube. The sound is boxy and claustrophobic, even worse than the Gershwin, but the performance is ebullient and sizzles. Dixon had a way of combining some of the best traits of the conductors he admired most—Stokowski, Toscanini and Mengelberg—giving taut performances in which one could easily sense the structure while imbuing them with inner excitement and phrasing that was a bit of all three.
Liszt: Les Preludes and The Battle of the Huns / Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, 1953, both available for free streaming on YouTube. Neither one of these pieces are what you would call masterpieces, but rather in that category referred to as “potboilers,” but Dixon gives them everything he’s got and makes your hair stand on end. The first of these was obviously inspired by Mengelberg’s recording with the Concertgebouw Orchestra. Dixon imparts much the same energy and excitement while avoiding the extreme rallentandos that Mengelberg imposed on the music. Here, in Westminster’s superior sound, one can also note that he managed to combine the bright wind and string sound of Toscanini with a heavier “bottom” sound from the basses and cellos—something like Stokowski but also a bit like Wilhelm Furtwängler. This “sound” was to be a sort of trademark for him.
Bruckner: Overture in G minor / Cologne Radio Symphony Orchestra, 1959, available for free streaming on YouTube. This 1959 broadcast performance shows that Dixon could even make one of the dullest, deadest-sounding composers in Western music sound exciting.
Malipiero: Dialogo No. 1 / Orchestra Alessandro Scarlatti della RAI di Napoli, available for free streaming on YouTube. A 1958 broadcast of some very modern music, which Dixon phrases in a “rounder” style than one usually hears. This was a trait he picked up from Stokowski, who always had a way of making even the most forbidding and austere score sound a bit friendly to audiences.
Schumann: Symphonies No. 3 in Eb, “Rhenish” & No. 4 in D min. / Vienna State Opera Orchestra, 1953, both available on YouTube. One of his greatest Westminster LPs, these are monumental performances combining bright upper sonorities, excellent weight on the bottom and his own unusual phrasing with great excitement. Easily the equal of Guido Cantelli’s versions.
Stravinsky: Perséphone / Doris Schade, narrator; Fritz Wunderlich, tenor; Sinfonie-Orchester des Hessischen Rundfunks, 1960, available for free streaming on YouTube. One of the greatest “wrong language” performances you’ll ever hear of this vastly underrated piece. Once again Dixon’s phrasing is more rounded and less angular than those we normally hear from such conductors as Kent Nagano and Esa-Pekka Salonen, but the music emerges clearly and with no lack of rhythmic energy, and yes, both tenor and narrator are superb.
MacDowell: Piano Concertos Nos. 1 & 2 / Vivian Rivkin, pianist; Vienna State Opera Orchestra, 1953, available for free download at the Internet Archive. Compare these performances to anyone else’s and you’ll be in shock. In fact, compare these performances to any other Vivian Rivkin recording and you’ll still be in shock. Rivkin hits the keyboard as if she were Annie Fischer and Dixon conducts with an energy that pretends the music is by Schumann. The results are bracing to say the least.
Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 4 in G / Clara Haskil, pianist; RIAS Symphony Orchestra, 1954, available for free streaming on YouTube. Though performed at slower tempi than I like, Dixon’s weighty bottom sound and brilliant top move the music forward with great energy, and Haskil is in top form.
Haydn: Symphony No. 92 in G, “Oxford” / Prague Symphony Orchestra (1976), available for free streaming on YouTube. This performance shows us a very different Dean Dixon: light and lyrical, even charming, using a greatly reduced orchestra and giving us the symphony as if were delicate china. When you compare this to his much heavier, more dramatic performance of the Haydn Symphony no. 53 from 1969, it’s obvious that Dixon was trying to fit in with the then-new “historically informed performance” crowd before they made Straight Tone Strings a religion. The treble is somewhat dull on this transfer, so crank up your treble controls when playing it.
Berg: Violin Concerto / Leonid Kogan, violinist; Orchestra della RAI Torino, 1968, available for free streaming on YouTube. This is a real gem: a great modern German violin concerto played by a Soviet violinist, a black American conductor and an Italian orchestra. And it works. Filled with both passion and elegance, this is one of my favorite versions of this great work.
Schubert: Symphony No. 4 in C min., “Tragic” / London Philharmonic Orchestra (1954), available for free streaming on YouTube. As mentioned earlier, this was one of Dixon’s greatest achievements and certainly one of the greatest performances of this oft-rushed-through symphony I’ve ever heard. I envy your hearing it for the first time.
Beethoven: Symphony No. 9 / Shige Yano, soprano; Marga Höffgen, contralto; Fritz Wunderlich, tenor; Theo Adam, bass; Chorus des Hessischen Rundfunks; Südwestfunks Orchester des Hessischen Rundfunks (1962), available for free streaming on YouTube. I purposely saved the best for last. This is a performance than combines the weight and power of Furtwängler with the clarity and almost manic drive of Toscanini: surely one of the greatest ever recorded. For the record, Wunderlich left us two other performances of the Beethoven Ninth: a studio recording conducted by Isaie Diesenhaus (the last movement is available online) and a live performance conducted in typical dead-head style by late Otto Klemperer, so if Audite just wanted to give us a “Wunderlich Beethoven Ninth” they could have used either of those. But they didn’t, and for good reason. This one is off the charts in terms of power and emotion. You’ll be breathless by the end of the last movement.
So there you have it. Dean Dixon got screwed and continues to get screwed by record companies. Discover this great conductor for yourself and see if you don’t agree with me.
—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley
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