The Scottish composer Thea Musgrave is 90 today, 27 May 2018. She is one of Britain’s most distinguished composers of classical music and opera; The Times said that she is “… the most gifted operatic composer [the United Kingdom] has produced since Britten”.
She has written more than 160 works, including 13 operas, 11 choral works, and 21 orchestral works. The Financial Times wrote,
What distinguishes her oeuvre is its craftsmanship and sense of dramatic pace. Her orchestral pieces are atmospheric but clear-headed, their polished surface masking a gritty sense of colour and argument.
It is a milestone that will not go unnoticed. Musgrave has been living in the United States since 1972, and this evening at The Church of St Mary the Virgin in New York she will be joined by Dr Harold Rosenbaum and The New York Virtuoso Singers for an evening of choral music, solo music, and excerpts from her operas. Then on 7 August, The BBC Symphony Orchestra will mark her birthday year with a performance of her orchestral work Phoenix Rising as part of The Proms season at the Royal Albert Hall in London. Just two of the many tributes that will take place over the next year.
Celebrated on both sides of the Atlantic, I asked her what America had given her that Britain couldn’t.
Well one thing it did give me was a husband!
She married American violist and opera conductor Peter Mark in 1971.
I have also taken great inspiration from American stories that I otherwise might not have known [Harriet Tubman, Simon Bolivar, Pontalba, Ambrose Bierce], and from the energy and openness of many of its people. Of course, I have always and still do benefit enormously from the BBC’s support of contemporary composers – right from my earliest career. The US music scene is however much bigger, more geographically dispersed, and doesn’t support its composers in such a coordinated way nationally.
The upcoming Proms concert is just the latest of many prestigious Proms performances over her career: Concerto for Orchestra (1968), Horn Concerto (1971, 1978, 1988), Memento Vitae (1980), Clarinet Concerto (1984), Helios (2003), Ithaca (2010), Loch Ness (2012) and others.
Musgrave is proud of her pragmatic approach to music making, putting it down to her Scottish upbringing.
I’m very practical. Especially in musical terms. With all the pressure on resources and rehearsal time, it is essential that the score and parts are practically conceived as well as realized and written. I have had to develop my own notational system at times for this – especially if solo instruments embark upon a musical arc independent of the conductor and orchestra. It’s perfectly OK if things sound complicated but are actually simply achieved, but NOT the other way around!
From 1987 to 2002 she was Distinguished Professor at Queens College, CUNY, and told her students,
If something sounds very easy and is difficult to play, that’s a no-no. However, if something sounds very difficult and it’s relatively easy to play, that’s great. So, go for it. Don’t write unnecessarily difficult things.
Eminently sensible. Does her realistic approach mean adapting her score to the musician – especially a singer – she finds in front of her?
Performers are the essential conduit and link between a composer’s vision and their impact. I have been fortunate to have worked with so many great performers – famous as well as young and just rising. I always learn from them and adjust things in the part to make the sweep and delivery of the musical gesture easier for them. I watch and listen very carefully. Of course, few musicians will tell you up front what is awkward for them. You have to glean it for yourself in rehearsal.
As regards voices I think it is essential that composers understand them. For instance, they should know about the “passaggio”. Then it is important that words lie comfortably on the vocal line. That is why I like to write my own librettos. I can change words at the last minute if need be and I don’t have to ask anybody’s permission!
Here are some quotes about her music: “Thea Musgrave has that rare gift of being able… to write music that is at once original and at the same time easily accessible.” (Opera Magazine); “Her music is imaginative, clear and direct, but never predictable. It is also inspiring.” (Boston Globe); “Orchestration [that] has a Straussian depth and complexity, swept along by a romantic undercurrent that is enthralling but unpredictable.” (BBC Music Magazine). In the ‘70s, she herself said to The New York Times: “I don’t know if you noticed, but I pinched the bit for four cellos in the seduction scene from the beginning of Act III of Tosca.” Accessible, clear and direct, Straussian. She is maybe more inclusive in her compositions than her contemporaries such as Ligeti and Stockhausen, drawing inspiration from a myriad of sources.
Well of course Stravinsky and the 12-tone composers emancipated melody from harmony, and Berg actually forced us to hear ‘melody’ through colours and the organization of other ingredients of music. That has left me free to find new combinations and colours even though I always plan and employ long-range harmonic architecture. It gives each work a special organic shape. Then the details can explore new terrain. There is not much reason to compose if it has already been done.
And Tosca isn’t the only work she’s quoted from. It was Beethoven for a commission for the Beethoven bicentenary in 1970; Robbie Burns for Songs for a Winter’s Evening, a piece for soprano and orchestra commissioned by the 1st Burns International Festival. In her opera Mary, Queen of Scots, she writes her own Elizabethan-style music to quote, as she didn’t have access to a music library to find an historical theme when he was composing it.
In a long interview she gave last year, she said,
It’s like in a book you read with quotes from other people. It refers back to another time. Not that you can copy that other time—it is then and relived now—but you can quote and then comment. There’s usually a dramatic reason for doing it. I’ve done that sometimes. I think Charles Ives did that.
On hearing a new piece, an audience is obviously delighted to recognise something familiar. Does she think about pleasing the public?
It is really impossible to know what audience is there at any given moment. Every audience is made up of people of different tastes and backgrounds. But if one is writing on commission for an organisation one should really understand what the organisation’s mission is as well as its performing assets before ever considering who regularly comes to their concerts.
Musgrave’s no-nonsense approach is evidently carried through into other aspects of her life. My question about her teachers Nadia Boulanger and Aaron Copland and if their old and new continent perspectives made a difference to their approach, was met with,
A more important difference is that Nadia was basically a teacher and Aaron a composer.
That told me.
I pointed out that Berio’s music – he was born three years before Musgrave – sells less than Bellini, and certainly far less than The Beatles. If this is a reflection of what the public wants, has contemporary music lost its way? Does that matter?
If you take a broader perspective, classical Western music began in the Church and then the Court. All along, dance and folk music was surely more prevalent and popular.
The fact that public Concert Halls and Opera Houses took root in the 17th Century and continued to proliferate through today attests to the power and reach of classical music in a more egalitarian world.
Yes, popular music has also had a dynamic growth in its distribution – especially now. But the internet has aided both – and will shake down in ways we cannot foresee at this point in time.
Classical music from these earlier times is still the major part of most concert programmes today.
And as much as I admire the Beatles I wonder whether their music will still be played a hundred years from now.
Musgrave has written pieces for full orchestra and smaller ensembles, concertos and pieces with singers, from solo keyboard to grand opera. Hidden away in her long list of works is a full-length ballet, Beauty and the Beast, which was commissioned by Scottish Ballet and premiered in 1969.
Dance is a wonderful companion and partner for music. I loved working with Peter [Peter Darrell, founder of the Scottish Ballet] and Colin [director Colin Graham, who wrote the ballet’s scenario] shaping my Beauty and the Beast. Conducting the ballet gave me great understanding of the need for accurate tempi. After all you can’t stretch the musical shape to your will once the dancer has left the ground in a leap.
Apart from many performances with the Scottish Ballet, the piece was also revived by the Rouen company in France at the end of the 1990s. What other works would she like to see performed again?
The operas Mary, Queen of Scots [1977, chamber version in 2003], Simon Bolivar [1992, chamber version 2013] and Pontalba  – because I think they are about important issues that are still relevant today and are substantial additions to the repertoire that deserve larger audiences.
And Voices of Power and Protest for unaccompanied chorus – because of the uniquely dramatized use of the chorus to enhance the impact of important human issues and struggles.
Her programme note for that work’s 2007 premiere read,
The composition of this work was begun at the end of June 2006: a few days later the conflict between Israel and the Hezbollah broke out and once again TV screens were filled with the horrors of war – with destruction and tragic loss. However the whole idea of this work was conceived way back in the 1970s.
Musgrave says that her campaigning days are over. Our conversation came about because of today’s 90th birthday. How does she feel looking back?
I think I – as many composers before me – have mellowed with regard to what is important for me in my later years. I still want to express what I have to say in the clearest and most direct way. But I am no longer searching for or championing new techniques or taking political or musical stands. I am busy being and enjoying myself – and using my skills in directions that draw me to them.
Being a woman has given her a particular outlook in a field dominated by men?
I will leave that to others to decide. I feel yes, I am a composer – and yes, I am a woman; but rarely simultaneously.
Does she fear or embrace the future?
Neither, as I don’t know what it holds for me or for the world.
I believe, with so many issues now on the table, perhaps we can expect some resolutions. But whether they will come in my lifetime, I doubt it.
I am happy and fulfilled to be the composer and person I am now at age 90!
Graham Spicer is a writer, director and photographer in Milan, blogging (under the name ‘Gramilano’) about dance, opera, music and photography for people “who are a bit like me and like some of the things I like”. He was a regular columnist for Opera Now magazine and wrote for the BBC until transferring to Italy.
His scribblings have appeared in various publications from Woman’s Weekly to Gay Times, and he wrote the ‘Danza in Italia’ column for Dancing Times magazine.