Errollyn Wallen CBE (College ‘##)

© Azzurra Primavera

Errollyn Wallen CBE is a Belize-born British composer, librettist, and singer-songwriter recognized as a “renaissance woman of contemporary music.” 

Wallen was born on April 10, 1958, and she moved to London with her family when she was just two years old. Music ran in her family: from her father, who was an amateur singer and introduced her to jazz and blues, to her uncle, who ensured that Wallen took piano lessons from a young age and was the first to suggest Wallen consider becoming a composer. 

Wallen was exposed to classical music at a ballet class when an accompanist suddenly played Chopin, and she was instantly mesmerized. The desire to explore music more deeply would resurface when Wallen studied dance at the Dance Theater of Harlem in New York, leading her to change her career path. Subsequently, she commenced studies in music at Goldsmiths’ College (graduating in 1981) and composition at King’s College London (graduating in 1983). She later came to King’s College at the University of Cambridge for an MPhil in composition, though she was already composing professionally before then. Throughout her studies, Wallen navigated higher education as the first person in her family to attend university in the United Kingdom. 

As a musician, Wallen’s talents are versatile. Her passion stems from the desire to “understand what I have heard of other music and… ask more questions.” She has composed more than 17 operas, chamber music, and stage works, and she has also released three solo albums  (ERROLLYN, The Girl in My Alphabet, Meet Me at Harold Moores) in her own voice/piano performance. Wallen’s works explore critical social issues, such as her composition Mighty River, which interrogated themes of slavery and freedom through contemporary classical techniques and spirituals (a type of Christian music created by Black Americans that draws on indigenous African music and the experience of being enslaved).

Wallen’s opera, The Silent Twins, is another notable artwork that was commissioned by Almeida Opera in July 2007. Based on the real-life story of the relationship between Black twin sisters June Gibbons and Jennifer Gibbons, the opera explores creativity, mental health, and sisterhood. Numerous music institutions have commissioned Wallen, from the BBC to the Royal Opera House, and she produced two large-scale compositions for the opening ceremony of the 2012 Paralympic Games. Wallen’s music has traveled all over the world, even to outer space on the NASA STS-115 mission. Currently, Wallen has various teaching positions across the United Kingdom, such as Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance and the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland.

However, Wallen’s journey as a Black female classical musician in a world where she represents a statistical minority didn’t come easily. As a nine-year-old, one of her teachers walked up to her while Wallen was playing the violin for the school orchestra and told her, “You know, little girl … this music isn’t for you.” She didn’t receive any praise for her musical talents from her music teachers until she was 13 years old. When she resolved to study composition at Oxford University at 17, there were no resources or teachers to guide her preparation for the entrance exams. Although Wallen wasn’t successful in her exams then, she was elected an   Honorary Fellow of Mansfield College at the University of Oxford later in her career, demonstrating that rejections are never final. 

Today, Black, Asian, or Minority Ethnic (BAME) composers are underrepresented in the classical music profession, accounting for only 6% of commissioned composers compared to 14% of the UK population. Women composers receive only 21% of commissions, despite 39% of BA composition students being female. Numbers at the intersection of gender and race, though not available, are expected to be abysmally low. The struggles persist even when musicians of color succeed in breaking into the industry since, among other reasons, they continue to receive unwarranted attention for their racial identity. A commissioner that Wallen worked with remarked in an interview that Wallen was selected because it was important to offer the opportunity to a Black person, without giving due credit to her musical talents. 

Yet, no hurdle was significant enough to hold Wallen back from developing her musical abilities to her fullest. She dedicated herself to her training without resentment or pressure to prove anything, driven by her “sheer love” of music. In an interview with the British Music Collection, Wallen shared how she developed self-reliance by pursuing a career different from her family’s normal realm. Through this, Wallen found ways to transform the challenges she confronted into an opportunity to forge her own path. The same spirit guides her group, Ensemble X, whose motto says that ‘We don’t break down barriers in music… we don’t see any.’ 

Medomfo Owusu, a Music Student at Selwyn College, is currently working on a project through the Black Cantabs Research Society called “Black Musicians of Cambridge Project” to document the experiences of past and present music-oriented Black students, like Erollyn Wallen. Through this research, we hope to amplify the legacy of Black musicians and embolden future generations with the belief that they are not alone in their creative pursuits.