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Thea Musgrave

Born: 1928

Nationality: British

Publisher: Novello & Co

Photo © Kate Mount

Rich and powerful musical language and a strong sense of drama have made Scottish-American composer Thea Musgrave one of the most respected and exciting contemporary composers in the Western world. Her works were first performed under the auspices of the BBC and at the Edinburgh International Festival. As a result, they have been widely performed in Britain, Europe and the USA, at major music festivals; such as Edinburgh, Warsaw Autumn, Florence Maggio Musicale, Venice Biennale, Aldeburgh, Cheltenham and Zagreb; on most of the European and American broadcasting stations and as part of many regular symphony concert series.

From time to time she has conducted her own works: the premiere of Mary, Queen of Scots at the 1977 Edinburgh International Festival and later with the San Francisco Spring Opera; the premiere performances of The Voice of Ariadne in Britain and again in New York and Los Angeles for the New York City Opera; and many orchestral concerts (Philadelphia, San Francisco, St Paul Chamber, Los Angeles Chamber, BBC Symphony, BBC Scottish Symphony, Royal Scottish National, Hong Kong Philharmonic, Jerusalem Philharmonic, etc.). It is a measure of her talent and determination that Musgrave has earned great respect for her work both as a composer and conductor at a time when these were still uncommon professions for a woman.

Born in Edinburgh, Scotland on 27 May 1928, she studied first at the University of Edinburgh and later at the Conservatoire in Paris, where she spent four years as a pupil of Nadia Boulanger, before establishing herself back in London as a prominent personality of British musical life. In 1970 she became Guest Professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, which anchored her increasing involvement with the musical life of the United States. In 1971, she married the opera conductor Peter Mark, and has lived in America since 1972. In 1974, she received the Koussevitzky Award, resulting in the composition of Space Play, which, after its London premiere was performed in New York by the Lincoln Center Chamber Players. She has also been awarded two Guggenheim Fellowships, in 1974-75 and again in 1982-83, and was recognised with honorary degrees by Old Dominion University (Virginia), Smith College, Glasgow University and in May 2004, the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston. She was awarded a CBE in The Queen’s New Year’s Honours List in January 2002. As Distinguished Professor at Queens College, City University of New York from September 1987-2002, she has guided and interacted with many new and gifted young student composers.

Musgrave has consistently explored new means of projecting essentially dramatic situations in her music, frequently altering and extending the conventional boundaries of instrumental performance by incorporating physical movement to enhance the musical and dramatic impact of the her works. As she once put it, she wanted to explore dramatic musical forms: some works are ‘dramatic-abstract’, that is without programmatic content (such as the Concerto for Clarinet, the Horn Concerto, the Viola Concerto, and Space Play), and others project specific programmatic ideas (such as the paintings in The Seasons and Turbulent Landscapes, the poems in Ring Out Wild Bells, Journey through a Japanese Landscape, and Autumn Sonata, and the famous Greek legends in Orfeo, Narcissus, Helios and Voices from the Ancient World), all extensions of concerto principles. In some of these, to enhance the dramatic effect, the sonic possibilities of spatial acoustics have been incorporated: in the Clarinet Concerto the soloist moves around the different sections of the orchestra, and in the Horn Concerto the orchestral horns are stationed around the concert hall. Thus the players are not only the conversants in an abstract musical dialogue but also very much the living (and frequently peripatetic) embodiment of its dramatis personae.

It was therefore not surprising that her focus on the lyric and dramatic potential of music should have led to Musgrave’s fluency in the field of opera, and it is interesting to see that her large-scale operas of the past thirty years, beginning with The Voice of Ariadne (1972) and followed by Mary, Queen of Scots (1977), A Christmas Carol (1979), and Harriet, the Woman Called Moses (1984), Simón Bolívar (1993), are in every sense the true successors to the instrumental concertos.

With such a large and varied career and catalogue, Thea Musgrave is frequently interviewed and questioned about being a "woman" composer, to which she has replied; "Yes, I am a woman; and I am a composer. But rarely at the same time."
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