Ailsa Dixon (1932–2017), who studied music at Durham in the 1950s, is one of the many women composers who have been sidelined in musical history. Only a handful of her works were performed in her lifetime, until in 2017 her anthem ‘These Things Shall Be’ was chosen for premiere as part of a project to highlight the work of female composers. It received its first performance in the spectacular glass-roofed concert hall surrounding the keel of the Cutty Sark ship, 30 years after it was written and just five weeks before she died. This was the beginning of a revival of her music, including a number of posthumous premieres, and by 2020 she was on the cover of the British Music Society’s magazine.
Her works have since been performed in venues from the Queen Elizabeth Hall to the Orkney International Festival, and broadcast in America, and her manuscripts have been digitised in France and Finland. Now her music is coming home to Durham, in a special concert organised by students in the university’s music department where she studied 70 years ago.
Musical studies in Durham
Born Ailsa Harrison, she grew up in a musical family. An early interest in composition was fostered during her studies in Durham, where she arrived at St Mary’s College in 1952. The professor of music at this time was Arthur Hutchings, remembered fondly for eccentric lectures which drew in students from other subjects for their sheer unpredictability and entertainment value.
Despite Hutchings’ own activity as a composer and his book on The Invention and Composition of Music (published later in the 1950s and still a work of reference on university music courses), there was at this time no formal tuition in composition, now a major strength of Durham’s internationally renowned music department. However, Ailsa’s first substantial composition – a scherzo for string quartet, thought to be lost until the manuscript turned up recently in an attic – was completed while at Durham and submitted as part of her degree. The music course at Durham was foundational for her composition in other ways too, offering a rigorous training in harmony, counterpoint, music history, and analysis. She was awarded the Kisch Prize, and in a written testimonial Hutchings described her as “the kind of woman who will advance her university studies for the rest of her life”.
A passion for the lute
Ailsa was an active performer on the university’s musical scene, and while in Durham developed a passion for the lute, which was something of a rarity at the time. After graduating she became a founding member of the Lute Society in 1956, and is now recognised as part of the pioneer generation in the 20th century lute revival.
A photograph taken on the steps of St Mary’s College shows her in a group of students dressed for a summer party, her lute appearing as a rather exotic accessory. Among this group were two friends with whom she later shared a flat in London: Patricia Ainsworth, who became a historical novelist under her married name of Parkes, and Biddy Baxter, whose career at the BBC was to make her a household name as editor of the children’s TV programme Blue Peter. In London Ailsa began giving music appreciation classes and lecture recitals for the Worker’s Educational Association. In the years that followed she gave many song recitals, accompanying herself on the lute, and later duetting with her husband Brian Dixon, a classical guitar teacher.
Opera in a church, and the return to composition
After their marriage, Ailsa’s composing was laid aside for more than two decades. The couple built their own house (a cedarwood bungalow with a large garden at the foot of the Chiltern Hills) and worked as music teachers while raising their family. It wasn’t until the long hot summer of 1976 that she came to a turning point, staging a production of Handel’s opera Theodora with a cast of her pupils in a local church. This was an all-consuming project, and created such withdrawal symptoms in its wake that to fill the gap she began to conceive an opera of her own. Produced in 1984, Letter to Philemon was inspired by childhood conversations with her grandfather, a theologian, about an episode in the life of St Paul. The opera marked the beginning of her most fertile period as a composer.
The next 15 years saw an outpouring of songs and chamber music, including several works for string quartet and a sonata for piano duet. There were some notable performances at the time, including premieres by Ian Partridge, the finest English tenor of his generation, and the Brindisi Quartet led by Jacqueline Shave, later director of the Britten Sinfonia. But this was not an easy time for women composers to get their music performed; much of her work went unheard, and eventually the impulse to compose began to wane.
‘These Things Shall Be’: the seeds of a revival
In 2017, an anthem for choir which Ailsa had written 30 years before came to the attention of conductor Dominic Ellis Peckham. He was championing a project to highlight the work of women composers, and jumped at the chance to give the work its premiere with the London Oriana Choir at the Cutty Sark in Greenwich. During the planning stages of this landmark concert, Ailsa was diagnosed with cancer. It was to be her last appearance in public before she died, just short of her 85th birthday. She described this belated moment of fulfilment as being “like a fairy tale”: a rare moment of recognition at the end of her life, with a sense that something had come full circle.
‘These Things Shall Be’ at the Cutty Sark. Photos: Kathleen Holman / London Oriana Choir
For her music, this was not the end, but a new beginning. ‘These Things Shall Be’ has since been performed by choirs great and small, in Oxford and Cambridge chapels, Romsey Abbey, Stationer’s Hall, and at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London.
Posthumous premieres and recordings
The publicity surrounding the Cutty Sark premiere led to a revival of interest in Ailsa’s music, and in the following years new works were discovered in her archive and prepared for performance. St George’s Bristol was the setting for two posthumous premieres, bringing to light her sonata for piano duet ‘Airs of the Seasons’, and a set of songs for soprano and string quartet, The Spirit of Love.
When the pandemic arrived in 2020, the focus moved to recordings. During the first lockdown, lutenist Lynda Sayce produced a multitrack recording of Ailsa’s 3 Fugues on Biblical Subjects, one of which was also recorded by the viol consort Fretwork. Several song recordings followed, filmed in locations spanning the length and breadth of the UK, from Tunbridge Wells in Kent to the Italian Chapel in Orkney for the St Magnus International Festival. Plans are currently underway for a recording of her complete works for string quartet by the Villiers Quartet.
A Durham celebration
Now Ailsa’s music is returning to Durham, her alma mater remembered fondly during her last illness. She recalled in her final interview “the walk from St Mary’s College to Prebend’s Bridge, over it and up the bank, in the shadow of the Cathedral, to Palace Green and the Music School”. She would surely be delighted that her work is now the subject of an enterprising performance project convened by Durham students Dana Al-Tajer, President of the university’s Keyboard Society, and Sophie Loftus, President of the Chamber Music Society.
Hosted by St Mary’s, the celebration of her music in Kenworthy Hall on 6 March will feature the most wide-ranging programme of Ailsa Dixon’s works ever to be performed in a single concert. Many of these works were still in manuscript, and some will be premieres. The evening will include a discussion of her music with her daughter Josie Dixon and members of the music department, and promises to be an evening to remember. We should be in no doubt that female composers are now taking their place on the musical map, here in the North East and across the globe.
These Things Shall Be: Ailsa Dixon
Wednesday 6 March at 7.30pm
Kenworthy Hall, St Mary’s College, Durham
Tickets are free of charge, and can be reserved here
More information on Ailsa Dixon’s music at www.ailsadixon.co.uk