By Kathleen L. McGowan

Today, by way of observing Juneteenth in the United States, we are celebrating the work of composer and performer Errollyn Wallen. This listening guide will direct newcomers to Wallen’s music toward pieces that we hope they will enjoy, as well as help those who already know her work to find some new favorites.

Errollyn Wallen, CBE, is an internationally-acclaimed composer and performer, was born in Belize, then a colony of the British crown.  She studied a combination of music and dance at the Maureen Lyons School of Dance (London), the Urdang Academy (London), the Dance Theater of Harlem (New York), Goldsmith’s (University of London), King’s College London, and King’s College, Cambridge. She was appointed Member of the Order of the British Empire in 2007 and Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 2020. In 2002 she released her first album of compositions, The Girl in My Alphabet, and in 2004 a self-titled album of songs and solo piano music. She has since released a number of compositions as singles as well as two more albums, Photography in 2016 and Meet Me at the  Harold Moores in 2024.

Wallen’s oeuvre includes ballets, dramatic works, pieces for string orchestra, brass band, chamber orchestra, mixed string and wind chamber ensembles, solo piano, and mixed vocal ensembles both alone and in combination with instruments. This reflects the realities of a composer’s life in the twenty-first century, but also shows the versatility and appeal of her musical style. Her style relies on expressive lyricism, for both voices and instruments. Vibrant dance rhythms characterize much of her instruments-only music, as does healthy repetition that seems to nod toward minimalism without completely embracing it. Such repetitions always seem to have a clear musical purpose—Wallen uses them to build intensity and energy toward an arrival point instead of making them the main event.

I’ve chosen a few examples of Wallen’s vocal, instrumental, avant-garde, and jazz-influenced music as places for listeners to begin exploring her repertoire, though surely other listeners might think of more. The beauty of a listening guide is that it’s a guide—listeners can begin anywhere they choose.

If you’re looking for songs and vocal music . . . prepare for a genre meetup.

Wallen has a deep background in jazz, and it very clearly inflects how she writes music for voices. At the same time, no one could mistake these for jazz standards. They blend jazz harmonies and improvisation with classical sensibilities, as well as nods to musical theater, spirituals, and traditional music. Her jazz influence is most prominent in music for solo voices, perhaps a practical feature as much as anything, since solo voices have more freedom to improvise than do voices singing in a group. Her vocal writing spans her entire career—broadly speaking, listeners will find more solo voice pieces in her early work and more large vocal ensemble pieces in her later work, though Meet Me at Harold Moore’s seems to indicate that she’s returning to writing more solo vocal pieces. For solo voice work, a listener might begin with tracks from her early album Errollyn (2004) or her most recent Meet Me at Harold Moore’s (2024); for choirs and larger groups, consider Peace on Earth (2020), or When the Wet Wind Sings (2023). Are You Worried About the Rising Cost of Funerals? (2015) combines her solo vocal writing with a string quartet.

Peace on Earth, featured here and performed by the WDR Radio Choir, is one of Wallen’s most celebrated vocal works. Its simplicity shows the strength of her vocal writing, and pays homage to the long tradition of choral music in Britain.


If you’re looking for something a little avant-garde . . . then Dervish is probably for you.

Wallen’s Dervish for cello and piano is a piece of Wallen’s early work, originally appearing on the Girl in My Alphabet in 2002. The cello lends itself well to this style of avant-garde music because it has plenty of sounds at its disposal. Once upon a time we might have called things like using the wood of the bow, knocking gently on the body of the instrument, or long glisses and timbre changes “extended techniques,” indicating that they’re outside conventional means of playing the instrument. Especially in contemporary writing, these kinds of techniques now come standard. Wallen doesn’t throw the kitchen sink of possible cello techniques at Dervish, however—she values lyricism too much to do that carelessly. She leans into the “whirling” aspect of “whirling dervish,” using repetition to build momentum as the piece progresses while still allowing the cello to sing.

Dervish is performed here by Katie Tertell (cello) and Efi Hackmey (piano) at the 2022 Appalachian Chamber Music Festival in West Virginia.


If you’re looking for orchestral music . . . then intensity and heroic optimism are on the menu.

Wallen has orchestral pieces that span her time as a composer: Concerto Grosso (2008); her album of orchestral works Photography (2016) features two tone poems—Hunger and In Earth—her Cello Concerto, and the title work Photography; and Mighty River (2017). Her pieces divide along lines of featured instruments. When she features strings they tend to be pensive and finely-textured—it’s easy to hear individual voices within the texture, as in the Concerto Grosso (below). In this her work resembles some of Nichola LeFanu’s, with whom she studied at King’s College, London in the early 1980s.

(Concerto Grosso, 2008, played here by the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields as part of the Beacon project)


Wallen’s Mighty River (2017) showcases her wind writing to its best advantage. The piece was commissioned to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act in Britain and its then-colonies, and Wallen originally wrote the piece to explore themes of slavery and freedom by combining spirituals and contemporary classical techniques for orchestra–a milieu in which wind instruments usually take much more involved roles. Her use of spirituals isn’t only a nod to traditions of Black music, but to history as well: the Fisk Jubilee Singers performed a concert of spirituals in Hull in the UK in 1871, and it ignited a new enthusiasm for them there.

The textures in Mighty River are a lot less sparse than when Wallen writes for strings, and the lyricism that is a hallmark of her writing remains. The piece opens with a solemn statement of “Amazing Grace” for solo horn, but quickly launches into a joyful whirl of thick wind textures and dance rhythms. There are perhaps some moments where a listener might hear a little influence–a splash of Aaron Copland here, a turn of Steve Reich there, a brief surge of Ralph Vaughan Williams in the background–and given her training as a composer we’d probably be disappointed if we didn’t hear some of these things. Wallen clearly has great taste when it comes to what orchestral winds do well. At the same time, none of these brief callouts sound imitative. She has taken traditions and techniques together and made them her own.

(Wallen’s Mighty River, featured here performed by Orchestra X and available via YouTube courtesy of Naxos)

To hear the composer discuss the piece and her work on it with Oxford Contemporary Music, please visit

For listeners interested in Wallen’s life, artistic process, and background, she has given a number of interviews as well as written a memoir, Becoming a Composer.

Let us know what you listened to! — [email protected]