Thursday, September 10, 2015

Lost Composers - Phyllis Tate

When they were temporarily out of favour (they are now more sought-for) I used to pick up from charity shops and so on any unusual classical music albums on long-playing records that I saw, particularly those by obscure British composers. I recently re-found among these an old LP of Phyllis Tate’s chamber suite ‘Apparitions’ (1968) for tenor, harmonica, string quartet & piano (she often used unusual combinations of voices and instruments). It is paired with ‘Roman Dream’ by the Welsh composer Alun Hoddinott, together with another piece by each of them, on Argo ZRG 691.

Phyllis Tate’s work arranges four old ghostly songs: ‘The Wife of Usher’s Well’; ‘The Suffolk Miracle’; ‘The Unquiet Grave’; and ‘Unfortunate Miss Bailey’. She gives these a fresh treatment, matter-of-factly eerie, recognising that the folk or popular origins of the songs were earthy and unsentimental, yet still have a hard chilling quality. The singer Gerald English’s renditions are done with gusto, and with a goosefleshy thrill that suits the weird material. The harmonica was an inspired choice as lead instrument, for it can be both brittle and mournful, and it also has the informal, profane quality of the songs. The side is completed by ‘Three Gaelic Ballads’.

Her foreword for the score of Apparitions show how she aimed to convey the stark uncanny power of the songs: “These ghost songs are performed for the most part as if through a gauze, the dynamics only occasionally rising to forte”, she noted. She explains the way she tries to invoke the uncanny in each one, before the ‘Envoi’, where “the natural and the supernatural meet on more equal terms”, adding, with a touch of wry humour, “finally the harmonica performs the last rites with a brief reminder of the first ballad”.

The songs have had other striking renditions. ‘The Wife of Usher’s Well’ received a lively but still eldritch electronic performance by folk-rock maestros Steeleye Span, while the medievalist rock group Gryphon did a beautifully melancholy version of ‘The Unquiet Grave’, complete with crumhorn solo.

The composer’s work includes a sufficient number of other pieces with a spectral or macabre theme to suggest that this dimension held a certain fascination for her. These include ‘The Lady of Shalott’ (1956), for tenor and instruments, ‘Witches and Spells’ (1959), a choral suite, ‘Dark Pilgrimage’ (1963), a television opera, and ‘Gravestones’ (1966), a vocal score composed for singer Cleo Laine, as well as other folk song arrangements and nocturnes.

Phyllis Tate (1911-87) herself seems to have been a colourful and redoubtable individual with trenchant views and a zest for the unobvious. Born in Gerrard’s Cross, Buckinghamshire, she had to combat the prevailing prejudices about women composers, and about her own unusual and modernistic music. Withal, she seems to have been diffident; when the leading woman composer Dame Ethel Smyth praised her work, she was pleased: but noted that of course the eminent lady was by then quite deaf. She amusingly noted that when Dame Ethel came to support a performances of a piece by her, she sat in the front row, stamping her umbrella “to what she imagined to be the tempo” of the work. Phyllis Tate said she hoped her work would endure, but added it was not for the composer to say.

There is probably scope for more discussion about the influence of folk songs with supernatural themes on British classical music, and also of those composers who used such themes in their work. Certainly the links with fantastic literature are there: John Ireland was a keen enthusiast of the work of Arthur Machen, Peter Warlock influenced the work of Mary Butts, Armstrong Gibbs set songs by Walter de la Mare to music. It would be interesting to hear of any monograph or study that looks into this.

(c) Mark Valentine 2015


  1. Long-play albums - great touch of variety from books. And what a find! Very cool,

  2. Thanks, Bill, I'm glad you enjoyed this. Mark