Dean Dixon - I owe him a huge debt

Dear Pliable, As a lonely youngster growing up in Sydney in the sixties, one of the great experiences I had was to hear Dean Dixon in many concerts with the SSO. I got to know the basic classical repetory at the old Sydney Town Hall. Dixon seems to have been forgotten, and I couldn't then judge how good a conductor he was, but I owe him a huge debt. Keep up the good work and remember Dean Dixon!!! Yours David Sudlow
David, thank you for that memory, and for the opportunity to make sure that Dean Dixon, who features in my photos, is neither forgotten nor underrated. He was born in 1915 in New York City and studied at DeWitt Clinton High School in Harlem, then at the Juilliard School and Columbia University. At the age of 26 Dixon became the youngest conductor to lead the then New York Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra, and in 1941 he conducted the NBC Symphony in the orchestra's summer season. He made many recordings of American contemporary music including Henry Cowell's Symphony No. 5, Edward McDowell's Indian Suite, and Douglas Moore's Symphony in A with electronic resources for the the American Recording Society label. In later years Dixon worked with the Philadelphia and Boston orchestras.

From 1949 onwards Dean Dixon enjoyed a distinguished international career that included the position of principal conductor of the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra in Sweden from 1953 to 1960, a post now held by none other than Gustavo Dudamel. Dixon was also principal conductor of the Hess Radio Symphony Orchestra (now HR Symphonie Orchester) in Germany from 1961 to 1970 where the present incumbent is Paavo Järvi, and he also guest conducted with the Israel Philharmonic.

It was a mark of Dixon's reputation that über-modernist William Glock invited him to conduct Mahler's Seventh Symphony with the BBC Symphony Orchestra in the orchestra's 1963-4 season. This was way before the Mahler revival gathered steam; the first complete recorded cycle of Mahler's symphonies was not completed by Leonard Bernstein until 1968, with those of Georg Solti and Bernard Haitink following in the 1970s.

Dixon made a number of acclaimed recordings of mainstream repertoire for the Westminster label with European orchestras. His discs of symphonies by Schubert and Schumann have recently been transferred to the CDs seen at the foot of my article by the enterprising Rediscovery label. David Sudlow quite rightly praises Dean Dixons' work in Australia, and my header photo was taken in Melbourne Town Hall in 1962. Dixon was principal conductor of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra from 1964 to 1967. Other chief conductors of the Sydney orchestra have included Eugene Goosens, Louis Frémaux, Charles Mackerras, and, today, Vladimir Ashkenazy.

If that was the story of Dean Dixon's career it would be a notable one, even by today's standards when international conducting opportunities are the norm rather than the exception. But, to allow his music making to speak for itself, I have omitted one fact about Dean Dixon. It is the angle that almost every article about him takes. My photos give it away. Dean Dixon was an African-American born of West Indian parents.

When he was 13, a teacher told his mother to “stop wasting her money” and discontinue his musical studies. He had to fund his own 70 player Dean Dixon Symphony in 1932 to give him (literally) a platform for his talents. Eleanor Roosevelt encouraged him to pursue his conducting career, he went on to be the first African-American to conduct the New York Philharmonic, and his repertoire included the Afro-American Symphony of William Grant Still.

But doors remained shut in his own country and Dean Dixon left for Europe at the end of the 1940s in search of permanent conducting appointments. Opportunities were more equal outside America and his career flourished with the non-US orchestras mentioned above during the 1950s and 60s. He conducted the Orquesta Filarmónica de la Ciudad de México at the 1968 Mexico Olympics that were the scene of the black civil rights protest of Tommie Smith and John Carlos. From 1970 onwards Dixon worked once again in America and he guest conducted leading orchestras. But he died, poignantly, in Switzerland on November 4, 1976 at the early age of 61.

Reader David Sudlow's email prompted me to write this tribute during Black History Month. Dean Dixon used to say that as his career progressed he was first known as the American Negro conductor, Dean Dixon; then the American conductor, Dean Dixon; and, at last, as the conductor, Dean Dixon. Those simple words 'the conductor Dean Dixon' say it all. His musical achievements transcend everything else. David Sudlow is quite right; we owe him a huge debt.

Dean Dixon was the first African-American to conduct the New York Philharmonic. Now read about the Berlin Philharmonic's first African-American conductor and first woman conductor.

Additional Dean Dixon resources:
- The African American Registry
- Wikipedia
- BBC Symphony Orchestra by Nicholas Kenyon (ISBN 0563176172 out of print)

Header photo is by Wolfgang Sievers and is copyright National Library of Australia. Any copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk


JMW said…
Thanks for this poignant tribute. I never got to see him, but I was able to acquire some recordings ,which in my opinion show him to be a master. The pictures are telling; they seem to reek with Dixon's joy in making music.

Dean Dixon should be on an American postage stamp.
JW, you're right. A commemorative stamp should be issued!

I have a short write up in Spanish on Dean Dixon here:

You have to scroll down the page to see it. Hope you can understand it...
Wanted to compliment Pliable on the photos used in this particular write up.
barbara said…
When I was about 10 years old, around 1947, I attended a series of music appreciation classes given by Dean Dixon in a private home in Queens, NY. It was a wonderful experience. It was in conjunction with those classes that I probably attended my first live orchestral concert (at Needletrades High School, in NY?) conducted by Mr. Dixon.

The last time I saw him was one summer when he conducted the NY Philharmonic in Central Park.

A wonderful man. Died much too young.
Åke Malm said…
He was the real introducer in my life to great music when he conducted the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra in the 50s. I was a young boy then and got a free ticket for "the School concerts" in our famous Concert Hall. He made a great pedagogic show and introduced us to Benjamin Britten's The young persons guide to the orchestra. But also - I remember - did a funny show to de-dramatize the role of the conductor. "Now I will show you the importance of the conductor", he said, starting up the Ruslan and Ludmilla-overture. After a few bars he left his place, walked down and passed all the way to the back of the hall. Then he slowly reenterd, in time to close the score. "Now you have seen the importance of the conductor", he said. As you see - still a vivd memory. Thanks Dean.
Unknown said…
My piano professor, Judith Burganger was first American who won the Munich Piano Competition in Germany . After she won, she quest performed Rachmanninoff Second piano concerto in Germany in 1965, and the conductor was Dean Dixon. That's how I got to know him...

I wish to know more about him.

btw, Here is the link of my piano professor and Dean Dixon perform Rach 2nd..


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