'The Choral Works' by Alan Barlow, 1987
‘Throughout her career, Phyllis Tate produced a steady flow of choral works; all are eminently singable and all are very different in substance and form. Two elements, however, are very distinguishable - on a first hearing something immediately memorable is heard and all are composed within a tight musical structure.
‘Her ingenuity knew no bounds, varying from the unexpected and subtle final cadence in a simple carol, “Peace on Earth to Men”, to the unique Serenade For Christmas, where the word “serenade” is used in the classical sense of a suite of several movements, whereby settings of Christmas carols and poems are given purely musical subtleties such as Overture, Intermezzo and Finale.
‘In 1977, Barnet and District Choral Society commissioned their president, Phyllis Tate, to compose a work for them. The result is one of the composer’s most substantial and perhaps finest works. She chose to set a longish narrative poem by Charles Causley, St Martha and the Dragon. All her ingenuity came pouring forth; she scored the work for soprano and tenor soloists, mixed chorus, children’s chorus and chamber orchestra, coupled with a vast array of percussion instruments all used in the most sensitive manner. In addition, in order to keep the narrative moving, she decided to use as her main soloist a narrator. Narration-and-music is well known to be fraught with difficulties, but these were effortlessly overcome. The work is shaped in fourteen sections corresponding to those of the poem; however the musical structure is based strictly on classical and pre-classical forms, with no padding or musical pauses to allow the narrator to finish his section of words. All performers combine in the most moving climax of the work.
‘Sir Alec Guinness has written of Charles Causley’s poem: “St Martha and the Dragon is full of delight” - the same can equally be said of the musical setting of that poem by Phyllis Tate.’
Alan Barlow conducted St Martha and the Dragon in its first performance at Barnet Parish Church in 1977, and again at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in 1978.
'A Memoir' by Alun Hoddinott
I first heard the music of Phyllis Tate at an early Cheltenham Festival concert - the Saxophone Concerto. This delightful music captivated me at first hearing with its elegance, freshness, and quite obvious command of technical resource. My admiration for her music grew with each new work - the approachability and communicative element marked an ever-widening variety - not only of greater resource but also of deepening content, so that she was able to encompass a range that spanned from the smallest song to large-scale opera.
From the beginning was to be found an originality of conception which made the music not easy to categorise - there was an exploration of different forms and structures and especially a daring exploitation of unusual sound and textures featuring the most unlikely combination of instruments and voices. Not many composers would have risked, for example, the combination of voices, bass clarinet, string quartet, double bass, and celesta in the Nocturne of 1946 or, some twenty years later in Apparitions, the scoring for tenor, harmonica, string quartet and piano. Also, unlike so many composers who use unusual instrumentation to produce intriguing sound effects which cover an emptiness of emotion and a lack of genuine musical inspiration, Phyllis Tate’s demands arose from the compelling nature of the music itself.
Although for many people, she is known principally for her choral, vocal and stage music, instrumental music forms an important and distinguished part of her writing, running like a thread throughout her entire compositional career, from the Sonata for Clarinet and Cello to The Rainbow and Cuckoo for oboe and string trio. I always envied Phyl for her gift of choosing the most intriguing titles for her pieces - ‘Variegations’ for solo viola or ‘Explorations around a Troubadour Song’ for solo piano for example. One thing is for sure - all these works have given and will continue to give pleasure to performers and listeners alike.
I was fortunate enough to meet Phyl in the early 1950s and from the beginning was aware that we shared many thoughts and feelings about musical matters. Her stimulating advice and conversation was ever helpful over many years and her warm friendship remains a constant and treasured memory.
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