A renowned twentieth-century British classical composer, featured in the British Music Collection, Phyllis Tate (1911 – 1987) gained wide critical acclaim for writing highly imaginative music that ignored fashionable trends. 'At last I have heard a real woman composer!’ - Suffragette and composer Dame Ethel Smyth.
I was the progeny of utterly charming but completely incompetent parents - they existed in a continual state of ill-health (mostly emotional) and in a permanent state of panic and apprehension. Granted there were reasons for this. They had both had a rough entry into the world. My father was two months premature, weighing barely 3 lb at birth; he was so small that his head fitted into the circumference of a tumbler. He was wrapped in cotton wool and fed on brandy, which may have accounted for his subsequent addiction to alcohol.
- Phyllis Tate
Phyllis studied at the Royal Academy of Music for four years, earning a certificate of merit for her work in Harmony. Years later, following the success of her opera The Lodger, she would be offered a professorship at the Academy, but she declined. Phyl felt passionately that musical creativity could not be taught, a view that never faltered.
Does this sound a bit formidable? Not so long ago, at a party, my hostess introduced me in these terms, and the reaction was immediate - absolute horror registered on the faces of the other guests, and they retreated as quickly as they decently could to the farthest end of the room. If one had been labelled woman painter, or woman writer, would the impact have been so marked? Perhaps, I reflected, it’s because there are so few women composers. Not at all spurred on by the prospect of this broadcast, I made a kind of survey and found, to my surprise, nearly 80 of them ranging from Post Domesday up to the present day. The earliest was a Benedictine Abbess called St. Hildegard, born in 1098, who wrote monophonic choral music. The first English woman I came across was Eliza Turner, who died in 1756, the year Mozart was born. Her compositions were published by subscription, and the subscribers included Handel and Boyce. Also from this period was a rather pathetic figure in the shape of Lucille Gretry, daughter of the Gretry. She wrote an opera at the age of 13 which was successfully produced, - her father helped to score it - and another one a year later. She died at the age of 20 - perhaps the strain of these operatic ventures proved too much for her. The next revelation was that the 19th century produced not only a fairly big crop of female composers, but also that they were most prolific, and their compositions covered a wide range. One always tends to think of Victorian ladies as being rather inhibited and repressed, but not this batch. What about Alice Mary Smith who managed to get through 3 Cantatas, 2 Symphonies, 4 Overtures, a Clarinet Concerto, 3 string Quartets, 4 Piano Quartets, and so on. And how about Julia Weissberg. She studied under Rimsky-Korsakov at St. Petersburg Conservatoire (and later married his son, by the way). But not before she was expelled from the Conservatoire for taking part in a demonstration against the Director - a foretaste of Women’s Lib, obviously. She, also, wrote at least 2 operas. But the most profuse of them all would seem to be Mana-Zucker. That was her pen name, derived from her real name which was Augusta Zuckermann.
She was born in 1887, so she may well still be with us. She’s the one American I’ve come across and, as well as being a pianist and singer, her output includes a Pianoforte Concerto (which she herself played in New York in 1919), 2 operas, a Ballet, and 366 Piano pieces called ‘My Musical Calendar’. The English Doyenne of this era was undoubtedly Dame Ethel Smyth. Unquestionably, she was the pioneer of the modern British woman composer, and in her early days that wasn’t an easy profession. She was a fighter for women’s rights. She had to be, she came from a distinguished Army family where it was considered immoral for any well-bred young woman to do anything but assist at tea parties and arrange the flowers. When I was very young, I was taken to have lunch with her at her country home during the last phase of her life, and my memories of that occasion are vivid. My escort was an erratic driver, and he insisted on stopping off at every pub on the way, we arrived extremely late. We were greeted by an irate Dame Ethel, who, in a stentorian voice, and with blue eyes ablaze, barked out “How like a man” and then, in a more subdued voice to me “Quick, you’d better go to the lavatory, there’s a tin of toffees for you in there”. I suppose she must have thought me too infantile to be even housetrained! Lunchtime conversation was an unending tirade on the stupidity of the male and the superiority of the female – why, I thought, did she dress like a man if she was such an ardent feminist? Anyway, no one else could get a word in, and if we had been able to, it wouldn't have been much use as the poor dear was almost stone deaf. After lunch, I bashfully produced my latest effort, a cello concerto. She was very kind and encouraging (perhaps because she couldn't hear it), and when it was eventually performed at a concert in Bournemouth, she insisted on making the long journey, and sat in the front row banging her umbrella up and down in time (or what she thought was in time) with the music, much to the embarrassment of the performers and the audience. It appears, then, from this galaxy of feminine talent, women have by no means been idle in the field of composition, but what about the quality of their output. Maybe some musicologist should delve into all ...
... these opuses in case a neglected masterpiece is reposing on some dusty shelf. But I can't help feeling that if any of these industrious ladies had been real masters (or should I say mistresses), the fruits of their labours would have come to light. Anyway, as far as one knows, there has been no woman Beethoven or, for that matter, no woman Rembrandt, or a female Milton. Perhaps the exception where women can be compared with the best of men's achievement is in prose literature from Brontes and Jane Austen, right up to today. Can it be that writing is a more basic and natural mode of expression. After all from the infancy onwards, one gets accustomed to the sound and meaning of words without having to undergo any specialist training as in the other arts. What is it, then, that has prevented women rising to really great heights in Composition. Is the reason partly a biological one, that in the woman creator there is something of a dichotomy, and that the process of giving birth to the human species is in conflict with the imaginative side of creativity – that this division of energy saps just that extra strength and inspiration needed to trigger off and sustain the full scale masterpiece. Another and more down to earth reason could well be the burden of domestic responsibilities. In the great majority of cases, these still rest on the woman's shoulders. I agree with Nicola Lefanu: it's a great drain of energy, not only physically, but mentally, the necessity of having to switch over from one wavelength to the other, from the severely practical to that inner world that ever composer inhabits. I suppose the ideal would be more sex equality, with man contributing a bigger role in the more mundane activities of life. Will this ever happen? Perhaps not in my time, but I would like to feel that in the not too distant future a female Wagner might arise (with, no doubt, a Mr. Wagner in the background meekly doing the household chores). Composition is probably the most elusive and, certainly, the most laborious of the arts. Think of all those notes and barlines in an opera full score or a symphony. How nice it must be for a writer, armed only with a wad of plain paper and a typewriter. I guess I'll opt for that profession when it comes to my reincarnation. One last plea.
Curated by Miles McDowell.
With great thanks to:
• Sarah Moir at Sound and Music for her assistance and great patience.
• Celia and Colin Frank (Phyllis's children - my mother and uncle) for answering a great number of questions and offering many hours of help.
• Tim for giving a considerable amount of time and expertise in proof reading my final draft.
• Martin Hasselbring at the Independent for his help and support.
• Robert Matthew-Walker for his help and support.
An official website about Phyllis and her work can be found at www.phyllis-tate.com
To discover more beautiful music, please take a look at the wonderful work of the British Music Collection's 'New Voices', including:
• David Coonan
• Bobbie-Jane Gardner http://britishmusiccollection.org.uk/composer/bobbie-jane-gardner