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'I'd love to see more black people get into classical music'

CLASSIC TALENT: Classical composer and musical director Errollyn Wallen (Photo credit: Civitella/Azzurra Primavera)

“WHEN I was a little girl, I remember a teacher telling me ‘classical music isn’t for you’ because of my background.”

It could have been a dream-damaging comment for the young schoolgirl, but for award-winning classical composer, Errollyn Wallen, it just spurred her on.

Even with an MBE from the Queen and a legion of awards, including the prestigious British Composer Award, Wallen still faces prejudice as a black classical musician.

“Somebody once said I was a ‘novelty’ and that I wouldn’t really be able to have a life-long career,” Wallen recalls.

“But these things, I suppose everyone has something to overcome and has had to deal with people’s prejudice. But what drives me forward is the love of music – it always has done, since I was a little girl. If I had listened to everybody, I wouldn’t be a musician now.”

Born in Belize, Wallen moved to the UK when she was two years old. Her first musical memory was as a young kid at a local dance class where she grew fascinated by the music that was played during her ballet sessions.

“I remember going home and trying to find it on the radio. That’s where I came across orchestral music.”

In school, her music teacher opened her eyes up even more, teaching the class to read and write music, and at nine years old, Wallen began playing the piano, which she “took to very easily.”

She studied music at Goldsmiths, King’s College, London and King’s College, Cambridge – a pleasant surprise to both Wallen and her family as she was the first in he family to attend university.

“They just let me get on with it,” Wallen says about her family’s attitude towards her musical passion. “I think it was a surprise to all of us when I went into music. I very much had to make my own way.”

She adds: “Not that my family weren’t supportive, but they just didn’t know about certain things. No one had been to university so I had to find out these things for myself.”

After university Wallen performed as a keyboard player with numerous bands, on the comedy circuit, then ran a commercial recording studio and wrote the music and performed live as a tap-dancing hostess on a 21-episode national television game show.
Wallen’s music includes many works for orchestra, ballets, fourteen operas, chamber music, television and films.

Recent large-scale commissions include two works featuring the London Symphony Orchestra for the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Paralympic Games.

“It was very exciting to be part of that because it was televised to a billion people all around the world. It was very thrilling.”

WELL COMPOSED: Wallen working on new music

Wallen is someone who is used to setting milestones in the classical music world.
In 1998, the Londoner became the first black woman to have a work performed at the BBC Proms. She was also the first woman to win the Ivor Novella Award for classical music. But at the time, these impressive, historical feats were not as exciting for the musician as they were for the rest of the world.

“I consider myself a composer first and foremost, and I was just a composer having my work played, the artist explained.

Wallen, who last year was inaugurated Honorary Fellow of Mansfield College, Oxford, in recognition of her exceptional achievements as a composer, continues: “But when I stopped to think about it, then I thought ‘Oh my gosh, this is pretty important’.

“At the time, I was just getting on with things, but I now know it’s important to mark these milestones.”

On becoming a full-time composer, Wallen formed her own group Ensemble X whose motto is: “We don’t break down barriers in music...we don’t see any.”

The musician, who recently released her new album, Photography, says that the reason that many believe classical music is considered highbrow, is because they don’t allow themselves to be open-minded about the genre.

“I personally would like to see more people from other backgrounds in classical music,” she says. “It’s still very much dominated by people of a European decent.”

Wallen adds: “I feel everyone should feel free to do exactly what they want. And I think music is one of the most freeing expressions we have so everyone should feel free to work with whatever music they want to.”

Photography by Errollyn Wallen is out now through NMC. For more information, visit

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