potted biography by EDMUND WHITEHOUSE
not known primarily as a light music composer, Phyllis Tate
is nevertheless difficult to categorise and wrote some splendid
tuneful music alongside her more serious scores.
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.
primary education was short but not sweet because she publicly
but inadvisably 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.
to her mothers chagrin - who had hoped she would take
to serious music she bought herself a ukulele for 10/6d
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 itself, at the Royal Academy.
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 youre 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."
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 male chaperone insisted on stopping
off at various pubs en route and they pulled in hopelessly
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 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.
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 its not for the composer
to judge. All I can vouch is this writing music can
be hell; torture in the extreme; but theres one
thing worse; and that is not writing it."
of the authors 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
very 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.
Tates suite "London Fields" is included on
the CD London Landmarks by the Royal Ballet Sinfonia
conducted by Gavin Sutherland (Sanctuary-White Line CD WHL