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Phyllis Tate (Composer, Arranger)

Born: April 6, 1911 - Buckinghamshire, England
Died: May 27 (or 29), 1987 - London, England

The English composer, Phyllis (Margaret Duncan) Tate, was born to an architect. She was kicked out of 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 to her to receive formal music training, which she took up at the Royal Academy of Music for the next 4 years. While at the academy, where she studied composition, timpani, and conducting, Tate composed a number of pieces while attending the academy, including an operetta entitled The Policeman’s Serenade. However, due to the fact that she was extremely self-critical, all of her compositions from before the mid 1940's were destroyed by Tate herself.

The first piece Phyllis Tate would claim as her own was a concerto for saxophone and strings, written in 1944 commissioned by the BBC. However, none of this would bring her the acclaim she received in 1947. In those three years, Tate composed four pieces: the concerto, a sonata for clarinet and cello (1947), Songs of Sundry Natures (1945), and Nocturne for Four Voices (1945). Furthermore, Tate enjoys 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 . However, immediately following this abundant creativity, Tate fell into a five year slump due to illness.

For not wishing to write larger instrumental works, Phyllis Tate’s overall artistic output is extraordinary. All in all, 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; and London Fields, a four movement suite, also commissioned by the BBC. She is known for forming unusual instrumentations in her compositions. Her musical style has been called avant-garde and she is recognized for appealing to amateur performers and children.

Although committees were not her forte, Phyllis Tate was involved in my organizations, usually joining their boards. She participated in the Hampstead Music Club, the Barnet and District Choral Society (she was president and wrote Saint Martha and the Dragon for it), the Performing Rights Society’s Member Fund (she was the first woman appointed to be on their management committee), and the Composers’ Guild (where she served on the executive committee).

Phyllis Tate believed that “music should entertain and give pleasure”. In 1979, she wrote “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”. After hearing her play at a lunch one day, Dame Ethel Smyth said “At last I have heard a real woman composer!” However, since, at that point, E. Smyth’s hearing was less than ideal, so Tate did not put much stock into this.

Phyllis Tate married a music editor, Alan Clifford Frank, in 1935. The two of them had two children together: a son born in 1940 and a daughter in 1952. Frank worked for Oxford University Press, the company that began to publish Tate’s compositions in 1935. OUP still publishes some of her work today, 20 years after her passing.


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

Source: Wikipedia Website (based on sources listed in the bibliography below); MusicWeb
Contributed by
Aryeh Oron (July 2007)

Phyllis Tate: Short Biography | Piano Transcriptions: Works | Recordings

Links to other Sites

Phyllis Tate (1911-85) by Edmund Whitehouse (MusicWeb)
OUP: Tate

Phyllis Tate (Wikipedia)


Fuller, Sophie. Liner notes from In Praise of Women (1994)
“Tate, Phyllis (Margaret Duncan).”
Grove Music Online. Ed. L. Macy. (Accessed April 19, 2007)
“Tate, Phyllis Margaret Duncan (1911-1987).”
Oxford Dictionary of National Biography ( Oxford University Press, 2004) (Accessed April 25, 2007)
Searle, Humphrey. “Phyllis Tate.” The Musical Times. Vol. 96, No. 1347 (May 1955): 244-247
“Tate, Phyllis (Margaret Duncan).” International Encyclopedia of Women Composers. Ed. Aaron I. Cohen. 2 vols. (New York: Books & Music, Inc., 1987)

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