Among the many women composers side-lined in musical
history who are becoming the focus of new interest, Ailsa Dixon (1932-2017)
only began to receive her share of recognition in the last months of her
life. While there were a handful of
performances during her most fertile period of composition in the 1980s and
’90s (most notably by Ian Partridge, Lynne Dawson, and the Brindisi Quartet),
there followed several decades of almost complete neglect. Then, in 2017, a work that had been lying in
manuscript for thirty years was chosen for premiere as part of the London
Oriana Choir’s Five15 project highlighting the work of women composers. These things shall be
its first performance in the spectacular glass-roofed concert hall surrounding
the keel of the Cutty Sark just five weeks before the composer’s death.
It was sung again at memorial concerts in London and Bristol, and is now showing signs of entering the choral repertoire, with subsequent performances by choirs in Oxford and Cambridge and festivals from Little Missenden to Romsey Abbey. With its vision of a future when ‘New arts shall bloom’, it seems especially apt that it came to light in the context of the enterprise to give due prominence to the work of women composers.
Born Ailsa Harrison, she came from a musical family background: next to the piano in the cottage where she grew up was a portrait of her musical ancestor Feliks Yaniewicz (1762-1848), the Polish composer and violinist who co-founded the first Edinburgh Festival. She played the violin in the London Junior Orchestra, studied the piano with Hilda Bor, took her LRAM, and went on to read music at Durham University in the early 1950s. It was here that she first began playing the lute, which she later studied with Diana Poulton. There was no formal tuition in composition, but by the time she left university she had written her first work for string quartet (a Scherzo recently rediscovered in her archive), though it was not until some decades later that she returned to composition in earnest.
The intervening period was spent teaching and singing, but her musical life took a new turn in 1976 when she undertook a production of Handel’s Theodora. This was an all-consuming project, and left her with such withdrawal symptoms that afterwards, to fill the gap, she began to conceive an opera of her own, Letter to Philemon (based on an episode in the life of St Paul) which was performed in 1984 and proved to be the start of her most fertile period as a composer.
In the following two decades she wrote three works for string quartet (Nocturnal Scherzo, Sohrab and Rustum, and Variations on Love Divine), chamber works including a set of 3 fugues on Biblical subjects, and Airs of the Seasons, a sonata for piano duet (4 hands). Among her vocal compositions are a variety of songs and duets, including settings of two Shakespeare sonnets for soprano and tenor, a cycle of 5 Songs of Faith and Joy for mezzo soprano and guitar, a set of 3 songs for soprano and string quartet entitled The Spirit of Love, and Shining Cold, a vocalise for high soprano, ondes martenot and strings.
Many of these works went unperformed in her lifetime, but recent discoveries in her musical archive have stimulated a raft of new performances, including posthumous premieres of Airs of the Seasons at St George’s Bristol in 2018 and The Spirit of Love (in February 2020). Plans are underway for a recording of her complete works for string quartet by the Villiers Quartet. Her manuscript scores are now being digitised as part of a project in Finland to preserve the work of neglected female composers, and there are plans to deposit her archive at Heritage Quay, where the British Music Collection is held.
Religious themes are a strong element in Ailsa Dixon’s works, while literary texts (from medieval Latin lyrics to Shakespeare, Matthew Arnold and Walter de la Mare) inspired many of her compositions. When asked about her musical influences in an interview in the ‘Meet the Artist’ series shortly before she died, she cited ‘Fauré (for his harmonic suppleness), Britten (for his powers of evocation and empathy), and Bartok (studying his compositional processes at Durham stimulated an interest in his lively variations of time signature and the elasticity of musical motifs)’, while observing that ‘the Greats preside over it all’. Her interest in counterpoint is especially prominent in the three instrumental Fugues and the quartets, and was often deployed to figure the interplay and resolution of conflicting emotions, as in the Nocturnal Scherzo, and a farewell fugue sung by four characters in Letter to Philemon.
Frances Wilson wrote of her musical style in a review
of Airs of the Seasons, ‘The opening chords… are reminiscent of Debussy
and Britten in their distinct timbres, and the entire work has a distinctly
impressionistic flavour. Ailsa’s admiration of Fauré … is also evident in the
harmonic language, while the idioms of English folksong and hymns, and melodic
motifs redolent of John Ireland and the English Romantics remind us that this
is most definitely a work by a British composer with an original musical
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