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PHYLLIS TATE (1911-87) by Edmund Whitehouse

Born in Gerrards Cross, Buckinghamshire, Phyllis moved to London with her parents after the First World War where she remembered seeing barrel organs accompanied by brightly-dressed dogs and monkeys sitting patiently next to their itinerant owners. Windows would open and coins cascade down wrapped in coils of paper before the acts moved on down the road.

Her primary education was short but not sweet because she publicly but inadvisedly recited a bawdy end-of-term poem she had been taught by her father. The parents loved it but not the headmistress who promptly expelled her at the tender age of 10! Her parents saw no need for further education for a girl in the early-1920s so from thereon in she effectively educated herself.

Much to her mother's chagrin - who had hoped she would take to serious music, she bought herself a ukulele for 10/6 and promptly learnt to play it before graduating to composing fox-trots and blues to her own lyrics. Soon part of a touring concert party she was fortunate enough to be spotted by a professor during a performance they gave at the Conservatory of Music in Blackheath. He promptly offered to give her lessons in 'proper' music which led eventually to serious composition in London at the Royal Academy from 1928-1932, primarily under the guidance of Harry Farjeon. In 1964 they elected her a Fellow (F.R.A.M.)

'I cannot admit to being an illustrious pupil. I learnt the timpani and was playing at a concert (Royalty present) when I descended with a wallop a bar before the crucial moment … 'You may be only 17 but do that again and you're fired!' said the conductor. I next had a shot at writing a symphony in which every instrument played non-stop without a break. As the duration was nearly an hour the players all emerged breathless and puce in the face.'

Violin and piano sonatas followed together with what Phyllis thought was an undeserved Gold Medal. That her works had promise, however, there is no doubt as the following amusing incident relates. Female composers were few and far between at the time and the doyen of them all was the redoubtable Dame Ethel Smyth who invited Phyllis to lunch at her home in Woking. Unfortunately, Phyllis's male chaperone insisted on stopping off at various pubs en route and they pulled in hopelessly late.

'When we did eventually arrive, pretty well-oiled, there was Dame Ethel, dressed - with the exception of a harsh tweed skirt - in an entirely male rigout - stiff collar, tie, sports coat, billy-cock hat, and clutching a struggling sheep dog. Her eyes were ablaze with anger as she shouted 'Lunch is ruined, how like a man.' Once the meal was over her attitude lightened somewhat and after I strummed my Cello Concerto ff for her she said 'At last I have heard a real woman composer!' Unfortunately the poor dear was virtually tone deaf so I did not take the vociferous praise too literally. She then sang and played Wagner for hours after which we finally took our departure, completely exhausted. But the ordeal was not quite over. Her house was near a kind of roundabout from which we seemed quite unable to extricate ourselves and kept going round in circles, each time returning to the same spot to see her still glowering from the window. At length she burst open the door and yelled 'GO!' Terrified, we managed to find a side turning and scarpered. My Cello Concerto was performed soon afterwards at Bournemouth with Dame Ethel sitting in the front row banging her umbrella to what she thought was the rhythm of the music. Just before she died, I invited her to my wedding. Her reply was typical and the card read '1,000 congratulations; sorry, too old to come but promise my ghost will not appear.'

In 1935 Phyllis married Alan Frank when her pessimistic professor thought she would stop writing, but he was wrong. Despite destroying many manuscripts - which is why her works have no opus numbers - she produced a rich legacy of music which is sadly, like so much good British music, now rather neglected. Like many composers, she feared her works were not as good as they should be but was realistic enough to pen the following thoughts in 1979, while recovering from an operation: 'I must admit to having a sneaking hope that some of my creations may prove to be better than they appear. One can only surmise and it's not for the composer to judge. All I can vouch is this: writing music can be hell; torture in the extreme; but there's one thing worse; and that is not writing it.'

One of the author's favourite pieces is the delightful four-movement suite London Fields, commissioned for the BBC Light Music Festival in 1958. With the help of a privately recorded performance he used it to introduce a class of inner-urban academically limited boys to music more serious than the contemporary pop to which they were accustomed. As each of the movements unfolded, so the children were invited to sketch what came into their minds. Springtime at Kew evoked daffodils and crocuses; The Maze at Hampton Court produced all kinds of curly-wurly shapes; St. James Park - a Lakeside Reverie resulted in ducks and swans swimming a-plenty while the grand finale, Hampstead Heath - Rondo for Roundabouts brought forth all manner of helter-skelters, dodgem cars, candy floss, toffee apples and the like. The icing on the cake came after the fourth week when a small boy approached the teacher at the end of the lesson and said 'Please sir, I like this music. Can you do a recording for me?' He got his recording and for all I know he is, like me, still playing it.

Although not a committee woman by nature, Phyllis Tate served from 1976-1981 on the Management of the Performing Rights Society's Member Fund - the first lady to be so appointed. Also a member of the Composers' Guild from 1959, she served on its Executive Committee in 1971. One of the outstanding British composers of her generation, she was truly her own person whose independent creative qualities produced a wide range of music which defy categorisation. For that reason alone, it is to be hoped she will, in due course, receive proper recognition by the authorities.

Notes by Edmund Whitehouse - Assistant Editor, This England magazine


Saxophone Concerto 1944

Nocturne for Four Voices 1946

Six Songs for Children 1946

Sonata for clarinet & cello 1947

String Quartet 1952, revised 1982 as Movements for String Quartet

Choral Scene from The Bacchae 1953

The Lady of Shalott for tenor & instruments 1956

Air and Variations for violin, clarinet & piano 1958

London Fields (Kew Gardens, Hampton Court Maze, St. James' Park, Hampstead Heath) 1958

Witches and Spells choral suite 1959

The Lodger opera 1960

Dark Pilgrimage television opera 1963

A Victorian Garland for two voices & instruments 1965

Gravestones for Cleo Laine 1966

Seven Lincolnshire Folk Songs for chorus & instruments 1966

A Secular Requiem for chorus & orchestra 1967

Christmas Ale for soloist, chorus & orchestra 1967

Apparitions for tenor & instruments 1968

Coastal Ballads for baritone & instruments 1969

Illustrations for brass band 1969

To Words by Joseph Beaumont for women's chorus 1970

Variegations for solo viola 1970

Serenade to Christmas for mezzo-soprano, chorus & orchestra 1972

Lyric Suite for piano duet 1973

Exploitations around a Troubadour Song for piano solo 1973

Creatures Great and Small for mezzo-soprano, guitar, double bass & percussion 1973

Two Ballads for mezzo-soprano & guitar 1974

The Rainbow and the Cuckoo for oboe, violin, viola & cello 1974

Sonatina Pastorale for harmonica & harpsichord 1974

Songs of Sundrie Kindes for tenor & lute 1975

St. Martha and the Dragon for narrator, soloists, chorus & orchestra 1976

Scenes from Kipling for baritone & piano 1976

A Seasonal Sequence for viola & piano 1977

Panorama for strings 1977

All the World's a Stage for chorus & orchestra 1978

Compassion (words by Ursula Vaughan Williams) to mark the 150th Anniversary

of the Royal Free Hospital 1978

Scenes from Tyneside for mezzo-soprano, clarinet & piano 1978

Compassion for chorus & organ (or orchestra) 1978

Three Pieces for solo clarinet 1979

The Ballad of Reading Gaol for baritone, organ & cello 1980

Prelude-Aria-Interlude-Finale for clarinet & piano 1981

Many small choral pieces, songs and works for young people, including:

Street Sounds, The Story of Lieutenant Cockatoo, Twice in a Blue Moon, A Pride of Lions, Scarecrow, Solar.

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