Among the composers featured in Illuminate’s second concert series in 2019 will be Ailsa Dixon (1932-2017), whose Variations on Love Divine for string quartet will be played in Oxford on 8th November.
The performance history of Ailsa Dixon’s work offers a striking example of how women composers sidelined in musical history are now being rediscovered. A handful of performances during her most fertile period of composition in the 1980s and ’90s (notably by Ian Partridge, Lynne Dawson, and the Brindisi Quartet), were followed by several decades of almost complete neglect. Then in 2017 a work written thirty years earlier was chosen for premiere as part of the London Oriana Choir’s Five15 project highlighting the work of women composers. These things shall be received its first performance in the spectacular glass-roofed concert hall surrounding the keel of the Cutty Sark, just five weeks before she died.
With further performances at memorial events and in festivals and concerts around the UK, it is now showing signs of entering the choral repertoire. With its vision of a future when ‘New arts shall bloom’, it seems especially apt that this work came to light in the context of the enterprise to give due prominence to the work of women composers, and has stimulated a revival of interest in her music.
Ailsa Dixon’s compositions include an opera, chamber and instrumental music, a sonata for piano duet and many vocal works, but the string quartet was central to her writing from the outset. Her first serious work, completed while reading music at University in Durham in the 1950s, was a single movement for string quartet (now lost). When she returned to composition in the 1980s, embarking on her opera Letter to Philemon (performed in 1984), a string quartet was at the core of the instrumentation. In the years that followed, she wrote several further works for quartet.
Two years after Letter to Philemon, Dixon’s Nocturnal Scherzo was premiered in 1986 at the Little Missenden Festival by the Brindisi Quartet.
It was paired in performance with Shining Cold, a haunting vocalise exploring the different sonorities of the high soprano voice, strings (viola and cello) and the ondes Martenot (an early electronic instrument, best known for its role in Messiaen’s Turangalila symphony).
A note accompanying the two scores in her archive sheds light on 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.'
The note goes on to explain the dream sequence underlying the Nocturnal Scherzo and its symbolic significance, representing the contest and reconciliation of two halves of the psyche:
‘From a ‘sleep’ theme a slow rising motif suddenly erupts into action. Out of a jack-in-the-box bursts Pierrot, with his white face, his funny gait and his sad little song. He is swept off stage by the macho man whose theme in the cello verges on the bombastic. Pierrot climbs the stage curtains and swings up there, mocking the macho man. Eventually he responds to the macho’s angry call, not to assume unfair advantage, but to come down. They try on each other’s themes, like hats. Scarcely has a harmonious contrapuntal synthesis of their themes developed before the ‘sleep’ theme calls and the lid of the box slowly and gently closes down on them.’
This vignette, combining an apparently trivial piece of commedia dell’arte with a deeper psychological meaning, gives an insight into the emotional significance she attached to the contrapuntal interplay and resolution of musical themes.
The Nocturnal Scherzo was performed again in 1992 by the all-female De Beauvoir Quartet, alongside the premiere of Dixon’s next work for quartet, Sohrab and Rustum, written in 1987-8. This was a more ambitious undertaking: a substantial through-composed single movement, inspired by Matthew Arnold’s poem about the tragic encounter between an estranged father and son on opposite sides of a battle between the Tartar and Persian armies. The music is a vivid response to the poem’s human drama and atmosphere. Listeners will not easily forget the opening sequence evoking the river Oxus rising in the starlit mountains. A long, searing high E in the first violin over a deep chord from the lower strings gives way to an eerie chromatic oscillating motif between the two violins, like the scintillation of light on water. Through a gradual crescendo it turns into a fast falling motif as the river gathers momentum, tumbling towards the plain where the drama will take place. A leaping phrase ending with a trill, marked ‘brillante’ and passed between the players, brings the action to life, and gradually the story unfolds as the warriors come face to face. At the close of the piece, its human tragedy played out, the armies light their evening fires and the river pours out into a calm sea under the stars.
Ailsa Dixon’s final work for string quartet, the Variations on Love Divine written in 1991-2, represents an unusual foray into religious chamber music. A possible source of inspiration may have been Haydn’s Seven Last Words from the Cross, suggested in the penultimate variation’s echo of the final tremolando earthquake. In a thought-provoking essay on the use of hymn tunes in classical music, Simon Brackenborough placed the Variations in a long tradition of composers’ engagement with hymns, and likened the work to Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on the Old 104th Psalm Tune, albeit on a smaller instrumental scale.
Woven around Stainer’s familiar melody, the Variations offer a musical exploration of the meanings of divine love in a series of scenes from the incarnation to the ascension and a culminating vision of heavenly joy. The work has yet to be performed in concert, but a recording was made by the Rasumovsky Quartet in the mid-1990s.
On the recording, the titles or short texts which precede each variation are spoken (by the viola player Christopher Wellington), allowing the meaning to be followed by the listener in a kind of musical meditation. This spiritual journey takes us through a sound-world that is by turns mysterious, lyrical, dramatic, poignant, and finally exultant in ‘The Song of Praise and the Dance of Joy’.
Simon Brackenborough comments on the paradox of the work’s scope, at once conceptually expansive and minutely concentrated on a single melody:
'There is something quietly thought-provoking about Dixon’s insistence on using this modest, contented-sounding tune to cover such large theological ground… [suggesting] that a whole world of religious meaning can be revealed through even the smallest means.'
He observes the change in her treatment of the theme at the incarnation, when the hymn tune, hitherto buried or splintered into hesitant half-phrases, is heard distinctly for the first time. Elsewhere it is subject to fragmentation, dissonance, and various techniques in the string writing, from pizzicato for the trotting donkey on the journey to Bethlehem, jabbing and martelé attack for the hammering of the nails at the crucifixion, and knocking on the wood for the disciples’ house-to-house calling. Harmonic effects lend much to the work’s emotional impact: the sagging and distorted chords pulling the melody out of tune evoke the wrenching sadness of the disciples watching as Jesus is led away. Reflecting the strong impulse towards redemption underlying the work’s theological scheme, there is elsewhere a yearning for tonal resolution that draws the music from dissonance into a harmonic sweetness at significant moments, such as the centurion’s revelation that ‘truly this was the son of God’.
Much of Ailsa Dixon’s music went unheard in her lifetime. Research in her archive has uncovered new works for performance, including a sonata for piano duet, Airs of the Seasons, premiered posthumously in 2018. A set of three songs for soprano and string quartet, The Spirit of Love, dating from 1987-88, will be premiered on 20th February 2020 at St George’s Bristol, by Lucinda Cox and the Villiers Quartet.
Most of her scores remain in manuscript, but are now being digitised as part of a project in Finland to rescue the works of neglected women composers. Plans are underway for a recording of her complete works for string quartet by the Villiers Quartet. Meanwhile, the original performances made available on her YouTube channel offer a fascinating insight into her compositional language, hailed in a recent review as ‘most definitely’ that of ‘a British composer with an original musical vision’.
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