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Thea Musgrave

Publisher: Novello & Co

An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge (1981)
Commissioned by the BBC. Written as an opera for radio, but may be staged if given special treatment.
Text Writer
the composer, based on a short story by Ambrose Bierce
Novello & Co Ltd
Opera and Music Theatre
Year Composed
30 Minutes
Baritone, Actress, 2 Actors
Purchase CD
Programme Note
Thea Musgrave An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge (1981)

An Alabama planter is captured and executed by Confederate soldiers after attempting to sabotage the Yankee advance. As the noose tightens round his neck he fantasises about his escape down-river and back to his wife and home.


This one act Opera written as an opera for radio, was commissioned by the BBC and was first performed by the London Sinfonietta with the composer conducting in a BBC studio performance in September 1982. Later that year it won a special mention in the Italia Prize.

It is based on one of the famous short stories about the American civil war written in the late 19th century by Ambrose Bierce.

In the nineteen forties and fifties, before the days of TV, BBC radio plays such as "The Man born to be King" were thrilling. Even a simple sound track combined with incidental music could be extremely evocative. The visual imagination could be very free because scenes could be conjured up in the mind's eye.

This opportunity to write something for radio seemed to be a challenge to do something similar, but in `reverse' so to speak! That is, not to have a play using music `incidentally', but to start with the music and use speech and sound effects to help develop visual imagery.

The main challenge of course was to find the right story. One where it would not only be possible to make use of radio techniques, but more...where it would be entirely natural to use them.

Ambrose Bierce's An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge was the ideal story. Peyton Farquhar, an Alabaman planter, has been captured by a troop of the invading Yankee army from the north. The story puts side by side the `real' world of action (speech and sound effects), with the `imaginary' world (singing) of Farquhar as he thinks, feels and remembers. However the music in the orchestra is continuous, so the work is truly conceived as an opera and not a play with incidental music.

An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge has also been performed in concert version, and in staged performances

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