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Ailsa Dixon – a musical revival

15 octobre 2020

Ailsa in the snowdrops.png

‘The opening chords of the first movement are reminiscent of Debussy and Britten in their distinct timbres, and the entire work has a distinctly impressionistic flavour. [The composer’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 vision.’    

Frances Wilson on ‘Airs of the Seasons’, a sonata for piano duet
Ailsa Dixon

If readers were asked to guess the subject of this review of a work premiered at St George’s Bristol in 2018, how many would be able to identify the composer as Ailsa Dixon (1932-2017) - indeed how many would have heard her name at all? 

Among the many women composers side-lined in musical history who are becoming the focus of new interest, Ailsa Dixon only began to receive her share of recognition in the last months of her life.  While there were a handful of performances during the 1980s and ’90s (notably by Ian Partridge, Lynne Dawson, and the Brindisi Quartet led by Jacqueline Shave), 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, an anthem setting verses from a prophetic poem by John Addington Symonds, received its first performance in the spectacular glass-roofed concert hall surrounding the keel of the Cutty Sark, just five weeks before she died. 


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.

Five 15 at the Cutty Sark, July 2017.  Photo: London Oriana Choir / Kathleen Holman
Ailsa with Dobrinka Tabakova and Cheryl
Ailsa Dixon (centre) at the premiere of  These things shall be in July 2017, with fellow composers Dobrinka Tabakova (left) and Cheryl Frances Hoad (right).  Photo: London Oriana Choir / Kathleen Holman

Since her death, discoveries in Ailsa Dixon’s musical archive have stimulated a succession of new performances, including posthumous premieres for Airs of the Seasons in 2018, and a cycle of songs for soprano and string quartet, The Spirit of Love, at St George’s Bristol in February 2020.  A recording of her complete works for string quartet is planned for 2021. 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, home to the British Music Collection.


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 Janiewitz (1762-1848), the Polish composer and violinist who co-founded the first Edinburgh Festival.  She studied the piano with Hilda Bor, took her LRAM, and went on to read music at Durham University in the early 1950s.  There was no formal tuition in composition, but it was there that she wrote her first work for string quartet (now lost), though it was to be some decades before she returned to composition in earnest.

Ailsa with lute and contemporaries at Du
Ailsa (with lute) and contemporaries at Durham in the early 1950s

The intervening period was spent teaching, singing and playing the lute, but her musical life took a new turn in 1976, when she undertook a production of Handel’s Theodora, in which she sang the title role, with her husband Brian conducting and a cast formed largely of her singing pupils. The project 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, 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 three Fugues on Biblical subjects, and the sonata for piano duet (4 hands) Airs of the Seasons. Among her vocal compositions are many songs and duets, including Two Shakespeare Sonnets for soprano and tenor, and a cycle of 5 Songs of Faith and Joy for mezzo soprano and guitar.  Her husband Brian was a guitarist, and they performed the cycle together, programmed with some of the lute-song repertoire which inspired it. 


One of Ailsa Dixon’s works that has raised particular interest in France is Shining Cold (premiered in 1986): a vocalise exploring the contrasting sonorities of the high soprano voice, viola, cello and ondes Martenot.  The score is to be digitised and edited as part of ComposHer’s programme of editions. The programme note from the original performance sheds some light on the ideas behind it…

‘In ancient languages such as Greek and Hebrew one word can be used for a) breath, b) wind, and c) spirit.  The three intermingle in this piece.  A questioning spirit inhabits particularly the upper parts, the Ondes seeming more disembodied than the voice, its mortal, sighing ‘sister’.  If there is any answer, it is borne on the wind, as fragmentary sounds from another world, or in the piercing light which at moments illuminates this winter landscape.’

It was paired in performance with the premiere of the Nocturnal Scherzo for string quartet; a note accompanying the two scores in her archive provides an account of how this use of images worked in both pieces as part of her compositional method:

'It seems to me that no music is truly abstract.  Pieces which have no words or ‘programme’ must be a condensation either of past experience or of processes going on in the psyche.  When I write music which intends 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.'

Among the other sources of inspiration for her composition, religious themes are a strong element in Dixon’s work. Her grandfather was a theologian and scholar of St Paul; memories of their conversations in her childhood became the inspiration for her opera Letter to Philemon. St Paul’s Letter to the Corinthians provided the texts for ‘Charity’, one of the Songs of Faith and Joy, and ‘Since by man came death’, one of the late Fugues on Biblical subjects.  She wrote a number of Psalm settings, including an anthem for high soprano and organ or piano, I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills (Psalm 121) and three of the Songs of Faith and Joy (Psalms 126, 148 and 122), while another of the Fugues invokes Psalm 137 ‘By the waters of Babylon’.


Many of her compositions were inspired by literary texts, from medieval Latin lyrics to Shakespeare, Matthew Arnold and Walter de la Mare.  When asked about her musical influences in an interview 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. In Letter to Philemon a farewell fugue interweaves the contrasting impulses of four central characters at a pivotal point in the drama, while in the Nocturnal Scherzo, the contrapuntal treatment of musical themes enacts a dream vision in which a pair of commedia dell’arte characters represent the contest and reconciliation of two halves of the psyche.

By the late 1990s the impulse to compose seems to have diminished. In a letter dated 2001, accompanying the scores of ‘Fire’ and ‘Water’ (two duets from an unfinished cycle The Elements), she wrote ‘I might take a break in composition now.’  In fact, these two songs were to be among her last works. As for many British composers, a sense of place was often important to her writing, and whereas a move to Sussex earlier in her composing years had prompted a song of great contentment in New Home, a copy of the manuscript of one of the late Fugues suggests a more wistful nostalgia for an earlier home. Psalm 137 (which many composers have responded to as a song of exile) was the inspiration for this fugue; at the end of the score she wrote out the opening verses:

By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept;

We hung up our harps upon the willow:

How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?

and afterwards in brackets a dedication, ‘To Lincoln Green’, her first married home in Oxfordshire, which she and her husband Brian had built themselves, where they had raised their family, and where Letter to Philemon had been written at the outset of her most fertile period of composition. Was this sense of loss and displacement felt as a signal to hang up her harp?

It was some years since the last public performance, and for a quarter of a century her music went unheard, until the score of her anthem These things shall be came to the attention of conductor Dominic Ellis Peckham, and plans were set in motion for the premiere at the Cutty Sark in 2017. Setting that performance by the London Oriana Choir in the context of their wider enterprise to highlight the work of women composers, Peckham reflected in a recent interview, ‘That experience of enabling Ailsa to hear her piece for the first time at the very end of her life made us realise how important this project is… [in] giving recognition to the many female composers over the centuries whose music has been neglected.’  The premiere of The Spirit of Love in February 2020 has been programmed alongside the String Quartet in E Minor by Ethel Smyth, which also had to wait over a decade for its first performance. Together with the increasing number of recent and forthcoming performances, these are welcome signs of a musical revival for one of the many female composers missing from the history of British music in the twentieth century.

Josie Dixon

More details about Ailsa Dixon’s music and forthcoming performances are available at  

Ailsa Dixon's YouTube channel :

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An article on Ailsa Dixon’s works for string quartet was published by Illuminate Women in Music in November 2019 :

With thanks to the British Music Society, who published an earlier version of this article in their October 2019 Newsletter. 

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