Phyllis Tate: A Quiet Maverick

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.

Phyllis Tate by unknown photographerSound and Music

This Exhibition

This exhibition was curated by Miles McDowell on behalf of Sound and Music, using the British Music Collection. Miles (Phyllis Tate's grandson) explores the life of the late, great composer and touches on the social and musical boundaries that she broke.

Phyllis Tate at work by unknown photographerSound and Music


I regret that I didn’t have the chance to know my grandmother when I was growing up. She had passed away several years before I was born and I’ve lived most of my life unaware of the musical legacy of grandma 'Phyl', as we called her. Like many other young boys, my attention was absorbed by the adventures I was having with friends or the fast-paced, flickering allure of computer games. In spite of other preoccupations, my grandmother’s presence and influence were never too far away. Her wonderful piano and other instruments became family members, surrounding us through the highs and lows of life. At the end of each day at primary school, Phyl’s piano was there to welcome me. Tinkering on it between homework and dinner, I achieved my very own musical accolade - the prestigious Grade One in piano. 

Phyllis Tate's small piano, Miles McDowell, 2017-04-23, From the collection of: Sound and Music
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Phyl's piano

A miniature upright measuring a mere 110cm in width and height, Phyl’s piano was originally crafted for a musician living in a gypsy caravan. It’s very humble and understated, but completely dedicated to making a sound louder than its size - characteristics I know now Phyllis shared.

A young Phyllis Tate by unknown photographerSound and Music

Phyl's Childhood

Phyllis Tate was born on April 6th 1911 in Gerrards Cross, Buckinghamshire. She moved to London as a child, and spent the last thirty-five years of her life in Hampstead. Describing her upbringing in her ‘potted’ autobiography with an impressive level of dry wit, Phyl makes light of her ‘uttely charming but completely incompetent parents’. She recounts how, following her rendition at an end-of-term concert of a music-hall song taught to her by her father, she was expelled for ‘lowering the standards of … a reputable and ladylike school’. With her academic career brought to an abrupt halt, and ‘virtually illiterate’, she explains: ’My parents didn’t think it necessary for me to have any further education. (Though, for some odd reason, I was allowed to attend a class given by a retired schoolmistress to trace maps, for which we used lavatory paper.)’ While she didn’t benefit from a particularly high level of musical guidance, Phyllis was always brought up around music and performance, and these early experiences resonated with her for the rest of her life. Her father Duncan Tate frequently busked, and Phyllis at a young age used to go along with him, holding a hat out for change while he played.

A section of Phyllis Tate's autobiography by Phyllis Tate and Miles McDowellSound and Music

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

Royal Academy of Music in London (2017-04-23) by Miles McDowellSound and Music

An Early Love For Music

Phyllis’s mother eventually noticed her daughter’s budding interest in music and supported her wholeheartedly in her pursuit. With her pocket money Phyl bought a ukulele, taught herself how to play it, and wrote foxtrots and blues to accompany her own lyrics. Joining a concert party, she began performing at small local events. Harry Farjeon, a Professor of music at the Conservatoire in Blackheath, London, happened to hear her play. Impressed, he offered her some lessons in ‘proper music’ to hone her talent. She writes: "After some hesitation I agreed, and within a few weeks my entire personality had changed. I wore a sombrero hat and sandals, and studied all the necessary ingredients for the first steps as a composer, subsequently transferring (with the same teacher) to one of the main schools of music." 

Phyllis Tate's certificate of merit from the Royal Academy of MusicSound and Music

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.

Alan Frank (Phyllis Tate's husband) as an apprentice at the OUP by unknown photographerSound and Music


A one-time music critic and later full-time husband, my grandfather Alan Frank was seventeen years old when Phyllis first met him. ‘At first I disliked him intensely as he gave me my first bad review in some musical journal. In time, though, we found our relationship had a certain symmetry.’ Alan, who was a talented semi-professional clarinettist, started working at the Oxford University Press as a lowly office boy and rose up through the ranks, eventually becoming the head of the music department in 1954. This wonderfully kind and amusing man, the subject of many family anecdotes, was Phyl’s most dedicated supporter throughout their life together.  A devoted family man, Alan was also an enthusiastic and intrepid swimmer, taking a dip every morning in a local duck pond, breaking the ice in winter when necessary. Phyllis and Alan married in 1935. However, indicative of the struggles facing women at the time, Phyl’s former professor told her to expect that matrimony would mean the end of her composing. Unphased by this and with Alan’s unflinching support, Phyllis continued to pursue her unlikely career, fuelled by a rich and original musical imagination. 

Phyllis Tate and husband Alan Frank on holiday, Colin Frank, From the collection of: Sound and Music
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Phyllis Tate and husband Alan Frank on holiday, Colin Frank, From the collection of: Sound and Music
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Smyth Name Ethel Murray 1858-1944LIFE Photo Collection

A Career In The Making

Shortly after Phyllis completed her studies at the Royal Academy, the then-head of the OUP music department, Hubert Foss, had seen talent in her compositions. As well as organising a series of concerts of her work in his office, he introduced her to a selection of prominent people within the music industry, including Dame Ethyl Smyth, who became a vocal supporter. 

Examples of Phyllis Tate's unusual choices of instruments and instrument combinations (2017-02-25) by Miles McDowellSound and Music

A Fresh Start

Despite favourable reviews of her compositions during the 1930s, Phyllis was later to become dissatisfied with most of this early work, committing nearly all of the scores to the flames in order to make a completely fresh start. A succession of new pieces relaunched her career: Concerto for Alto Saxophone and Strings (1944), Nocturne for Four Voices (1946), and Sonata for Clarinet and Cello (1947). These works established Phyllis as a successful woman composer, known for her unorthodox approach. They reflect her life-long fascination with unusual combinations of instruments, and her interest in drawing out to maximum effect the poetic potential of the human voice. 

Phyllis Tate cooking by unknown photographerSound and Music

First And Foremost A Composer 

Phyllis was a quiet maverick, unwilling to be recruited as a member of any particular contemporary movement, musical or otherwise. Whilst possessing a questioning and critical intellect, she did not seek to advertise herself either as a woman composer specifically, or as an unconventional one, despite being both of these. To herself, she was purely and simply a composer, swept along by her imagination and creativity. It didn’t ever matter to her that she was off the beaten track. In 1986 writer and editor Robert Matthew-Walker eloquently summarised Phyllis’s motivations: "Phyllis Tate has always regarded herself … as an instinctive artist - that she could no more help herself being a composer, or the way in which she writes, any more than she had any say over the colour of her eyes." (‘Phyllis Tate at 75’ in Music and Musicians, April 1986)

'The Darning Has to Wait' newspaper article about Phyllis Tate (1957-08-17) by Anne SharpleySound and Music

A More Powerful Force

The years 1944 to 1947 marked a high-point in Phyllis’s early career, but these were followed by four years of illness. Her life was punctuated by periods of both physical and mental ill-health. Extremely self-motivated and with a burning creativity, she also had great self-doubts. She suffered from depression and anxieties, always exacerbated by being too unwell to compose to her own high standards. Reconnecting with her muse proved undoubtedly to be her healer, and in 1952 she wrote her String Quartet to a positive reception, finishing it just in time for the birth of my mother. This marked the end of a difficult period and the beginning of a musically creative thirty years. Her output became varied and extensive, ranging from a popular light orchestral suite, London Fields (1958), and the more experimental The Lady of Shalott (1956) for voice, piano, celesta and percussion, through to music for schools, and a full-scale opera The Lodger (1960). Phyl’s reputation grew and she enjoyed collaborations with many prominent artists, including poet Charles Causley, author Michael Morpurgo, musicians John Dankworth and Cleo Laine, and cellist William Pleeth. Phyllis would struggle with ebbs and flows of health, but in creating music, there always existed for her a redeeming and more powerful force.

The street where Phyllis Tate lived (Heath Hurst Road in Hampstead, London), Miles McDowell, 2017-04-23, From the collection of: Sound and Music
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Phyllis Tate and Alan Frank's much loved local green space (Hampstead Heath), Miles McDowell, 2017-04-23, From the collection of: Sound and Music
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Phyllis Tate and husband Alan Frank by Celia FrankSound and Music

The Later Years

In her sixties Phyl’s health started to decline, but she was just as determined as ever in her musical pursuits. Several of her most critically acclaimed and original pieces came from this period, including: a major choral work, St. Martha and the Dragon; Explorations Around a Troubadour Song (for solo piano); Apparitions (for tenor, harmonica, celesta, viola and percussion); and in 1975, The Rainbow and The Cuckoo (for oboe and strings). Increasingly eclectic, she continued her musical explorations, taking lessons in African drumming and attempting to learn to play the piano accordion. True to form, her last completed work was one for the piano accordion, Romance and Dance Caprice. In her final years, however, Phyl struggled to write, and with that came great despair. At the age of 76, she passed away, leaving a potent legacy and a large body of work. 

Phyllis Tate by Laelia GoehrSound and Music

A Risk Worth Taking 

Sitting at the piano that was so much a part of my childhood, Phyllis helped challenge the limited role of women in music and the musical conventions of her time, but not with a strident or defiant voice, rather as the result of a firm but quietly-held belief that music should take you wherever it pleases. Some thirty years after her death, Phyllis continues to inspire a young generation of musicians to forge their own path and develop their own individual voice. "All I can vouch for is this - writing music can be hell; torture in extreme; but there’s one thing even worse; and that is not writing it." (Phyllis Tate, 1979)

Phyllis Tate on writing music by Phyllis Tate and Miles McDowellSound and Music

Phyllis Tate with her contemporaies by unknown photographerSound and Music

'Woman Composer'

The following is Phyllis Tate in her own words discussing her contemplations and frustrations of being a woman in a male-dominated profession. Characteristic of her great wit, self-critique and introspection, this is an honest rumination of the role of women in music.

'Woman Composer': Page one, Phyllis Tate, From the collection of: Sound and Music
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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.

'Woman Composer': Page two, Phyllis Tate, From the collection of: Sound and Music
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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 ...

'Woman Composer': Page three, Phyllis Tate, From the collection of: Sound and Music
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... 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.

'Women Composer': Page four, Phyllis Tate, From the collection of: Sound and Music
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Either one is a Composer or one is not. I can't imagine a day devoted to men, so why do we still need one about women? This does seem to me an admission of a lingering inferiority complex, that we have to assert ourselves so vigorously.

Credits: Story

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

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

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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