Marcel Dick, Composer, 1898–1991


Marcel Dick gained international renown during his performing career with major European and American orchestras and string quartets. When he was named head of the graduate department of theory and composition at the Cleveland Institute of Music, however, he put down his viola forever and forged a second career as composer, teacher and conductor.

Born August 28, 1898, into a wealthy Jewish family in Miskolc, Hungary, Dick made his debut playing a violin recital at age six—before he learned to read music. Five years later, he entered the Royal Academy in Budapest, where he studied violin with Joseph Bloch and Rezsö Kemény and theory and composition with Victor Herzfeld and Zoltán Kodály. While still in his teens, he earned a degree in violin and was named Professor of Music.

Following army service during World War I, he joined the violin section of the Budapest Opera and Budapest Philharmonic. In 1921, he emigrated to Vienna, then the European hotbed of innovative musical thought. After a stint as assistant concert-master of the Volksoper, he became principal violist of the Vienna Symphony Orchestra. During his 11-year tenure, he also was violist of the Gottesman and Rosé string quartets.

In 1924, Dick was invited to help prepare and perform the world premiere of Arnold Schoenberg’s Serenade, Op. 24, the first 12-tone work ever offered in a public concert. During rehearsals, the exceptional young violist astonished the revolutionary composer by pointing out an error in the score. A valued member of Schoenberg’s inner circle, Dick subsequently co-founded the Kolisch Quartet, an ensemble that specialized in the master’s music and applied his detailed performance practices to classical works.

By 1934, anti-Semitism was rampant in Vienna, and Dick was offered the title of “honorary Aryan.” But he was so appalled by the idea that he immediately arranged to emigrate to the United States with his American wife, Ann. He quickly found work, first as a freelance musician in New York, then as principal violist of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. From 1935 to 1943, he was a member of the Stradivarius Quartet, an affiliate of Harvard University. In 1943, he was named principal violist of the Cleveland Orchestra, a post he held for six years. When Dick left the orchestra to teach full-time, music director George Szell asked him to attend rehearsals weekly and give advice on musical matters. “He took my advice, too,” Dick told a Cleveland Plain Dealer interviewer.

Although Dick composed a few pieces before coming to the United States, most of the 29 works in his catalogue were written after 1934. His earliest compositions were influenced by Wagner and Mahler. But after he became a disciple of Schoenberg, he embraced the 12-tone system and made it his own. His music, serious in tone and contrapuntal in texture, unfolds with lyrical expression within traditional forms, including sonata, symphony, variations and fugue. Symphony no. 1 (1948), the first full-length 12-tone symphony, was premiered by the Cleveland Orchestra under the direction of Dimitri Mitropoulos and reviewed by Cleveland News music critic Elmore Bacon, who praised Dick’s “magical gift for orchestration.”

Dick conducted the Cleveland Orchestra in premieres of his Adagio and Rondo for Orchestra (1951) and Capriccio for Orchestra (1955). Besides orchestral works, he composed chamber music, songs and instrumental solos. A phrase from his Four Elegies and an Epilogue for unaccompanied cello is quoted in Evensong by Donald Erb, 1966 Cleveland Arts Prize winner and one of Dick’s most accomplished students.

In 1990, Dick was honored with a concert of his works at the Cleveland Institute of Music and the publication of a Festschrift containing scholarly essays, tributes and scores. The following year, the composer died at his home in Cleveland Heights. He was 93. At a memorial concert, 1965 Cleveland Arts Prize winner Klaus G. Roy described Dick as “a giant among musicians” and acknowledged his important place in music history, “not as a bystander but as a protagonist.”

—Wilma Salisbury

Cleveland Arts Prize
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