Dean Dixon was the first major African-American orchestral conductor in American classical music. As a young man he was not only talented but innovative, creating new ensembles that brought classical music closer to the communities it served. His efforts on the podium won critical praise and even the support of the First Lady of the United States. In spite of these successes, he was unable to land a position as music director of an American orchestra, and, like African-American musicians in other genres, he found a more appreciative market for his talent in Europe than he could at home. Dixon often said that early in his career he was known as "the Negro conductor Dean Dixon" (to use the wording of the time), then as "the American conductor Dean Dixon," but he was proudest when he was simply described as "the conductor Dean Dixon."
Charles Dean Dixon was born in New York on January 10, 1915. His father, trained as a lawyer in Jamaica, worked in New York as a hotel porter; his mother was Barbadian. Both parents loved classical music, banned popular music in the house, took their son to concerts at Carnegie Hall, and were dedicated to the idea that their son should become a musician. Dixon learned to read music at age three, before he could read text, and he played violin concerts to imaginary audiences at the suggestion of his mother, who had bought him a violin at a Harlem pawnshop for fifteen dollars. By the time he was nine years old he had made his debut on the radio, and the classmates who tormented him for his musical studies were volunteering to carry his equipment to the studio door.
Dixon's violin teacher, who saw trouble ahead for an African-American violinist in the highly segregated world of classical music, warned him against pursuing a musical career. But Harry Jennison, one of Dixon's teachers at DeWitt Clinton High School, thought enough of his talents to recommend him for admission to the Institute of Musical Art, soon to be renamed the Juilliard School. Dixon enrolled as a violinist but soon switched to the music pedagogy (education) program, taking conducting lessons on the side.
Formed Innovative Music Group
In between classes Dixon was doing things that no other young musician in New York was doing. While still a student at DeWitt Clinton in 1932, he had formed a musical ensemble that at first consisted of only a few of his violin and piano students but eventually grew to include about seventy members. He called it the Dean Dixon Symphony Orchestra, holding rehearsals at the Harlem branch of the YMCA. The orchestra's membership included players from ages twelve to seventy-two, men and women, blacks and whites. The orchestra gave yearly concerts, struggling financially at times but forging onward after a women's club provided an infusion of cash. It lasted until the early 1940s and performed for First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt in 1941.
Dixon was graduated from Juilliard in 1936 and continued on as a graduate student, taking conducting classes with the American composer and arranger Albert Stoessel. Dixon also enrolled in a master's program in music pedagogy at Columbia University, receiving a master's degree in 1939. By that time he had made his formal debut as a conductor, leading a concert by a group called the Music Lovers Chamber Orchestra at the Town Hall concert space in 1938. The following year he founded another group oriented toward opening up the institutions of classical music: The New York Chamber Orchestra offered a New Talent prize for musicians who had not made debuts in any of New York's established venues. In 1939 he also conducted a Harlem musical-theater performance of the John Henry legend, starring actor Paul Robeson.
In the early 1940s Dixon's career in conventional venues likewise took big strides forward. Dixon led concerts by the New York City Orchestra in 1940 and the NBC Symphony Orchestra in 1941. In August of 1941 he conducted the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, at an outdoor concert, becoming the first African American to conduct the queen of the city's orchestral ensembles. That was followed by guest conducting slots with the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Boston Symphony Orchestra; Dixon was the first African American to mount the podium with either organization. Concerts with Dixon at the helm received good reviews, and he received two prestigious awards, a Rosenwald Fellowship from 1945 to 1947 and the Alice M. Ditson Award in 1948.
Headed to Europe
This level of professional experience would normally have propelled Dixon to a conducting post with a good-sized American orchestra. Married in 1948 to Vivian Rivkin, a fellow Juilliard student whom he had conducted in concertos for piano and orchestra, Dixon became frustrated with the lack of development in his career—as well as with displays of out-and-out discrimination such as a building manager who refused to admit him to a building for a needed meeting with an orchestra member. After he was invited in 1949 to conduct the French National Radio Symphony Orchestra, Dixon decided to try his luck in Europe. "I felt like I was on a sinking ship and if I stayed here, I'd drown," Dixon said in an interview quoted by D. Antoinette Handy in Black Conductors. "I'd made a start. I had the critics. But for five years after that, nothing happened."
To be sure, going to Europe did not completely insulate Dixon from racism. A Swedish promoter, apparently in all seriousness, suggested in 1952 that Dixon conduct in whiteface makeup, wearing white gloves, but by that time Dixon had already made enough Swedish appearances that he could point in response to his regular and successful experiences conducting in Sweden as a black man. He settled in Sweden and was named conductor of the Göteborg Symphony there, beginning in 1953. Dixon and Rivkin divorced in 1954, and he soon married a Finnish noblewoman, Mary Mandelin. Remaining in Göteborg until 1960, Dixon had guest conducting engagements in virtually all of Europe's major capitals and had offers of new permanent posts in several of them. He introduced European audiences to the music of a long list of American composers, black and white.
At a Glance …
Born Charles Dean Dixon on January 10, 1915, in New York, NY; died November 3, 1976, in Zug, Switzerland; son of Henry Charles and McClara Dixon; married Vivian Rivkin, 1948 (divorced, 1954); married Mary Mandelin (divorced); married Ritha Blume, 1973; children: (first marriage) Nina; (second marriage) Diane. Education: Juilliard School of Music, BM (violin), 1936; studied conducting at Juilliard, 1938-39; Columbia University, MA, 1939.
Career: Founded Dean Dixon Symphony Society (later Dean Dixon Symphony Orchestra), 1932; made debut, conducting League of Music Lovers Chamber Orchestra, 1938; founded New York Chamber Orchestra, 1939; conducted New York Philharmonic, 1941; founded American Youth Orchestra, 1944; conducting engagements in Europe, 1949-52; Göteborg Symphony Orchestra, Sweden, music director, 1953-60; Hessian Radio Symphony Orchestra, Frankfurt, Germany, music director, 1961-70; Sydney Symphony Orchestra, Australia, music director, 1964-67; conducting engagements with New York Philharmonic and other orchestras in United States, early 1970s.
Awards: Julius Rosenwald Fellowship, 1945-47; Alice M. Ditson Award, Columbia University, 1948.
In 1961 Dixon accepted a post as music director of the Hessian Radio Symphony Orchestra in Frankfurt in what was then West Germany, remaining there until 1970. From 1964 to 1967 he also held the music directorship of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra in Australia, taking advantage of the reversal of the seasons in the Southern Hemisphere to work through two concert seasons in the same year. Dixon's second marriage dissolved, and he married a German woman, Ritha Blume. Each of his first two marriages produced one daughter (Nina and Diane, respectively). Dixon made about twenty recordings for Desto, Westminster, and other small labels; many of them are prized by record collectors.
Returned to United States
A major point of pride in Dixon's later life was his return to the United States in 1970, by which time—although quite familiar to European classical audiences—he was virtually unknown in his home country and had not appeared there for twenty-one years. Dixon conducted the New York Philharmonic in three outdoor concerts, appeared in 1970 with the Pittsburgh and St. Louis symphonies, and then embarked on a nationwide tour, sponsored by Schlitz beer, that included appearances with eight orchestras, including the Chicago and Detroit symphonies and the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, D.C. "It was not because I was suddenly a better conductor," Dixon observed in an interview quoted by Handy, "but because black was suddenly beautiful. And what could be more beautiful than a black conductor?" Although Dixon recalled that he took some criticism from younger African-American activists who believed that he had "opted out," he felt that his example was useful to young black musicians. "By getting away I have helped those at home," he said in the same interview. "I have shown what can be done."
Dixon returned to his home, by then in Switzerland, and continued to conduct in Europe. In 1975 he began a tour of twenty-four concerts in Australia. At the beginning of the tour Dixon discussed various aspects of his life with Australian journalists; it emerged that he and his German wife were vegetarians, environmentalists, and fitness buffs. Dixon also said (according to Handy) that working on amateur inventions was "essential to his sanity away from the conductor's podium"; his inventions included an improved bathroom cistern and a transparent piano top. Despite his healthful ways, however, his Australian tour was cut short by heart problems. He underwent open-heart surgery in Switzerland in December of 1975 and returned to work, but he died in Zug, Switzerland, on November 3, 1976.
Dvorak: Cello Concerto in B Minor, Op. 104, Westminster, 1952.
Howard Swanson: Short Symphony, American Recording Society, 1952(?).
(With Geza Anda) Bartók: Piano Concerto No. 2, RAI, 1961.
The Black Composer in America, Desto, 1971(?).
Christian Ferras Portrait, Originals, 1995.
Ruggiero Ricci Plays Stravinsky, Shostakovich, Respighi, One-Eleven, 1997.
Liszt: Orchestral Music, Westminster.
(With Vivian Rifkin and Orchestra of the Vienna State Opera Orchestra) MacDowell: Piano Concertos # 1 & 2, Westminster.
(With American Recording Society Orchestra) Piston: Symphony No. 2, American Recording Society.
About twenty LPs, plus other performances, preserved in European radio archives.
Handy, D. Antoinette, Black Conductors, Scarecrow, 1995.
American Visions, February-March 1993, p. 44.
Black Perspective in Music, Autumn 1976, p. 345.
Time, April 21, 1941.
"Recordings of Dean Dixon," http://www.h4.dion.ne.jp/~hugo.z/DeanDixon/DixonRecordings.html (accessed March 17, 2008).
—James M. Manheim
"Dixon, Dean." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (July 10, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/dixon-dean
"Dixon, Dean." Contemporary Black Biography. . Retrieved July 10, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/dixon-dean
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Dixon, (Charles) Dean
"Dixon, (Charles) Dean." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Music. . Encyclopedia.com. (July 10, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/arts/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/dixon-charles-dean
"Dixon, (Charles) Dean." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Music. . Retrieved July 10, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/arts/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/dixon-charles-dean