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Women in Composing: The Musical Work of Bristol Woman Ailsa Dixon – Part 2

Josie Dixon Interview – Part 2: Women in Composing

Laura Hillier recently interviewed Josie Dixon about her mother Ailsa Dixon, a composer with a connection to Bristol. The interview is published across two articles – this is the second part of the interview, and centres around women’s representation in the world of composing.

I was shocked to the read the statistic that 95% of concerts have pieces only composed by men. Why do you think women composers are receiving less attention than men composers?

It is indeed shocking, and hard to think of any other walk of life in which women’s under-representation has persisted in such an extreme way into the 21st century. The historical roots of this run deep in our musical culture. Why until recently had we forgotten the searingly beautiful melodies written by the medieval mystic Hildegard of Bingen? Or the music of Italian Renaissance women like Barbara Strozzi or Francesca Caccini? Convents and courts were better incubators of female talent than society at large, where women were for centuries defined in relation to their men. 

In the nineteenth century, Clara Schumann, wife of the more famous Robert, was herself a composer as well as a formidable pianist, writing concertos, chamber and choral works, and yet she wrote, with a level of self-deprecation that now feels almost a betrayal of her gifts, ‘I once believed that I possessed creative talent, but I have given up this idea; a woman must not desire to compose — there has never yet been one able to do it.’  Fanny Mendelssohn was a musical prodigy equal to her brother Felix, but what hope could there have been of developing that talent to the full in an environment where her father determined that ‘Music will perhaps become his profession, while for you it can and must be only an ornament, never the root of your being and doing’. Her brother wrote ‘She is too much all that a woman ought to be for this. She regulates her house, and neither thinks of the public nor of the musical world, nor even of music at all, until her first duties are fulfilled. Publishing [her music] would only disturb her in these, and I cannot say that I approve of it’. Much of her music was instead published and performed under his name.

There is simply no excuse for perpetuating any vestiges of such attitudes in the 21st century, but their historical impact has had a very long tail. It is only now that we are beginning to see women composers recognised in significant numbers, and given the same opportunities as their male counterparts.  

How can this gender imbalance be addressed – what needs to happen?

There is a still long way to go, but it is finally being addressed, and with a momentum that is truly exciting.

First is quite simply a new commitment to performing more works by women. To give just two examples, the Five15 project, which brought my mother’s work to prominence, is bringing a wonderful array of women’s music into the choral repertoire, and offers residencies and mentoring workshops for up-and-coming women composers. Their annual flagship concerts at the Cutty Sark have been truly inspiring. The Illuminate touring concert series is devoted to shining a light on women composers and their music with a wider geographical reach, to ensure this is not merely a London-based phenomenon.  

Positive discrimination and quotas are sometimes viewed as contentious, but they are helping to accelerate the long overdue process of redressing the gender balance. Among the music colleges, Trinity Laban’s Venus Blazing project has introduced a 50% quota for women composers in all their concerts for the next year. This goes much further than the recent pledging exercise in which several dozen festivals from the Proms to Aldeburgh undertook to give 50% of new commissions to women composers. That is good news, of course, but newly commissioned music accounts for only a fraction of concert programmes, so 50:50 programming is a much bolder initiative that will lead to far more women’s music being heard. The fact that this is happening in a conservatoire will help to encourage an expectation in the next generation of musicians that women’s voices in classical music should be represented as a matter of course.  

Radio 3 has given airtime to many more women composers since inaugurating their annual day’s broadcasting of female composers for International Women’s Day, and although the aim must be for a larger impact on their programming for the other 364 days of the year, there is no doubt that women composers are beginning to infiltrate the airwaves. Radio can have an important role in the rehabilitation of historical women composers. A couple of years ago, I found the ‘Composer of the Week’ programmes devoted to the 19th-century French composer Louise Farrenc an absolute revelation – she was no mere drawing-room composer, but a fully-fledged symphonist with all guns blazing, so why had we never heard of her?  

Role models for the next generation of women composers are clearly important, from Judith Weir, Master of the Queen’s Music, to brilliant younger composers such as Cheryl Frances Hoad (who endearingly published on her website, alongside her dazzling achievements, a CV of failures to encourage others to overcome setbacks in their composing careers). We can see composing genes passed down the generations – for example, in the work of Nicola Lefanu (daughter of Elizabeth Maconchy) – and influences transmitted through teachers and mentors. Listening to Thea Musgrave’s Desert Island Discs recently, her account of studying with Nadia Boulanger in Paris made me wonder how much earlier my mother’s composing career might have taken wing had she had such a mentor, or the opportunity to study composition more formally in her student days.

Recording is another key element – women composers will not achieve due prominence until their works are widely available to hear. Among other projects now underway, Donne: Women in Music, pioneered by the singer Gabriella di Laccio, involves a commitment to recording music by women composers which commercial record labels would not take on.  

Funding is often an issue, so organisations like the Ambache Foundation have an important role to play in supporting ventures that are not yet commercially sustainable. One of the biggest obstacles to performance is concert promoters’ belief that women composers, because they are less well known, don’t make for good box office and are thus not a bankable prospect. Others are turning to crowdfunding as a means to achieve their aims, be it recording projects or opportunities for young composers like Angela Elizabeth Slater to take up scholarships to study abroad.  

Another piece in the jigsaw is the availability of scores for performance. I have recently been contacted by musicians in Finland who have a project to rescue the neglected works of women composers by digitising works which (like my mother, Ailsa Dixon’s) are still inmanuscript. This is an important initiative to preserve the music we are in danger of losing and make it newly available for future generations of performers. 

Do you have any advice for women currently in the field, or women that want to work in composing?

My mother did have some advice for aspiring composers in an interview that she gave not long before she died:

“Love composition enough to want to do it whether you get paid or not. Have friends or pupils who are happy to perform it. Value and reflect on your life experiences, whether happy or painful, because whether music appears to be programmatic or abstract, it is all the product of experiences that are deeply felt, as much as of individual gifts.”

I don’t compose myself, so I don’t feel in any way qualified to advise. I would say that this is – at last – a good time to be a woman composer, with greater chances than ever before to be heard. So, I hope that the next generation will feel every confidence in their ability to take the world by storm.

To read Josie’s account of her mother Ailsa Dixon’s composing career, please read the first part of our interview here.

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

Visit the following links to learn more about the projects that aim to raise women’s representation in composing:

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