Thea Musgrave

Thea Musgrave (born 1928) was a prominent Scottish-born composer whose works include operas, ballet scores, orchestral pieces, chamber music, and vocal and choral works. Her music was performed in Great Britain, Europe, and the United States.

Thea Musgrave was highly regarded for her talent in a wide variety of musical forms. Her compositional techniques included serial writing and electronically generated sound, but her personal style was not confined to one school of composition. She described the form of some of her music as "dramatic-abstract" and said,

Music goes from moment to moment, and I'm very conscious of voice-leading. I'm also conscious of the big gesture, the route the music will follow, and that is where tonality comes in, creating the feeling of home. The feeling of home can be established by a chord or a color or a rhythm. Or when you arrive at E-flat. It's not E-flat major, but you know it's E-flat. I do compose in long lines, long gestures, and I know where I'm going. At the same time, I compose each moment as beautifully, as perfectly as I can.

Musgrave was born in Edinburgh in 1928, attending Edinburgh University, where she studied harmony and analysis under Mary Grierson and counterpoint and history of music under Hans Gal, from 1947 to 1950. She attended the Paris Conservatory (1952-1954), and she studied composition privately with Nadia Boulanger from 1950 to 1954. She lectured on music at London University (1959-1965) and later was a visiting professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara. In the mid-1980s she lived in Norfolk, Virginia, with her husband, Peter Mark, who was conductor and general director of the Virginia Opera Association.

Musgrave received many commissions and awards, among them the Donald Francis Tovey prize and the Lili Boulanger Memorial prize, which she won while she was a student. In 1974 she received the Serge Koussevitsky Music Foundation award, for which she composed Space Play, a chamber piece for nine instruments. The piece was given its premiere performance in the United States by the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. Musgrave was also awarded two Guggenheim Fellowships.

The BBC awarded her commissions for the composition of The Phoenix and the Turtle (1962), a work for small choir and orchestra; Night Music (1969) for chamber orchestra; and the Viola Concerto (1973). The Royal Philharmonic Society commissioned her to write the Concerto for Clarinet and Orchestra (1968). Other commissions came from the Gulbenkian Foundation, for which she wrote the full-length ballet Beauty and the Beast (1968-1969), and from the Virginia Opera Association, for which she wrote A Christmas Carol (1978-1979). The association performed the work in 1979. The many other commissions she received included a wide variety of music, from songs such as Sir Patrick Spens (1961), which was commissioned by Peter Pears, to the Trio for Flute, Oboe and Piano (1960), which was commissioned by the Mabillon Trio. Her versatility as a composer contributed to her success. Musgrave wrote for orchestra, chamber groups, and voice with the same assurance that she wrote for the opera, a medium in which she was particularly interested. Of the operas she wrote one of the best known is Mary, Queen of Scots.


Mary, Queen of Scots

Mary, Queen of Scots was composed between 1975 and 1977 and was first performed at the Edinburgh International Festival in 1977. Musgrave wrote the libretto of the opera herself, although it is based on an unfinished play by Amalia Elguera entitled Moray. The libretto focuses on the period in Mary's life when, as a widow of 19 and a Catholic, she returned to Scotland as queen. The opera covers the seven years she stayed in Scotland before fleeing to England to escape the consequences of her personal and political intrigues.

Andrew Porter wrote in a review of the American debut of the opera in 1978, "There is a sure congruence between musical and theatrical proportions. Each episode has just enough words and just enough action to allow a full yet economical musical development. Nothing goes on too long."


Other Operas

Musgrave wrote four other operas before completing Mary, Queen of Scots. The first was The Abbot of Drimock (1955), a chamber opera based on Wilson's Tales of the Border. Her second opera, The Decision (1964-1965), was first performed by the New Opera Company at Sadler's Wells in 1967. Another chamber opera, The Voice of Ariadne (1977), was performed by the New York City Opera in 1977. The libretto was written by Amalia Elguera and was inspired by a Henry James story, The Last of the Valerii. The libretto recounts the story of an Italian count whose infatuation with the voice of a ruined statue of Ariadne produces a reaction of jealousy from his American wife. The plot serves as a setting for the conflict between the two cultures represented by the count and his wife, as well as a depiction of a romantic triangle.

Following the completion of Mary, Queen of Scots, Musgrave wrote A Christmas Carol, given its first American performance by the Virginia Opera Association in 1979. Musgrave wrote of the opera, "One of my earliest decisions was to cast the Spirit of Christmas in all its manifestations as a dancer and that Marley's ghost should be an actor, thus putting these supernatural characters on a quite different level to the other singers. The musical style of this opera is melodic, and, I hope, accessible, as befits the subject."

In March of 1985 the first performance of Musgrave's opera Harriet: A Woman Called Moses was given by the Virginia Opera Association, which had commissioned the work along with the Royal Opera of Covent Garden. Musgrave wrote her own libretto for the opera, which she based on the life of Harriet Tubman, the African-American woman who enabled slaves to escape to the north via the "underground railroad." Bernard Holland wrote of the opera, "Harriet … offers terribly effective music for the stage…. If there are dull spots, they involve Miss Musgrave's whites interacting among themselves. Black culture, on the other hand, sharpens her inspiration."


Orchestral Works

The dramatic sensibility evident in her operas is also present in many of her orchestral and chamber works. In Concerto for Orchestra (1967) the various sections of the orchestra are the center of the musical focus. In the climax of the piece individual soloists stand and perform music which is notated, but whose rhythm is freely interpreted by the performer. In Concerto for Clarinet (1968) the soloist moves around the orchestra, a device which Musgrave said "grows out of the musical demand" because "the soloist plays with different small groups and they can't hear him unless he joins them."

Musgrave wrote Night Music in 1969. Stanley Sadie wrote about the piece that it "avowedly has no programme, but [the] vivid graphic writing invites description in emotive adjectives. Music in fact underlaid by strong feelings and also lucidly laid out." Following Night Music Musgrave wrote Memento Vitae (Concerto Homage to Beethoven) (1969-1970), Concerto for Horn and Orchestra (1971), Viola Concerto (1973), Orfeo II (1975) for solo flute and 15 strings, and From One to Another (1980) for solo viola and 15 strings. Continuing the practice of placing orchestra members about the stage and theater for dramatic effect, Musgrave, in the closing part of the Concerto for Horn and Orchestra, had the orchestral horn section play from different positions behind the audience and, in the Viola Concerto, the viola section at one point rises and plays as if taking instruction from the soloist.

Peripeteia was completed in 1981 and was performed in 1984 by the New York Philharmonic under Leonard Slatkin. The title means "a sudden change, especially that on which the plot of a tragedy hinges." In the piece an initial opening section is followed by an "event," after which the original music can never fully reassert itself. Musgrave called the piece "a kind of opera without words or specific plot."


Chamber Music and Choral Works

Musgrave wrote three chamber concertos (1962, 1966, and 1966), the second of which is a tribute to Burl lves in which she, like lves, inserted a popular American song into her music. Following these concertos Musgrave wrote Impromptu for Flute and Oboe (1967), Impromptu No. 2 for Flute, Oboe and Clarinet (1967), Music for Horn and Piano (1969), Elegy for Viola and Cello (1970), From One to Another for viola and tape (1970), Space Play (1974), and Orfeo I (1975) for flute. Space Play is a humorous and lyric piece which involves special placement of nine performers around the stage. Wit and lyricism, as well as a sophisticated use of instrumental timbres, characterize her writing for both chamber and orchestral combinations.

Her choral works employ a wide variety of texts. They are taken from Hesiod The Five Ages of Man (1963); from Shakespeare The Phoenix and the Turtle (1962); from D. H. Lawrence The Last Twilight (1980); from Chaucer Triptych (1962); from Michelangelo Caro m'e il sonno (1978); and from John Donne Memento Creatoris (1967), among many others. In Triptych, which is written for solo tenor and orchestra, three songs convey three different moods, one lyric, another insistent, and the last, gay. The dramatic techniques evident in her other musical form are also present in The Phoenix and the Turtle (1962), The Five Ages of Man (1963), and the Last Twilight (1980), which is labelled a theater piece for chorus and instruments.

Recent works include The Voice of Ariadne (1989), Piccolo Play (1991), a multimedia piece Echoes Through Time (1989), Pierrot (1994), and Simon Bolivar (1995). She also wrote a book The Choral Music of 21st Century Women Composers (1997), with Elizabeth Lutyens and Elizabeth Merconchy.

Thea Musgrave wrote, in addition to the pieces already mentioned, many others including songs, ballet music, and incidental pieces. She forged an individual style of composition that explored the dramatic possibilities of music and the ways in which that drama can assist in creating large musical structures within the framework of the 20th-century musical language.


Further Reading on Thea Musgrave

Thea Musgrave: A Bio-bibliography (1984) by Donald Hixon contains a biography and a complete list of works, a discography, and a bibliography of writings by and about Musgrave and her music. In addition, her works are listed in the International Encyclopedia of Women Composers published by R. R. Bowker in 1981.