Shirley Thompson (composer)

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Shirley Thompson
London, England
CitizenshipBritish, of Jamaican descent
Notable work
Arts Council of England

Southbank Centre Newham Council, Department of Culture University of Westminster Top TV Music Theme (1990) for South of the Border

Mannheim Film Festival prize (1990) for Dreaming Rivers
Familymother and father

External video
“Storytelling with the Power of Music - A 21st Century Symphony”, Shirley J. Thompson at TEDxJamaica

Shirley Thompson is an English composer, conductor and violinist of Jamaican descent. Her output as a composer encompasses symphonies, ballets, operas, concertos, and other works for ensembles, as well as music for TV, film, and theatre.[1] With her New Nation Rising, A 21st Century Symphony, composed in 2002[2] and debuted in 2004, Thompson became the first woman in Europe to have composed and conducted a symphony within the past 40 years.[3] Also an academic, she is currently Reader and Head of Composition and Performance at the University of Westminster.[4]

Early years and education[edit]

Shirley Thompson was born in London, UK, of Jamaican parents.[5] Her early musical experience included playing the violin in various youth symphony orchestras in London, and choral singing with local choirs in Newham.[6] She graduated in music from Liverpool University and in composition from Goldsmiths' College after studying with Professor Stanley Glasser.[7]


After university, Thompson composed a body of solo and instrumental ensemble works for concert hall as well as working as a freelance composer of music for TV, films and the theatre.[5] She set up the Shirley Thompson Ensemble[7] in 1994 and this became the main vehicle for her instrumental and vocal works that fused contemporary classical orchestrations with popular and world music styles.[5]

Thompson was the first woman to compose and musically direct music for a major drama series at the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC).[8] Having trained as a television programme maker at the BBC and Carlton Television she directed the film Memories in Mind,[9] with an award from the Arts Council,[10] which was broadcast by the BBC in 1998.

Thompson began to focus on full orchestral composition and in 2004 became the first woman in Europe in more than 40 years to have composed and conducted a symphony.[5][11][12] New Nation Rising, A 21st Century Symphony was recorded by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra[10][13] to celebrate one thousand years of London's history.[5] The piece sees the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra play alongside two choirs, solo singers, a rapper and dhol drummers.[5][10] Originally commissioned for the Golden Jubilee of Elizabeth II in 2002 and the concept is described "a predecessor of the 2012 Olympics Opening Ceremony".[14][15]

Alongside Andy Cowton and Carlos Montoya, Thompson co-scored the award-winning[16] ballet PUSH, which premiered in 2005 and has since toured the world in major and prestigious venues, among them: Sadler's Wells, the London Coliseum, New York City Center and the Sydney Opera House. Theater Heilbronn, Germany; Athens Arena, Greece; Opera de Lyon, Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, France; Teatro Comunale Modena; Teatro degli Arcimboldi (Milan); Teatro di San Carlo (Naples) Italy; Teatro Real (Madrid), Spain; and Mariinsky Theatre, St Petersburg, Russia.[10][16][17]

In 2007 Thompson was commissioned to compose music for the opening of the Parliamentary exhibition The British Slave Trade: Abolition, Parliament and People, which marked the 250-year anniversary of legislation for the abolition of the transatlantic trade in enslaved African people.[5] The Woman Who Refused to Dance, performed at the launch, is arranged for soprano, spoken-word artist and orchestra.[9][10][18] Spirit of the Middle Passage for three solo singers, spoken-word artist and chamber orchestra[9] was performed by The Philharmonia Orchestra in the Queen Elizabeth Hall as part of the Freedom & Culture International Creative Forum.[5][19] The work featured three heroines: Nanny of the Maroons, Dido Elizabeth Belle, and The Woman Who Refused To Dance (on a ship with enslaved Africans).[10]

In 2009 Thompson was commissioned by Southbank Centre to compose a piece to commemorate 100 days of Barack Obama's presidency.[5][20] Voice of Change for chamber orchestra, solo voices, speaker and video was performed in April 2009 at the Purcell Room, Southbank Centre,[21] with performers including principals of the BBC Concert Orchestra and soloists.[5]

In 2010 Shirley Thompson was announced in the Evening Standard's "Power List of Britain's 100 Most Influential Black People 2010",[22][23] an accolade that would be repeated in subsequent years.[24][25][26]

On 9 February 2013, extracts from her work Mandela Tales, inspired by the book Nelson Mandela's Favourite African Folk Tales (2002), were included in the programme performed by the Chamber Orchestra and Chamber Choir from Gordonstoun School at the amphitheatre at the V&A Waterfront, Cape Town.[27]

In 2015, her opera Sacred Mountain: Incidents in the Life of Queen Nanny of the Maroons was chosen to open London's Tête à Tête: The Opera Festival.[28][29][30]

In April 2016 she was honoured with the Luminary Award[31] (presented to people of Caribbean heritage who have made significant, outstanding contributions on an international scale or have brought to prominence issues that affect the Caribbean region, with previous recipients including Bob Marley, Harry Belafonte, Jimmy Cliff, Louise Bennett and Derek Walcott) at the University of the West Indies (UWI) Benefit Gala in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.[32]

Academic work[edit]

Thompson holds the position of Reader and Head of Composition and Performance at the University of Westminster, where she has taught since 2001.[10][4][33] She has also given lectures at other institutions, including the Victoria & Albert Museum[34] and on BBC Radio 3.[35]

Honours and awards[edit]

Thompson has received awards from the following organisations:

  • Arts Council of England[10]
  • Southbank Centre[10]
  • Newham Council, Department of Culture[10]
  • University of Westminster[10]
  • Top TV Music Theme (1990) for South of the Border[36]
  • Mannheim Film Festival prize (1990) for Dreaming Rivers[36]
  • Prized Pieces, for Memories in Mind (1992)
  • Woman of the Year in the Arts nomination (1997)[4]
  • Power List of Britain’s 100 Most Influential Black People (2010–17)[26][37]
  • University of the West Indies Luminary Award, 2016[32]


Thompson has composed for opera, orchestra, contemporary dance, TV and film. Selected works include:

  • New Nation Rising, A 21st Century Symphony (2004) – symphony for orchestra, choir, solo singers, rapper and dhol drummers[38]
  • Push – contemporary ballet (co-scored)[38]
  • The Woman Who Refused to Dance – for solo singer, speaker and orchestra
  • Spirit of the Middle Passage – for solo singers, speaker and orchestra[7]
  • Viola Concerto, Oslo Odyssey – for orchestral and electronic instruments and multi-media[38]
  • 100 Days of Barack Obama – for solo voice, instrumental ensemble and video projection[38]
  • The Lodger – theatrical music[7]
  • A Child of the Jago – opera[7]
  • Tapestry Song Cycle – for soprano and instrumental ensemble[38]

Her works have been recorded and issued on CD and DVD including:

  • New Nation Rising – A 21st Century Symphony[39]
  • Newham Symphony Spectacular
  • Transition
  • Summer Notes[40]
  • Anansi Fantasia[41]
  • Memories in Mind


  1. ^ "Dr Shirley J. Thompson FRSA, fHEA Composer", Music Unites Jamaica Foundation.
  2. ^ "New Nation Rising, score", University of Westminster repository.
  3. ^ "Women In Classical Music", BASCA.
  4. ^ a b c "Our people". University of Westminster. Retrieved 11 January 2018.
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h i j "About". Shirley J. Thompson website. Retrieved 2 May 2011.
  6. ^ "Shirley Thompson, Composer", Mariinsky Theatre.
  7. ^ a b c d e Basca. "Basca – Classical and Jazz Executive". Basca. Archived from the original on 5 September 2011. Retrieved 27 April 2011.
  8. ^ Avia Ustanny (10 August 2003). "Shirley Thompson – a multi-talented musician". Jamaica Gleaner. Retrieved 16 October 2010.
  9. ^ a b c "Shirley Thompson compositions". Shirley J. Thompson. Retrieved 14 April 2011.
  10. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k "Dr Shirley Thompson, Reader in Music". University of Westminster. Retrieved 6 October 2014.
  11. ^ Shirley Thompson – Composer & Conductor Archived 6 September 2012 at Music Tank, University of Westminster.
  12. ^ Dees, Pamela Youngdahl, A Guide to Piano Music by Women Composers: Women born after 1900, 2004.
  13. ^ "New Nation Rising website". Retrieved 13 April 2011.
  14. ^ "Music for HM Queen Elizabeth II", Shirley J. Thompson.
  15. ^ "Dr Shirley Thompson, Patron", Black British Academics.
  16. ^ a b "Sylvie Guillem & Russell Malipant — PUSH". Sadler's Wells. Retrieved 13 April 2011.
  17. ^ "Performances in 38 Opera Houses Worldwide", Shirley J. Thompson website.
  18. ^ "University of Westminster research". University of Westminster. Retrieved 14 April 2011.
  19. ^ "Freedom and Culture Forum Webpage". Passage of Music. Retrieved 14 April 2011.
  20. ^ "Obama: 100 days". View Magazine. Retrieved 14 April 2011.
  21. ^ "Barack Obama: 100 days". Retrieved 14 April 2011.
  22. ^ Eboda, Michael (14 April 2011). "Here they are: 100 role models for black teens". Evening Standard.
  23. ^ "Powerlist 2010". Powerful Media. Retrieved 14 April 2011.
  24. ^ "Here are the top 10 most influential black Britons", AOL Newsletter, 25 October 2016.
  25. ^ "Shirley J Thompson", Power List, Powerful Media, 2017.
  26. ^ a b Glen Munro, "Composer Shirley Makes Her Mark On The Power List", The Voice, 11 November 2017.
  27. ^ "'Mandela Tales' by Dr Shirley Thompson to feature in South African Concert" Archived 9 October 2014 at the Wayback Machine., CREAM News, University of Westminster, 1 February 2013.
  28. ^ "Westminster Academic's Musical Production to Open the World's Largest Contemporary Opera Festival" Archived 17 July 2015 at the Wayback Machine., University of Westminster, 30 June 2015.
  29. ^ Deborah Gabriel, "Dr Shirley Thompson's Nanny of the Maroons Opera Continues to Diversify Classical Music Performance", Black British Academics, 13 June 2015.
  30. ^ "TBB Reviews Shirley J Thompson’s ‘Sacred Mountain Words & Music’ Opera", The British Blacklist, 8 August 2015.
  31. ^ Honorees, UWI Toronto Benefit Gala, 2016.
  32. ^ a b "Award-Winning Composer Dr Shirley J Thompson Receives Luminary Award", News — University of Westminster, 11 April 2016.
  33. ^ "Dr Shirley J. Thompson" at LinkedIn.
  34. ^ "Dr Shirley J Thompson to Give Lecture on Heroines of Opera", Cream News, University of Westminster, 14 April 2015.
  35. ^ "Westminster's Dr Shirley J Thompson to Present a Lecture about Florence Beatrice Price on BBC Radio 3", News and Events, University of Westminster, 8 February 2017.
  36. ^ a b "Speakers biographies". Music Tank. Archived from the original on 6 September 2012. Retrieved 27 April 2011.
  37. ^ "Westminster's Dr Shirley J. Thompson Named as 'One of the Most Inspirational British Women of Colour' by metro UK", News and Events, University of Westminster, 23 October 2017.
  38. ^ a b c d e "Scores catalogue". Shirley J. Thompson. Retrieved 27 April 2011.
  39. ^ "New nation rising: a 21st century symphony", Westminster Research.
  40. ^ "Recordings". Shirley J. Thompson. Retrieved 27 April 2011.
  41. ^ Arts on Film. "Arts on Film archive". University of Westminster. Retrieved 27 April 2011.

External links[edit]