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Phyllis Tate – A Family Portrait

Colin and Celia Frank, the children of 20th-century composer Phyllis Tate, reflect on her life and works. 

Phyllis Tate, or Phyl as she was known to her friends, worked in what was then very much a man’s world, epitomized by a photo of members of the Composers’ Guild in which she is the only woman. She disliked the term ‘woman composer’, wishing to be known as a “good composer: the fact that I am a woman is irrelevant.” Despite this, her first enthusiast was composer and redoubtable champion for women’s rights, Dame Ethel Smyth. As Phyl recounts in her delightful and typically deprecating autobiography, Dame Ethel Smyth “asked to see and hear my Cello Concerto which I strummed out ff for her. At the end she said: ‘At last I have heard a real woman composer!’ But let me add hastily that as the poor dear was virtually stone deaf, I didn’t take this vociferous praise too literally.”

Phyl received constant encouragement—and criticism—from her husband Alan Frank who became Head of the music department at Oxford University Press in 1954. Their initial bond was formed on a fervent dislike of Beethoven. They also entertained pub customers, Alan playing on the clarinet and Phyl on the ukulele. This affection for popular music remained with Phyl all her life and is reflected in much of her music.

In those days, without the help of computers, scoring a large-scale work was an arduous and labour-intensive task. As a relief, and in the hope of finding an easier way to make a living, she teamed up with a neighbour to run a gourmet fish and chip stall at the local bus terminus. The plan was that the burly Scottish husband of her partner would trundle the cart up and down to its location, in between his stint as oboist at Sadler’s Wells Opera House. Despite becoming a member of the Fish Fryers’ Association and subscribing to the Fish Fryers’ Gazette (delivered on the same day as Music and Letters), licensing proved too formidable, and the project was abandoned.

Both Phyl and her indefatigable husband got immense enjoyment out of travel, both in Britain and abroad. They rented a miniscule workers cottage in East Suffolk for £12 a year, with windows so small that the curtains were tea-towels. They loved walking in the placid countryside, relishing in the soft light and bracing sea air, and on the drive there and back they delighted in visiting country houses, churches, and country pubs.

Photo by Heiko Sandelmann, Stadttheater Bremerhaven, from a 2018 performance of Phyllis Tate’s The Lodger.

Back in their Hampstead home they frequently had musician friends to supper. Phyl was a proficient cook, having done a Cordon Bleu course in London. Frequent visitors were American composer Bernard Herrmann, who wrote the now classic scores for Alfred Hitchcock’s films, Welsh composer Alun Hoddinott, Ursula Vaughan-Williams, and Jewish émigrés from Nazi Germany.

At family suppers, however, Phyl often seemed preoccupied and would abruptly leave the table, go to her music room, and thump out chords, striving for the sound she wanted. Alan and Phyl were true soul mates, and our calm home life gave us the support and freedom we needed. Many of our less fortunate childhood friends found refuge and warm welcome in our house.

She also had to run the house and bring up two children, which she did with a the help of a bevy of eccentrics: the confirmed bachelor with dyed blonde hair, whose tea drinking far outdid his nominal cleaning, the one-armed window cleaner, and the widow who washed the snow to keep it “nice and white.” Despite Alan’s impatience with these barely-effective helpers, Phyl would not consider their dismissal.

Phyl was introspective and a foil to her more gregarious husband. Both were unimpressed by status and intellectual pretence, and easily made friends both with the local people of Suffolk and on their many travels. Her conversation was sharp and laced with quirky humour. She also had a gift for writing, despite the most rudimentary education, having been expelled from her school at the age of ten for singing a bawdy song taught to her by her father.

But there was another side to Phyl, what she termed her “morbid disposition.” Her lifelong pre-occupation with death is reflected in much of her music. This was probably due in part to her growing up and living through the slaughter and destruction of two world wars, as well as her later struggles against ill health. One of her earliest, most well-known works is her 1946 setting of “Nocturne for Four Voices” by the Second World War poet Sidney Keyes: it is haunting and sombre, with exquisite musical timbres from an unusual combination of instruments. This was followed by her setting of Tennyson’s pre-Raphaelite ballad “The Lady of Shalott”, her opera The Lodger, in which the protagonist is Jack the Ripper, and her setting of Shakespeare’s enigmatic threnody “The Phoenix and the Turtle”.

Ultimately, music was Phyl’s life but, with her meticulous and perfectionist nature, composing was not easy for her. As she said, “writing music is hell: the only thing worse is not writing it.”

View a complete list of Phyllis Tate’s works here.

Featured image credit: The Frank Family.

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