‘One of the outstanding British composers of her generation, she was truly her own person whose independent creative qualities produced a wide range of music which defy categorisation.’
‘It is difficult to sum up the qualities of Phyllis Tate's music...but clearly fastidiousness, subtlety and...a real strength are among its predominant characteristics.’
Humphrey Searle, The Musical Times
Phyllis Tate (1911–1985), who trained at the Royal Academy of Music, produced a wide variety of music, often unusual and original in instrumentation and style. Preferring the more intimate musical forms and combinations to larger orchestral media, many of her most distinguished contributions to modern English music were for chamber ensemble or for solo voice or voices with small groups of instruments. These range from the Sonata for Clarinet and Cello and The Rainbow and the Cuckoo for oboe and string trio, to the Nocturne for Four Voices and her setting of ghost poems, Apparitions, for tenor, harmonica, string quartet, and piano.
Commissioned works include The Lady of Shalott and London Fields for the BBC; the opera The Lodger for the Royal Academy of Music, and Serenade for Christmas for the Royal Scottish Academy of Music. Festival commissions include Lyric Suite for piano duet, written for the Cardiff Festival in 1974, A Secular Requiem, commissioned by the Hampstead Festival of the Arts in 1967, the Choral Scene from Bacchae, written for the 1953 Leeds Festival, and Panorama for string orchestra, commissioned by the North Wales Music Festival.
Her music displays an unusual imagination and an original approach to conventional musical forms or subjects, but never to the extent of being described as “avant-garde”, and always immediately communicative. Her most frequently played works - for example, the Saxophone Concerto, Apparitions, and the Songs of Sundrie Kindes (for tenor and lute) - display a fondness for lyricism within an often surprising harmonic and structural framework.
Phyllis Tate wrote very successfully for children, including a cantata A Pride of Lions, commissioned by the Nottingham Festival, and the operettas The Story of Lieutenant Cockatoo (written for BBC Television) and Twice in a Blue Moon (commissioned by the Farnham Festival in 1969).
Her last choral works included St Martha and the Dragon, a dramatic legend for narrator, chorus, and orchestra, and All the World’s a Stage, for chorus and orchestra.