Kate Whitley

The British composer on setting Malala Yousafzai's landmark UN speech

Composer Kate Whitley
Published: March 8, 2017 at 11:01 am

In 2012, 15-year-old Malala Yousafzai was shot by the Taliban. She survived, and has gone on to advocate equality for women and children around the world – winning a Nobel Peace Prize in the process.


Composer Kate Whitley has now written Speak Out, a choral-orchestral piece commissioned by BBC Radio 3 setting Yousafzai's landmark 2013 United Nations speech about education.

'As the speech is a call to raise our voices, it makes me very happy that it will be sung by a large choir, that so many voices will rise to share the message of education for all,' says Yousafzai.

We caught up with the composer to find out more...

How are you feeling about the first rehearsals for your piece Speak Out?

Very excited! Especially to meet the kids. I can't wait.

When did it all begin?

It was the suggestion of Edwina Wolstencroft at the BBC, who has initiated most of the International Women's Day activity. She got in touch with me in the summer, and said she had the idea of setting Malala Yousafzai's UN speech. I thought it was a really ideal thing to pick. It's both a good speech to turn into a piece, and it's particularly poignant to choose it to be part of this day, and to place Radio 3's women's activity in a broader political context. It's a dream project.

How did you go about setting the speech to music?

I went through the speech and picked several of the sentences to weave into a little poem. Some of them have been turned into quotes that you can find all over the internet. A lot of them stand alone. One in particular – 'We cannot all succeed when half of us are held back' – is such a nice way of framing the problem of the lack of education for women. It's eloquent and simple.

And how do you use that poem?

Speak Out is in three parts. Two outer sections sung by the children's choir do exactly the same thing and use the same main six-line verse. It's a call to action: 'Let us pick up our books and our pens. Let us wage a glorious struggle.' The middle section is sung by the adults on their own before the children join in for the last verse. It's much more from the perspective of Malala, with the lines 'Here I stand, one among many' and 'We realise the importance of our voice when we are silenced, and out of that silence came thousands of voices'. It's a really simple way to put a really important idea.

Do you portray Malala Yousafzai herself in this piece?

It's more universal. I liked the line 'Here I stand one among many', as she takes it away from being about herself. She's not saying 'I am the one'. And the fact that she was such a young person to give a speech like that, to say that line, at the UN Youth Summit was amazing. To be aware of yourself in the larger whole. And a choir is made up of individuals, each of whom stands as one part of the whole. It's a really important message.

And what does the music sound like?

I've written quite a lot for children before, and I absolutely love it. You have to take into consideration writing really well for young voices, so the style is partly inspired by that. Speak Out also partly fits into the same kind of style as other pieces I've written for young people to sing with orchestra, so making sure their material is quite simple with repeating ideas. But because you have such a massive orchestra supporting them, you have the breadth and scope to do whatever you want musically around it.

Did any pieces from the past or present inspire you?

I've always been inspired by Britten's use of young people as performers, as singers or players. Noye's Fludde has an amazing integration of professional and young performers. That's always an inspiration.

Speak Out will be premiered by the BBC National Orchestra and Chorus of Wales, Côr y Cwm and conductor Xian Zhang on 8 March 2017, International Women’s Day, and broadcast on BBC Radio 3.



• Xian Zhang named BBC NOW Principal Guest Conductor


Rebecca Franks
Rebecca FranksJournalist, Critic and former Managing Editor of BBC Music Magazine

Rebecca Franks is the former Managing Editor of BBC Music Magazine and a regular classical music critic for The Times. She is currently writing her first children's book.

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