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Women in Composing: The Musical Work of Bristol Woman Ailsa Dixon – Part 1

Josie Dixon Interview – Part 1: Ailsa Dixon

A recent concert at St George’s featuring a posthumous premiere by Bristol-born composer Ailsa Dixon has uncovered a musical work that went undiscovered in her lifetime. Laura Hillier, one of our Community Reporters, recently interviewed the composer’s daughter, Josie Dixon, which is published in a two-part series. This is the first article which tells Ailsa Dixon’s story. The second article will discuss the barriers to women’s representation in classical music, and some of the new developments underway that are finally beginning to redress the balance.

What was your mother’s connection to Bristol?

She was born in 1932 in Bristol. Her father went to school at Clifton, and had returned to the city to work for Wills, the tobacco company. He later became a writer – for pleasure he wrote about birdwatching, but his professional assignments included a number of company histories, including ‘Bristol Cream’, a history of the city and its wine trade. Although she was too young at the time to have any memories of her infancy living at Springfort Lodge, there were later visits to an aunt who lived in Sneyd Park, and she had a nineteenth-century print of the city at home, to mark her birthplace. So, it seems very appropriate that Bristol is one of the places where her music has now been recognised and performed. After she died, the London Oriana Choir gave a remembrance concert in St Stephen’s church including a performance of one of her works, and now we have had the posthumous premiere of her sonata for piano duet (“Airs of the Seasons”) at St George’s Bristol.  

How did your mother’s musical career get started, and what were the highlights?

There was a lot of music in the family, especially on her mother’s side. After she was born, they moved from Bristol to Little Missenden in Buckinghamshire, where her mother Patricia Harrison founded a festival of music and the arts, now in its 60th year. A more distant ancestor was the Polish-Lithuanian composer, Feliks Janiewitz, whose portrait hung next to the piano in the cottage where she grew up. She was one of five children, all playing instruments and vying for practice time in the house. She learned the piano and violin, played in the London Junior Orchestra, took her LRAM on the piano, and then read music at Durham University in the early 1950s. As a child she had composed little pieces on the piano, but it was at Durham where the desire to write music (still untutored) first really took wing, and began to be informed by her study of other composers. Her first boyfriend was an oboist from Geneva, who broadened her musical horizons with stays in Switzerland (where she once met and played to the one-armed pianist Paul Wittgenstein, brother of the philosopher) and France, where they took part in a summer music camp for an opera production in Tours.  

After marriage to my father, her musical life took a different turn, giving evening classes in music appreciation, and teaching singing. I don’t recall her ever suggesting that this entailed a loss of composing opportunity, but later I became more aware of the sacrifices she had made for the family, and looking back, there were certainly signs of creative energy in need of a bigger outlet. A major highlight was in 1976, when she produced Handel’s opera “Theodora”with a cast of pupils; she directed and sang the title role, and my father conducted. This was a hugely fulfilling project for her, and afterwards she had such withdrawal symptoms that she realised the need to find a new project of equal magnitude in her life, and began to conceive an opera of her own. While we were in our teenage years she was writing the libretto, and by the time two of three children had left home, she finally had the time and space to write the music. The opera, “Letter to Philemon”, was produced in 1984, and unleashed a decade of composing in which the majority of her work was written.  

Highlights during that time included the premiere of songs and duets (settings of Shakespeare sonnets) by two very distinguished singers, Ian Partridge and Lynne Dawson. There were alsoworks for string quartet, including the “Nocturnal Scherzo” played by the Brindisi Quartet, whose first violinist Jacqueline Shave now leads the Britten Sinfonia. But since she had no agent and no real promotional instinct, much of her music remained unheard, and there followed a gap of over 20 years in which there were no performances. For the most part she was quite unassuming about her composition, but she had occasionally sounded a bit wistful about one of the works which remained unperformed, an anthem for choir called “These Things Shall Be”, which was very close to her heart. 

In 2017, I was thinking about what to do for her 85th birthday (feeling it was a bit late in lifefor material presents), when I encountered the inspirational conductor Dominic Peckham, and his Five15 project highlighting the work of women composers. I showed him the score, and within 24 hours he had programmed it for premiere that summer, in the spectacular glass-roofed concert hall surrounding the keel of the Cutty Sark in Greenwich. The concert fell just 5 weeks before she died, and was our last celebration – a really luminous occasion for her and for the family and friends who were there to hear it. This has since kindled a lot of new interest in her work, and I am now going through her archive to discover what other works might now be performed. This autumn there have been 5 concerts in the space of a few weeks, which has been very exciting, and moving too – to listen to her music is like hearing her voice again.  

Which are your favourite pieces?

“These Things Shall Be” is a beautiful anthem, which truly deserves a place in the choral repertoire, and will always feel especially poignant because of the circumstances of its first performance.  

The quartets – there are some really beautiful moments in the Variations she wrote on the hymn tune “Love Divine”, but I find myself most fascinated by “Sohrab and Rustum”, which responds to Matthew Arnold’s poem about an estranged father and son who meet on opposite sides of the battle between the Persian and Tartar armies. It begins and ends with an eerie, scintillating evocation of the river Oxus, rising in the starlit mountains, and finally rushing out towards the sea.  

What gave your mother inspiration for her pieces?

Often her inspiration was literary – Shakespeare, Matthew Arnold, Helen Waddell’s translations of medieval Latin lyrics, or Walter de la Mare in the “Song of the Mad Prince”.  Elsewhere it was also religious – she responded to the words of “These Things Shall Be” by the late Victorian poet John Addington Symonds as a kind of prophecy, looking forward to a time when ‘every life shall be a song, when all the earth is paradise’.  

Personal experience was very important too: her opera, “Letter to Philemon”, is in part semi-autobiographical.  The story, about St Paul in captivity and his relationship with a runaway slave, draws on early conversations with her grandfather who was a theologian. This is framed by 20th-century scenes where the story of the girl and her grandfather records her desire to escape from her own captivity at boarding school.  

She was also interested in dreams. In a programme note for her “Nocturnal Scherzo”, she wrote about another kind of inspiration which lent a visual form to musical ideas: ‘When I write music which is meant to be abstract, an exposition of the main themes materialises before I feel any need to question what I am writing. Then I find it difficult to continue until I have asked myself what the themes seem to signify. Dream-like images emerge in my mind, and from that part of the process develop the ideas of how to use the themes.’

What is “Airs of the Seasons” like? How was the performance at St George’s on 8thNovember?

“Airs of the Seasons”, which she subtitled a sonata for piano duet, is a set of four movements for two pianists to play at one piano (4 hands); each is prefaced by a short poem evoking winter, spring, summer and autumn. It has a wonderful range of moods, beautifully evoked in the music, which feels by turns both introvert and extrovert. Winter has that sense of magical stillness after a snowfall, and then the first tricklings of a thaw, giving way to a lively evocation of Spring. Summer is mercurial, characterised by a dragonfly darting over the water, first sunny but with a cloudy interlude. Autumn has a theme for the wind in the leaves, interspersed in a retrospective rondo form with reminiscences of the other seasons. The accompanying poem ends on a more metaphysical note, with the hope of transcendence in ‘Man’s yearning to look beyond death’. I don’t know if she intended it, but listening to it, I found the final echo of the turning motif reminded me a little of the trilling larks at the end of Strauss’s Four Last Songs – I think she would have resisted the comparison as too grand for what is in some ways one of her lighter pieces, but the association fits the words and the mood perfectly.  

The performance by Joseph Tong and Waka Hasegawa (Piano 4 Hands) was spine-tingling – their playing is just dazzling in its precision, and so expressive. They had been rehearsing it for over a year, and first wrote to say how much they were loving the piece while my mother was still alive – I was able to read her Joseph’s appreciative message in hospital a week before she died, so although the performance came too late for her, she knew it was being played, and I think it meant a lot to know that her music would live on. She would have been honoured to see it on the same programme as Mozart and Debussy.  

When are your mother’s pieces next being played?

There are no definite dates for “Airs of the Seasons” as yet, but Joseph and Waka are keen to keep it in their repertoire, and would like to record it if funding can be found. The next project will be a performance of her cycle of “Songs of Faith and Joy” for voice and guitar. The performers Emily Gray and Gerard Cousins have trailed this with a couple of the songs in their concert programmes this autumn, but it will have its first complete performance since the 1990s next spring. I’m also in touch with several string quartets interested in performing her work, and very much hoping those seeds will bear fruit next year and beyond.

To read Josie’s thoughts on women in composing, please read the second part of our interview here.

Ailsa Dixon’s website has a concert diary – keep an eye on this for future announcements and performances:

To read a review of the “Airs of the Seasons” premiere, check out this link:

Details about Piano 4 Hands can be found here:

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