“I believe we could do something”
Patricia Harrison (always know as Pat) was born in the village at Missenden House in 1905.
A love of the arts took her to Florence, and later Geneva to study Eurhythmics, a dynamic method devised by Emile Jacques-Dalcroze to develop musicality and creative expression through movement of the whole body. For tuition in composition, she turned to Sir Edward Bairstow, Master of Music at York Minster, a passionate lover of beauty in music. After Missenden House was sold, Pat Harrison moved to Dering Cottage in the village and continued her life’s work of teaching music, with the children of Little Missenden School amongst her pupils.
Thoughts of a Festival: Through her sons Mark and Richard she met composer Richard Drakeford and cello prodigy Rohan de Saram, both of whom were part of Oxford’s budding musical elite. Pat recalled a walk through the village fields with Rohan during a weekend visit in 1959. “I remarked that I had hardly managed to do anything for music in my life; a certain amount of teaching, a few small compositions, nothing really. Rohan said ‘you ought to start a festival in your village to play and talk. I would like to come. It seems a place that has a harmonious atmosphere.’ Next morning, lying awake early, I thought ‘I believe we could do something’.”
The Festival Committee: Pat had soon conjured up a Festival Committee chaired by Philip James, the former Director of Art at the Arts Council of Great Britain. Richard Drakeford and Rohan de Saram joined the Committee, as did Dr Neil Saunders (local composer and conductor), and Geraint Jones (organist, harpsichordist, conductor, and now owner of Missenden House). Together with other founder members, particularly art-teacher Michael Cox, they made plans for “a festival of music and the arts” centred on the Parish Church of St John the Baptist, but with some events taking place at Little Missenden School and in the Village Hall.
The Festival's Early Years: The first Little Missenden Festival of Music and the Arts took place from 14th to 16th October 1960, instantly impressing its audience with a programme and performances whose range and quality set the standards for the decades to come. From the very beginning, the roll-call of talent was impressive. Helen Watts, one of Britain’s finest contraltos, sang with the Geraint Jones Orchestra. Richard Drakeford’s String Quartet No 1 enjoyed a first airing, and distinguished composer and pianist Edmund Rubbra accompanied Rohan de Saram for his Sonata in G for cello and piano. Poet Louis MacNeice read from his own works and Philip James arranged an exhibition of prints loaned by Sir Bruce Ingram, managing editor of the Illustrated London News. A Concert for Children was included, setting a precedent for future years.
Family Involvement: Pat's son, Richard Harrison, was responsible for an exhibition of Henry Moore drawings, and introducing composers Richard Benger and David Matthews (who is now Patron of the Festival), while her daughter Ailsa - also a composer - has had several works performed (see separate note below). Son Mark was Treasurer for many years, and her grand-daughter Sarah served on the committee.
Beer in the Belfry: As Festival Organiser, Pat Harrison had embarked on a personal odyssey that would encounter a host of challenges, but parishioners’ fears of 'beer in the belfry' were quickly laid to rest. Flowers and candles decked the church, and when the stage was finally set, it was said that the church had never looked more beautiful.
John Tavener: In the late 1960s, Pat began a long association with the acclaimed composer John Tavener, who subsequently wrote several commissioned pieces for the Festival. Her pupils at the village school provided the cast for his Celtic Requiem, featuring traditional children’s playground songs; after the premiere with the London Sinfonietta, it was filmed in 1970, and Pat kept the clapperboard in the front room of Dering Cottage for the rest of her life. On her 90th birthday he sent a setting of ‘Happy Birthday’ composed for the occasion and sung at the party by her family; he later wrote a piece in her memory commissioned by the Friends of the Festival and performed by the Cambridge Taverner Choir.
Ailsa Dixon: Pat's daughter, Ailsa Dixon, was a composer in her own right. She died in 2017. Several of Ailsa's works were premiered at the Little Missenden Festival in the 1980s, including songs and duets performed by Ian Partridge and Lynne Dawson, Nocturnal Scherzo by the Brindisi Quartet, and Shining Cold by Sally Harrison, Cynthia Millar and members of the Brindisi Quartet. We recognised her life and work at the Festival in 2018, when her choral work These things shall be - which sets words by late-Victorian poet John Addington Symonds - was performed by Sansara. Read more about Ailsa Dixon at www.ailsadixon.co.uk