Composer Spotlight: Errollyn Wallen

A. Kori Hill

Lately, when Errollyn Wallen must work on a commission, she doesn’t go to an office or a café or a library; she goes to her lighthouse. 

Errollyn has been living in a lighthouse on the Scottish coast for several years. It’s her ideal working place. Not because it’s relaxing, but because it gets her to focus, especially when she has a tight deadline. 

Errollyn Wallen’s lighthouse–Photo by Les Armishaw

For more than twenty years, Errollyn has been writing and performing music. At first, she wanted to be a dancer; she even moved to New York to continue her studies. But there she realized her true love still lay with music. So, she returned to England, studying at Goldsmiths, King’s College London, and King’s College Cambridge, where she got her Master of Philosophy degree in composition.  

Now, she’s one of the most respected and sought after composers of our time. She’s written a lot of works for voice, orchestra, and chamber ensembles. One of her most recent is a violin concerto, debuted this year by Philipe Quint and the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra, who also commissioned the work

Commissions are when a person, an ensemble, or an organization asks a composer to write a new piece. Often, the commissioning ensemble debuts the work and sometimes records its. Commissions are a very important way for composers to make a living and to get more people to hear their music. 

Errollyn has been commissioned by the British monarchy, Opera North, the BBC, and many other ensembles and organizations. She was named a MBE–Member of the Order of the British Empire–in 2007; and was upgraded to an CBE–Commander of the British Empire–in 2020. That’s one level lower than a damehood/knighthood! 

In addition to composing, Errollyn also sings and plays piano. She made her Wigmore Hall debut last year. One of the songs she performed is “Hurricane of Love” from The Errollyn Wallen Songbook (2006). You might be surprised: it sounds like a pop-jazz combo-rock song because it is! Errollyn doesn’t only write in a “classical” style; like many composers she incorporates all kinds of genres in her music. 

Some pieces are more “traditionally” classical. Her Concerto Grosso (2008) is inspired by the Baroque-era genre. This piece is written for a string orchestra and piano, instead of a string orchestra and harpsichord. It’s also a lot more intense and built around short motives instead of a melody. Listen close and ask yourself; do some of these motives return? If so, do they return the same way? 

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