Repertoire Search

Thea Musgrave

Publisher: Novello & Co

Turbulent Landscapes (2003)
Commissioned by the Boston Symphony Orchestra
Work Notes
I. Sunrise with Sea Monsters II. The Shipwreck III. Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army crossing the Alps IV. War. The Exile and the Rock Limpet V. The burning of the houses of Parliament VI. Sunrise, with a Boat between Headlands
Novello & Co Ltd
Sub Category
Large Orchestra
Year Composed
26 Minutes
Programme Note
Thea Musgrave Turbulent Landscapes (2003)
The turbulence of the title represents some kind of ‘event’ that is wonderfully depicted in the various paintings of Turner that have been chosen for this work. Since music exists in time, there can be a ‘before’ and an ‘after’: so, in these movements the ‘event’ sometimes effects a major change and sometimes not. To heighten the drama, in each of the movements the protagonist is characterized by a solo player from the orchestra.

There are six quite independent movements, though they share some of the same musical material. Each movement is represented by one picture of Turner except for the second movement, which has three pictures. This work is dedicated to my friends in America.

Konserthuset Play: Royal Stockholm Philharmonic and Karen Kamensek perform Turbulent Landscapes

I. Sunrise with Sea Monsters
circa 1845: Tate Gallery, London.

Dedicated to Roger and Ellen Golde

The calm sea of the early morning is ruffled by the arrival of a sea monster [tuba solo] in a playful mood. Eventually the sun rises [trumpets, an A major chord] and the monster swims off with a swish of the tail. The calm returns.


The first movement refers to a painting from the mid-1840s called Sunrise with Sea Monsters. The sun explodes in a golden glow on the right of the canvas, dispersing the early morning mist that fills the rest of the sky, and revealing amorphous sea creatures swimming on top of the waves. You might see a couple of fish eyes staring back at you, and maybe a hint of a tail swishing through the water. But these details add up to no known species of sea creature. Look at them for a moment or two and they might seem like whimsical fish from a children’s story. Stare at then for longer and they turn into the kind of indefinable but disturbing creatures your imagination might conjure up when you’re floating on the edge of sleep at three in the morning.

II. The Shipwreck
exhibited 1805: Tate Gallery, London.

Dedicated to Nina Kelly

This movement is based on three pictures: Staffa, Fingal’s Cave [1832, Yale Center for British Art] which seemed an appropriate opening for this movement. The gathering storm thus has a location, and a hint of Mendelssohn was not to be resisted! The movement builds gradually and inexorably to a violent storm depicted in the picture of the title and the ship goes down. This turbulence effects a devastating change for many lives are lost. The third picture is a very moving pencil watercolour from 1841: Dawn after the Wreck [1841, Courtauld Institute Gallery, London]. The dog howling on the deserted shore surely means an inconsolable woman mourning her husband [a solo oboe in an impassioned cadenza]. The Gregorian Chant ‘Dies irae’ tolls quietly as accompaniment.


The second movement connects two oil paintings from 1805 and 1832 with a watercolour from the early 1840s. The Shipwreck shows a number of small sailing vessels struggling to stay afloat in the middle of high seas and under a storm-dark sky, the sailors and passengers desperately fighting against uncontrollable forces of Nature. In Staffa, Fingal’s Cave a steamer, possibly one of the boats that ferried hundreds of tourists (including Mendelssohn) to the legendary island home of the sweet-voiced Gaelic warrior-hero-poet Fionn Mas Cumhail (aka Finn Mac Cool), chugs away from the basalt rocks. These monumental reminders of the ancient past are contrasted with an inglorious, but neverthe less rather wonderful manifestation of the sooty present. Times change but the seas abide. In the Dawn after the Wreck a baying hound is left on the beach, howling not at the moon, but at the empty waves that have covered all trace of any man-made craft. This remarkable watercolour - less than fifteen inches across - is a deeply poignant image of loss, and solitude, and grief.

III. Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army crossing the Alps
exhibited 1812: Tate Gallery, London

Dedicated to Jon and Lillian Lovelace

A barely seen Hannibal [solo horn] urges his army [strings] forward despite the developing snow storm [percussion and flutter tongued flutes]. The journey is increasingly arduous as the snow thickens, but at last the storm clears and a distant sunny [A major] Italy is seen in the distance.


Turner’s great painting Snowstorm: Hannibal and his Army crossing the Alps was probably inspired by literary descriptions of the Carthaginian general’s momentous trek into Italy, as well as by now a lost watercolour by Turner’s older contemporary, J. R. Cozens. The hero himself is only just visible: a tiny figure in the middle of the canvas, riding an Elephant across the horizon. Hannibal has to cope with more than the logistical nightmare of manoeuvring large numbers of troops and supplies up the steep mountain passes, he also has to battle with the indigenous population and truly terrible weather. Great swathes of black cloud, heavily laden with snow, sweep across the sky, dramatically at odds with the softly glowing sun that casts a muddy light over scenes of rape and pillage in the foreground. The human incidents are imagined but the weather, at least, is real. Turner witnessed a spectacular thunderstorm suggestive of this one or two years earlier while staying with a patron in Yorkshire.

IV. War. The Exile and the Rock Limpet
exhibited 1842: Tate Gallery, London

Dedicated to Claire Brook

In a desolate landscape the exiled Napoleon stands pensive, behind him a guard stands on alert. Here the turbulence is internal. As Napoleon [solo trumpet] contemplates a rock limpet [muted horn chord always at the same pitch] he remembers some of the events of his charismatic life and downfall: like Hannibal, the joy of his successful crossing of the Alps with his army [distant sound of La Marseillaise]; later the interminable snow and the disastrous retreat from Moscow; then his thoughts turn to despair with the memory of his defeat at the battle of Trafalgar [distant sound of the British National Anthem, God Save our gracious King] and finally his exile.


Hannibal was first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1812, the year in which Napoleon, at the height of his power, led his army on their disastrous march into Russia. For many Englishmen in the early years of the nineteenth century, Turner among them, the struggle between Carthage and Rome was seen as an antique parallel for the contemporary struggle between Britain and France. In the painting War. The Exile and the Rock Limpet, the elongated figure of Napoleon - a modern Hannibal - stands in not so splendid isolation on St Helena, his sole companion an armed guard, while the hot red sun sets in the centre of the painting. Like the baying hound in the Dawn after the Wreck, this image of the defeated introspective emperor is a powerful evocation of loneliness and regret for the past.

V. 16th October, 1834. The Burning of the Houses of Parliament, 1834 : Tate Gallery, London
or The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons, 1834: The Philadelphia Museum
or The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons, 1834: Museum of Art, Cleveland, Ohio

Dedicated to John and Irene Field

There are several paintings of this event and it must have been spectacular to behold. A quiet, peaceful night where bass clarinet, cor anglais and viola soli accompany the horns who softly intone the British National Anthem, thus setting the location. Suddenly a flame shoots up into the sky [solo piccolo]. The flames [woodwind and percussion] build to a big climax and buildings collapse. But after a moment we hear the horns very quietly resuming the National Anthem, thus we know that the buildings will be rebuilt.


In War, the intense light from the setting sun burns our eyes. The atmospheric conditions reflect the central character’s emotional state. In the two oil paintings and numerous watercolour sketches which comprise Turner’s eyewitness account of The Burning of the Houses of Parliament the sun is absent. The sky is dark but for a little cold grey moonlight. But rising into this dark void a violent red burst of flame lights up the north bank of the River Thames, engulfing the Palace of Westminster and reducing the Mother of Parliaments to a charred ruin. During the day, on October 16th 1834, workmen began gathering up and burning stacks of wooden tally-sticks, an out-dated from of tax receipt, that had been allowed to accumulate in the burning cellars. Unbeknown to anyone, the fire was still going when the buildings were locked up for the night and by 6 p.m. the whole place was ablaze. Only Westminster Hall survived due to a lucky change in the direction of the wind. Most of the inhabitants of London turned out to watch the seat of their government burning to the ground. Turner was there too, watching from the south bank and maybe also from a small boat on the river, furiously filling page after page of his sketchbooks with watercolour studies of the disaster. Turner must surely have been attracted to the subject because of its visual impact but he may also have been interested in the symbolic implications of the event. Parliament had recently passed a series of Reform Bills that finally erased some of the worst inequities of the old election process. Like many of his contemporaries, Turner might well have felt that the flames that destroyed the old Parliament buildings symbolized the end of an old and outdated political system. Whether his purpose was symbolic or purely painterly, Turner translated the fire into images of terrible beauty.

VI. Sunrise, with a Boat between Headlands
circa 1840-45: Tate Gallery, London

Dedicated to Anthony Fogg

A thick fog [big string cluster] envelopes the landscape - the huge looming cliffs [muted brass chords] are hardly visible and a fog horn [2 horns] alerts a ship to the danger of collision. A lonely clarinet summons the morning sun which eventually appears [trumpets and woodwinds] and the fog evaporates. The ship is now fully revealed [strings] and sails between the cliffs [brass now unmuted] towards the open sea. The mood is tranquil as the ship disappears into the distance. There is a brief reminiscence of the sea monster.


The sun in Turner’s paintings is not always intense; perhaps more effectively than any other painter before or since, he could record the pale light of dawn breaking through the early morning mist. The final movement of Musgrave’s composition refers to one of Turner’s remarkable late paintings: Sunrise with a Boat between Headlands is probably unfinished, but it is nevertheless one of his mist sublime canvases. Translucent veils of grey and blue and yellow float on the painting’s surface. The turbulence of the other paintings in this selection has subsided here; in this final work the world is still and silent, the day has not yet quite begun.

Music notes by TJM, Art notes by Michael Cassin

  • Ensemble
    BBC Symphony Orchestra / BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra
    Lisa Milne, soprano; Evelyn Glennie, percussion
    Osmo Vänskä / Jiri Belohlavek
  • Ensemble
★★★★★ From the lugubrious tuba of Sunrise with Sea Monsters, to the trumpeting Napoleon in The Exile and the Rock Limpet, this is exquisite, image-rich music superbly played.
Ken Walton, The Scotsman,11/08/2018
★★★★★ one of the finest, freshest contemporary works I’ve heard in a long time...Musgrave’s skill is to find a musical method of evoking the central aspect of Turner’s paintings, and her lifetime of compositional skill shows in her shrewd choices of instrumentation and structure... It’s incredibly refreshing to find a contemporary piece of music that’s genuinely pictorial. The vivid storm of the second movement, for example, carries hints of Mendelssohn before moving into the icy chill of the morning after, and the flames that light up the sky from the burning Houses of Parliament are unmistakably vivid. It’s as though Musgrave has drawn on the heritage of the past to create a cycle of tone poems for our times, using a musical landscape that is predominantly tonal with dissonances used discretely for dramatic effect. I loved it, and can’t wait to hear it again, which isn’t something you can always say of a contemporary piece.
Simon Thompson, Backtrack,10/08/2018
…the music is dramatic, colourful and intensely lyrical…
Colin Anderson,,15/02/2014
Musgrave paints with sounds as Turner with oils and calls on the constituent instrumental colours even more explicitly. The opening ‘Sunrise with Sea Monsters’ gave a fair indication of what was to follow: it’s an obvious seascape, with a broad sense of primal movement beneath the subtleties of its surface chiaroscuro. Thus, too, in ‘The Shipwreck’ – the horns (deliberately?) evoking Peter Grimes – the tension mounts to a violent climax as the storms claims its victim. In ‘Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps’ flutter-tongued flutes hover over the heavy tread of muffled low percussion and pizzicato basses; a solo horn, standing (Musgrave likes these theatrical touches), represents Hannibal urging on his men, and hesitant fanfares indicate distant Italy. The solo trumpet in ‘War. The Exile and the Rock Limpet’ is Napoleon, unsettled, brittle, bitter, the first notes of the Marseillaise recalling his triumphs and an echo of ‘God Save the King’ his defeat. More solo lines – bass clarinet, cor anglais and, especially, viola – decorate ‘God Save the King’ in the horns, but the next player on his feet is the piccolo, joined by the flutes: these flickering improvisatory lines depict the first of the flames that consumed the Houses of Parliament in 1834. Pregnant with latent power, the orchestra at last unleashes woodwind and percussion as the conflagration bursts out, and the heavy brass pitch in to bring the roof down, almost literally – but horns softly intone the national anthem: all will be well again. Finally, in ‘Sunrise, with a Boat between Headlands’, string clusters paint the fog and muted brass chords suggest ‘the huge looming cliffs’ (Musgrave’s programme note). A solo clarinet calls up three trumpets to evoke the sun; mutes off, the brass powers Turner’s boat out towards the open sea and the music sinks into tranquillity. Musgrave’s use of orchestral soloists and her deliberate symbolism might seem crude in the necessary summary of a review; experienced as music, Turbulent Landscapes is delicate, refined, imaginative – with its own poetic logic.
Martin Anderson, Tempo,01/01/2006
Nominally part of the season's sea theme, Prom 6 was really all about musical cogency. Thea Musgrave's Turbulent Landscapes - all but one watery - are six independent pieces inspired by Turner. But what they shared was striking and distinctive: harmony, a particular palette of orchestra colour, and upward-rushing, energetic figures. The horn-tinged chords at the start proved the germinal factor; lending their modal character to much of what followed. Excitement swelled and subsided in slow waves, but from this confident London premiere by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, the lasting impression was of the glowing and glowering panoramas behind the action.
Robert Maycock, Independant,22/07/2005
Thea Musgrave's Turbulent Landscapes here received their London premiere from the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Osmo Vanska, formerly of the BBC Scottish SO and probably the best conductor a British orchestra has lost in recent years. The six movements build stories around pictures by Turner, with a solo instrument taking on a role each. The first had a unusually agile tuba as a sportive sea monster; the third cast a solo horn as Hannibal crossing the alps through a less convincing, slightly puny snowstorm of fluttering flutes. It may perhaps cling just a little too hard to its tonality, but Musgrave's righly textured writing is certainly evocative, and the gleaming brass layers of the last movement were an apt conjuring of a Turner sunrise.
Erica Jeal, Guardian,22/07/2005
But reactions to Musgrave's Turbulent Landscapes were also positive, and rightly so. As with many works of this composer, Edinburgh-born but now resident in America, the soundworld is as accessible as the craftsmanship is adept. Turbulent Landscapes is a sequence of six independent movements, each a response to one or more paintings by Turner. It's a moot point whether a knowledge of the pictures is necessary for a full appreciation of the music. Certainly it helps to explain the intrusion of the Marseillaise (in a movement inspired by a picture of Napoleon in exile) or the veiled reference to Mendelssohn's Hebrides Overture (Turner's picture Staffa, Fingal's Cave is a starting point of the second movement, The Shipwreck). Each picture also invoked a soloist, who rose from the ranks of the BBC Sympony Orchestra, thus offering a further visual component. Those in the hall had the advantage of seeing the Turners reproduced (in black and white) in the programme. Those listening without the benefit of the images will doubtless have appreciated the rich palette of orchestral colour deployed by Musgrave and, surely, the sense of drama generated in these arresting aural landscapes.
Barry Millington, Evening Standard,21/07/2005
Thea Musgrave's Turbulent Landscapes, which had its London premiere in last night's BBC Symphony Orchestra concert, found a niche in the Proms' nautical programming on account of the Turner paintings that prompted several of its six short vignettes. Musgrave, now in her late seventies, has often drawn on visual imagery to spur her creative imagination, and Turner's maritime maelstroms, with their powerful suggestions of movement, mystery and climatic drama, are as potent a stimulus today as when Debussy drew inspiration from them a century ago. The ghost of Debussy was summoned here only in the loose sense that Musgrave's music fixes a mood or impression, whether generated by sea scenes, states of mind or, in the case of the music sparked by the destructive 1934 fire at Westminster, topographical cataclysm. Musgrave's approach is more graphic than Debussy's, her music more narrative. There is a story going on that Musgrave wants to tell, and she does so through identifying certain figures or phenomena with partciular instruments (a tuba for a sea monster, a horn for Hannibal, a piccolo for the flames licking the Houses of Parliament, and so on). It is all wrapped up in a harmonic language that cuts no edges, but whose neo-Romantic flavour is highly effective in an evoking and animating atmosphere.
Geoffrey Norris, Telegraph,21/07/2005
Inspired by the subjects in a personal selection of Turner paintings, Musgrave produced a score laden with the most evocative imagery and delicious harmonies. This atmospheric work was very well received.
John Byrne, Musical Opinion,01/02/2005
Her facility for melody and harmony make this an immediately appealing work. Behind the aural glitter, though, is an inventive mind, drawing the listener in with compelling narrative. One is never placed at ease enough to settle back - there is always a twist, a sudden shift that grabs you.
Robin Newton, Classical Music 'Premieres of the Year',18/12/2004
Each of its six movements is based on a Turner painting, and each features a soloist from the orchestra, who personifies some aspect of the painting. The surrounding textures are beautifully yet unfussily scored. Musgrave has been living in the United States since 1970, and her style has evidently mellowed in those years. Turbulent Landscapes reaches back to Rimsky-Korsakov and Franco-Russian impressionism in general for its rich harmonies and arabesque melodic lines.
David Fanning, The Telegraph,16/11/2004
'...all her music is dramatic in shape and progress...Her point of departure this time was a group of paintings by J. M. W. Turner. The piece is a series of six interlinked tone poems, or maybe even mini-operas without words, with instrumental protagonists...Musgrave, like Turner, suggests impressionism without being an impressionist; she has her own harmonic language, and a precise ear for colour, and local colour. Her music is imaginative, clear and direct, but never predictable. It is also inspiring - she doesn't shrink from natural disaster and human pain, but her music also invariably summons the dawn.'
Richard Dyer, Globe Staff,04/02/2004
Close X

Newsletter Signup

Enter your email address to keep up to date with the latest news and special offers from Music Sales Classical.
Your data is secure and you can unsubscribe at any time. Read our Privacy Policy

Click here to receive regular news
© Copyright 2019 Music Sales Classical. Part of the Music Sales Group.