Ailsa Dixon: Durham’s musical revival

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Throughout history, female musicians have been underrepresented and much of their music left unheard. Across the 19th and 20th centuries, women’s lives were often centred in the home and constrained by the societal pressures of motherhood, and in a time of both public and private performances, female musicians were restricted to writing and performing music for private consumption, often in salons.

Not only were their works only heard by few, their music was rarely published, unlike the works of their male peers. The only hope they had of having their work heard was often through the use of a male pseudonym. These factors have led to a musical history made up of predominantly male composers, with women being sidelined. Having said this, there are countless historical examples of talented women in music, including Fanny Hensel, who set up her own very successful salon, and Clara Schumann, who resisted societal pressures to continue her concert career.

Although there has been progress for female musicians, they continue to be underrepresented and it is important that we continue the revival of their music. In celebration of International Women’s Day, the and Durham University’s Keyboard Society held a concert on March 6th celebrating the music of Durham alumna and composer Ailsa Dixon.

Ailsa Dixon studied Music at Durham in the 1950s, as part of St Mary’s College, and it was here that she wrote her first string quartet. She was an active performer during her time at university as a pianist, violinist and lutenist and even founded the Lute Society in 1956. It wasn’t until almost 20 years later that Ailsa returned to her composing, working as a music teacher and raising her family with her husband, Brian Dixon, in the meantime. Inspired by a project staging Handel’s opera Theodora, featuring her singing pupils in a local church in 1976, she began writing her own opera, Letter to Philemon, which she finished in 1984. This was the first of many compositions that Ailsa wrote in the following 15 years. Her discography includes numerous songs as well as pieces of chamber music, including works for string quartets and piano duets, many inspired by literary texts including Shakespeare’s sonnets and Matthew Arnold’s poem “Sohrab and Rustum”. There are records of some performances of her music during her lifetime, by artists including Ian Partridge and the Brindisi Quartet; however, her gender posed a challenge to the wide dissemination of her music.

In 2017, the last year of Ailsa’s life, a revival of her music was inspired by the premiere of her anthem for choir These Things Shall Be by the London Oriana Choir at the Cutty Sark in Greenwich. Conductor Dominic Ellis Peckham discovered this anthem, which Ailsa wrote thirty years earlier, and was delighted to premiere it as part of a project celebrating the works of women composers a poignant moment of recognition. Since then, several of Ailsa’s works have been discovered and premiered, including her sonata for piano duet Airs of the Seasons, and her cycle of songs for soprano and string quartet, entitled The Spirit of Love.

The concert hosted by St Mary’s College on Wednesday 6th March, “These Things Shall Be: Ailsa Dixon”, was such a very special concert that brought Ailsa’s music back to Durham; celebrating a wide range of her music. The concert was put together in collaboration with Josie Dixon, Ailsa’s daughter, who provided a fascinating insight into her mother’s music. We are delighted that Josie has joined us this month for the concert and to spread awareness of women in music. In the words of Josie Dixon, “It’s an exciting time for redressing the imbalance that saw women composers sidelined in musical history and underrepresented in performance.”

“At last we’re hearing their distinctive voices, and Durham is playing a part in this revival. It’s the ideal place for a celebration of my mother’s music, since her composing career began here 70 years ago. Heartfelt thanks to the wonderful student musicians bringing her works to life in this concert” – Josie Dixon

You can find more information on Ailsa’s life as a female musician and composer at www.ailsadixon.co.uk.

Image Credits: ailsadixon.co.uk (top), Carly Tait (bottom)

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