Phyllis Tate

Phyllis Margaret Duncan Tate was born at Gerrards Cross in Buckinghamshire, England, to an architect. She was excluded from primary school by her headmistress at the age of 10 for singing a lewd song at the end of the year. Not a very auspicious beginning for such a prolific composer, who then (much to the disdain of her mother) taught herself how to play the ukulele. She was discovered in 1928 by Harry Farjeon, who prompted her to receive formal music training, which she took up at the Royal Academy of Music for the next four years. While at the academy, where she studied composition, timpani, and conducting, Tate composed a number of pieces including an operetta entitled The Policeman’s Serenade. She was very self-critical, and destroyed all of her compositions from before the mid 1940s.

The first piece she would claim as her own was a concerto for saxophone and strings, written in 1944 and commissioned by the BBC. Between then and 1947 Tate composed four pieces: the concerto; a sonata for clarinet and cello (1947); Songs of Sundry Natures (1945); and Nocturne for Four Voices (1945). Tate enjoyed using atypical instrumental combinations. Songs is scored for a baritone accompanied by a flute, clarinet, bassoon, horn and harp. Nocturne is written for four voices with a string quartet, double bass, bass clarinet, and celesta . Following this period of creativity, Tate fell into a five-year slump due to illness.

Although not wishing to write larger instrumental works, Tate’s overall artistic output was extraordinary. She experimented in many genres, including orchestral music, chamber music, operas and operettas, sacred music, piano music, and vocal music, which is where she concentrated her efforts. Her most famous pieces, aside from those mentioned above, include her setting of Tennyson’s The Lady of Shalott, which was written for the 10th anniversary of the BBC Third Programme; the opera The Lodger, based on the tale of Jack the Ripper; her Prelude, Interlude, and Postlude for chamber orchestra; All The World’s A Stage; Saint Martha and the Dragon; The What d’ye Call It; A Secular Requiem: The Phoenix and the Turtle; and London Fields, a four movement suite, also commissioned by the BBC.