Musgrave, Thea (1928—)

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Musgrave, Thea (1928—)

British composer whose operatic and symphonic works have established her as one of the most important composers of the 20th century. Born Thea Musgrave in Barnton, Edinburgh, Scotland, on May 27, 1928; attended Moreton Hall, Shropshire; University of Edinburgh, B.Mus., 1950; studied with Hans Gal, Mary Grierson , and Sidney Newman, and at the Paris Conservatoire with Nadia Boulanger and Aaron Copland; married Peter Mark (a violist and conductor), in 1971.


Tovey Prize in Edinburgh (1950); Lili Boulanger Memorial Prize (1952); Koussevitzky Award (1972); named a Guggenheim Fellow (1974–75); has held professorships at several American universities.

Selected works—operas:

The Abbot of Drimock (1955); The Decision (1967); The Voice of Ariadne (1972–73); Mary Queen of Scots (1975–77); A Christmas Carol (1978–79); An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge (1981); Harriet, The Woman Called Moses (1981–84).


Divertimento (1957); Obliques (1959); Perspectives (1961); Sinfonia (1963); Festival Overture (1965); Nocturnes and Arias (1966); Concerto for Orchestra (1967); Clarinet Concerto (1968); Night Music (1969); Scottish Dance Suite (1969); Memento vitae (1969–70); Horn Concerto (1971); Viola Concerto (1973); Orfeo II (1975); Soliloquy II & III (1980); Peripeteia (1981); From One to Another (1982); The Seasons (1988); as well as numerous vocal-choral, chamber, and other works.

Musical composition has always been an exceedingly difficult field in which to become established, as the concert-going public is often fickle as well as resistant to innovation. Many music lovers were appalled, for example, when they first heard the "unstructured" symphonies of Ludwig von Beethoven, and it was not until over a dozen years after Johannes Brahms wrote his Fourth Symphony that Vienna concertgoers allowed it to be played in their city. Today, of course, these works are celebrated standards of the "classical repertory." To diverge from accepted norms while also acquiring an appreciative listening audience has never been easy for classical composers, and, in addition, the field was for centuries essentially restricted to men; these factors make the success of Scottish-born Thea Musgrave all the more remarkable. For more than half a century, this contemporary composer has achieved enormous success on concert and opera stages worldwide, enjoyed recognition as a leading figure in international choral composition, and been renowned for her symphonies and more than half a dozen operas.

Thea Musgrave was born in 1928 in Barnton, Edinburgh, Scotland. Music was part of her upbringing as an only child, but she had no early plans to devote her life to it. After her initial education at Moreton Hall in Shropshire, in 1947 she entered the University of Edinburgh, intending to study medicine. A change of heart led her to choose music instead, and she proved to be a brilliant student, winning the Tovey Prize before receiving her bachelor of music degree in 1950. She then was given the opportunity to study in Paris with Nadia Boulanger , the most famous teacher of composition in the 20th century, whose pupil she remained until 1954. Musgrave later said of her years of study under Boulanger:

I was her student at the Conservatoire, where she was not permitted to teach composition. So she gave a class called "piano accompaniment." But we never did any accompanying on the piano—we did score reading, figured bass. … It was a general musicianship class, unbelievably stimulating. … In addition, I had private lessons with her every week. Yes, and there were incredible dinner parties where one could meet her students from way back, composers, all kinds of visitors from all over.

One of those students of Boulanger's "from way back" was the American composer Aaron Copland, with whom Musgrave also studied. During her second year of study in Paris, Musgrave became the first British composer to win the Lili Boulanger prize, an award given to promising young composers in honor of Nadia Boulanger's sister, a composer who had died young.

In 1953, while still an apprentice, Musgrave composed A Tale for Thieves, a ballet based on Chaucer's The Pardoner's Tale. The following year, she wrote the large-scale composition Cantata for a Summer's Day, which proved to be her first major success at its premiere at the Edinburgh International Festival in 1955. By that time, she was writing her first short opera, The Abbot of Drimock, based on a Scots Border tale, and the same year composed Five Love Songs for soprano and guitar. During this period, Musgrave was experimenting with both tonal and atonal music. In 1960, she composed Colloquy for violin and piano and Trio for flute, oboe, and piano, two works that, according to Leslie Easte, were the "cornerstone of the distinctive style that emerged later."

Musgrave's career differed from that of many composers, male or female, in that her work was performed almost immediately. In Scotland, her compositions were often performed as soon as they were written. As a result of this successful exposure, she received commissions from the City of Glasgow, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), foundations, trusts, opera houses, ballet companies, American colleges and English schools. Performers courted her continuously in hopes that she would write music for them, and publishers sought to sign her to contracts. Thus, at a very early age Musgrave had overcome one of the greatest obstacles for a new composer: the fact that an unknown work must be selected for performance by other people and performed by other people, often at considerable expense, before either the composer or the work can become known. Combined with her talent, the opportunities Musgrave received, first in Scotland and then elsewhere, gave rapid rise to her composing career.

Musgrave set out on a new course in the early 1960s when, without a commission, she began composing The Decision, her first full-length opera. For two years, she concentrated on little else. Neither tonal nor serial, The Decision was hailed as a turning point in music when it was first performed in 1967. According to Easte, "The wrestling with concrete dramatic problems in 'The Decision' obviously contributed to the compelling desire to explore dramatic qualities in abstract instrumental music." The opera marked the inception of a decidedly new concept in Musgrave's work in general, an instrumental style which she described as dramatic-abstract—"dramatic" because certain instruments took on the characters of dramatis personae, and "abstract" because there was no program. From this point forward, she ventured into the realm of asynchronous music, a form in which soloists stand and move around the stage while engaging in musical dialogue with other performers. Although all parts are fully notated, they are not necessarily coordinated with other parts or with the conductor.

Music is a human art, not a sexual one. Sex is no more important than eye color.

—Thea Musgrave

Musgrave's next work, 1966's Chamber Concerto No. 2, was a further exploration of this form. Written in homage to the American composer Charles Ives, it involves soloists and the rest of the performers in a free interplay unusual in most musical works. In Chamber Concerto No. 3, also published in 1966, Musgrave used thematic material derived from the names of Viennese composers to create a "drama for instruments." She explained, "It explores the virtuosic possibilities of the eight players who dominate the texture in turn." In this work, each of the eight players stood up in turn to perform, thus reinforcing the link between their instrument and the Viennese composer it represented. Her Concerto for Clarinet and Orchestra, published in 1968, essentially employed two conductors: one conducted from a podium, while a "soloist-catalyst," in the role of alternative leader, was pitted by turns against different sections of the orchestra.

Musgrave also became interested in electronic music in the 1960s. She first made use of a prerecorded electronic tape in Beauty and the Beast, a two-act ballet written in 1968–69, in which the taped music was used to enhance supernatural effects in the action. Her highly successful three-act chamber opera The Voice of Ariadne (1972–73) used taped sound to an even greater extent. The story, taken from The Last of the Valerii, a book by Henry James which Musgrave found in 1969 while browsing in a London bookstall, involves an Italian count and his American wife who unearth a statue of Juno in the garden of their Roman villa. The count falls in love with the statue and neglects his wife, who finally reburies it in order to reclaim his love. In Musgrave's opera, there is no statue, only an ancient pedestal on which once stood not the frosty Juno but the sensuous Ariadne. Neither the statue nor Ariadne is ever seen, but her alluring, seductive voice is heard throughout the work. Of her electronic technique for this piece, Musgrave said, "I recorded the voice so that the words can always be clearly understood. … [W]hat I've done at certain times is to superimpose several voices, with an echo effect, and add electronic sounds suggesting the sea and distance." The count and his wife become increasingly involved with Ariadne and Theseus, her lamented lover. As the work progresses, however, Ariadne's voice becomes progressively fainter, until the count hears it no more and returns to his wife. Critic William Bender noted, "Ariadne's music has the blush of innocent freshness to it. It floats from atonality to tonality and back with dramatic precision, bringing life to the libretto's strange world and humanizing its perplexed cast of characters." The same year Ariadne premiered, Musgrave made a series of eight broadcasts on Great Britain's Radio 3, entitled "End or Beginning," in which she discussed the use of electronic music.

Although Musgrave composed symphonic and orchestral works as well as many choral and chamber pieces, she remained preeminent in opera. Her fourth opera, and the first for which she wrote her own libretto, was Mary Queen of Scots (1975–77), a commission from the Scottish Opera and a natural theme given her heritage. Avoiding the tragic and gory end of the ill-fated queen, Musgrave focused on a short period of Mary Stuart 's life—the seven or eight years she spent in Scotland as the widow of the king of France before her fatal encounter with Queen Elizabeth I . The main figures are Mary and her half-brother James Stewart. Musgrave's theory was that Mary, who had grown up a loved and spoiled child in France but was wanted there no longer, feared being alone in a country which she did not know. Arriving in Scotland, she sings: "No one is here to meet me. Here I am on my own." Her choices in advisors and attempts to manage prove disastrous. The opera received excellent reviews upon its premiere at the Edinburgh Festival.

Musgrave's personal life changed in 1971 when she married the violist and conductor Peter Mark, a graduate of Columbia and Juilliard who also taught the viola. Having spent much of her career living in Great Britain, she now, with her husband, began dividing her time between a home there and a house in Santa Barbara, California, overlooking the Pacific Ocean. She continued to serve on musical advisory panels for the BBC as well as on a music panel for the Arts Council of Great Britain and the executive committee of the Composers' Guild of Great Britain. When Mark was appointed artistic director of the regional opera company in Norfolk, Virginia, Musgrave increasingly spent her time in the United States.

Living in America inspired her sixth opera, Harriet: A Woman Called Moses, which focused on Harriet Tubman , the 19th-century African-American abolitionist leader. Speaking of her venture into a new historical area, Musgrave said:

Where I come from, the Underground Railroad means the London tube. To Harriet it meant something quite different, a means of getting escaped slaves to the North. But I've spent the last two and a half years writing an opera about her, and I find her story universal. The concept of people escaping from a bad situation against incredible odds, of getting out and improving their lot—this is a story to which I feel all can relate.

Harriet was not Musgrave's first American theme, for she had earlier written a BBC radio opera, An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, based on the short story by Ambrose Bierce. Harriet was more reflective of American life, however, and the composer wove many Negro spirituals into the score. Although Tubman lived to the age of 93, the opera deals only with her life as a young woman, when she escaped from slavery. Musgrave became quite involved with her subject and visited the site of the farm where Tubman had lived on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. The opera premiered in Norfolk under Peter Mark's direction and was subsequently performed by the Royal Opera in London.

As her composing career progressed, Musgrave began conducting her own works. This started in a rather offhand way (she agreed to a request to conduct, and then rushed for two three-hour sessions with French musician Jacques-Louis Monod; six hours of lessons later, she was on her own), but she became the third woman to conduct the Philadelphia Orchestra and the first to conduct one of her own compositions. She also conducted the New York City Opera, the BBC Symphony Orchestra, and London's Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. "There is really very little you can learn," she noted about conducting. "You have to be a musician, which I had been trained to be. You have to know the score, which isn't too difficult in my case, because I wrote them myself. And you have to have respect for the talents of your players and understand them. Just use common sense." Musgrave particularly enjoyed working with musicians who were playing her pieces for the first time, as she felt they gave her many constructive ideas about awkward passages and ultimately saved her a great deal of time in the composition process.

The composition of music was once widely considered a skill of which women were incapable. Thus, while Musgrave might chafe at the need for mention of it, her career is representative not only of musical brilliance but of a profound change in the musical world—the success of the female composer. Born at a time when talent finally outweighed gender, Musgrave understood the shackles which bound her predecessors. Discussing why it took women so long to emerge in her field, she noted:

Well, I don't know that women composers are that new a phenomenon. You have to remember that a lot of our cultural histories have been written by men. In the 19th century it was easier for a woman to become a novelist than to become a composer. It was something you could do at home. Writing music is a little like being a surgeon: the actual experience is essential. You cannot compose without practice: you must have your work tried out and performed. … I think women have always had the capacity and sensibility to compose. They simply lacked the confidence and the opportunity.

Gifted with confidence and with immense talent, Thea Musgrave has richly rewarded with her compositions the musical world that gave her opportunity.


"Contemporary British Composers," in Women and Music: A History. Ed. by Karin Pendle. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1991.

Greenhalgh, John. "Mary Queen of Scots," in Music and Musicians. Vol. 28, no. 8. April 1980, pp. 16–18.

Heinsheimer, Hans. "Mistress Musgrave," in Opera News. Vol. 42, no. 3. September 1977, pp. 44–46.

Kuperferberg, Herbert. "Thea Musgrave: Her sixth opera, 'Harriet: A Woman Called Moses,' is premiered in Norfolk," in High Fidelity/Musical America. Vol. 35, no. 3. March 1985, pp. 4–5.

"A Matter of Art, Not Sex," in Time. Vol. 106, no. 19. November 10, 1975, p. 59.

"The Musgrave Ritual," in Time. Vol. 110, no. 15. October 10, 1977, p. 72.

"Musgrave, Thea." Current Biography Yearbook 1978. Ed. by Charles Moritz. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1978, pp. 319–322.

Porter, Andrew. "Musical Events," in The New Yorker. Vol. 64, no. 10. April 25, 1988, pp. 107–108.

Singer, Lawrence. "In Review: From Around the World," in Opera News. Vol. 55, no. 9. January 19, 1991, p. 40.

Smith, Patrick. "Thea Musgrave's New Success," in Opera. Vol. 36, no. 5. May 1985, pp. 492–493.

John Haag , Associate Professor, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia