Professor Shirley Thompson, an English composer of Jamaican descent, is the first female composer in Europe to compose a symphony in the past 40 years. Her work “New Nation Rising, A 21st Century Symphony” was recorded by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.
In addition to being a composer, Thompson is also an artistic director and conductor. Her music is performed around the world and has been described as “beautiful and powerful.” Her “New Nation Rising” symphony was written in celebration of the thousand-year history of London. In the work, the Royal Philharmonic is accompanied by solo singers, two choirs, a rapper, and dhol drummers for a total of almost 200 performers. The work was originally commissioned for the Golden Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II, with its concept taken as the framework for the Opening Ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics. Thompson has also composed pieces for many television, film, theater, dance, and opera productions.
Thompson began her career playing the violin in a number of youth symphony orchestras in London and singing with local choirs. She studied Musicology at the University of Liverpool and went on to specialize in Composition at Goldsmiths’ College with Professor Stanley Glasser. She received her first major commission, a chamber orchestral piece called “Visions,” from the Greenwich International Festival. She then began writing for film and television, with her music for “South of the Border” was chosen as one of the top 20 themes on BBC TV in that year. Also in 1990, the score she wrote for the film “Dreaming Rivers” received a prize at the Mannheim Film Festival.
She founded and directed The Shirley Thompson Ensemble in 1995 at the South Bank Center in London. This group of instrumental soloists, singers, dancers, and visual artists was the basis of her ground-breaking compositions that integrated contemporary classical music orchestration with improvisation and fused contemporary popular music and world music styles. With her original compositions, Thompson became a leading exponent of musical performance combined with multi-media. She also created arts education programs, including the Newham Symphony Schools Spectacular for children from seven to 17 years of age in 2002. This program led to the introduction of “Every Child a Musician,” a national education plan adopted in the borough in 2010.
Her music was commissioned for several royal engagements, and she created music for contemporary choreographers, including the Royal Ballet School’s workshops. Thompson’s most famous dance score “Shift” featured a solo cello and string orchestra as part of the award-winning ballet “PUSH” that starred Sylvie Guillem and Russell Maliphant, whose global tour performed at major venues in over 30 countries.
Thompson was recognized for her work “A Child of the Jago,” an opera in two acts, with the “Woman of the Year” award from the Arts Council in 1997. Additional important compositions and performances from Thompson include “The Woman Who Refused to Dance” (2007), and “British Slave Trade: Abolition, Parliament and People; Spirit Songs” (2007) performed by the Philharmonia Orchestra in Queen Elizabeth Hall, Southbank Center. She was commissioned to compose “Voice of Change” in 2009 to mark the first 100 days of Barack Obama’s presidency in the United States. Her “Mandela Tales” debuted in 2012 and featured stories from various places and traditions of Africa. The work premiered in South Africa in 2013. A new choral commission was conducted by Thompson in 2014 at Westminster Abbey to commemorate 175 years of the University of Westminster. Also in 2014, she served as Composer-in-Residence for the Lynn Conservatory, New Music Festival in Florida. In 2015 her opera “Sacred Mountain: Incidents in the Life of Queen Nanny of the Maroons” had its premiere at the opening night of Tete a Tete: Opera Festival.
Professor Thompson is a Reader in Composition and Performance at the University of Westminster and for more than 20 years has served on several arts councils. She was the first woman to serve as executive of the Association of Professional Composers and is currently an elected member of the Classical Music Executive for the British Academy of Song Writers, Composers and Authors.
She has been included on the Evening Standard’s “Power List of Britain’s Top 100 Most Influential Black People in 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015 and 2016.”
Photo: Shirley Thompson