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Thea Musgrave

Publisher: Novello & Co

Trumpet Concerto (2019)
Commissioned by the Cheltenham Music Festival, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (as one of its CBSO Centenary Commissions), and the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra Gustavo Dudamel, Music & Artistic Director, for Alison Balsom.
Novello & Co Ltd
Soloists and Orchestra
Year Composed
20 Minutes
Solo Instrument(s)
Programme Note
Thea Musgrave Trumpet Concerto (2019)
I. 'Opening Out'
II. 'How the Snow Fell'
III. 'Between Two Windows'
IV. 'White Nights of a Northern Summer'
V. 'Landscape with Hidden Moon' (including a final coda: 'Sonorous Tree')

Written in five near-continuous, short movements, Musgrave's Trumpet Concerto for Alison Balsom, like many of her works takes its point of inspiration from other artworks: here, the nature painting of the Scottish artist Victoria Crowe. Whilst travelling to Glasgow to meet with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra who were due to celebrate her ninetieth birthday in a portrait concert, Musgrave stepped into an exhibition of Crowe's work. The painting 'Opening Out' forms the principle impetus for the concerto, which itself exhibits the composer's delight in exploring physical and musical dramatics between the soloists and players within the orchestra. A simply-accompanied Scottish tune ‘The Bonnie Earl of Moray’ forms the emotional heart of the work and nods to the composer and the artist's shared heritage.

Composer's Note

Unlike most other commissions where I have had more time to ruminate about the subject and the form that the music would take, the inspiration for this piece came from two distinct but immediate “light bulb” visions. The first came at my initial meeting last summer with the uniquely virtuosic trumpet soloist who triggered the commission—Alison Balsom—when in an off the cuff remark she said she loved to ‘sing’ with her instrument. I have, of course, written many works using the trumpet but never as a solo instrument in a concerto. This idea of using the trumpet as a ‘singing’ instrument immediately captured my imagination. The second revelation occurred a month later when I was in Edinburgh for the Festival. I happened to attend an exhibition by the magnificent painter Victoria Crowe, who I first met when she painted my portrait. This particular exhibition (‘A Certain Light’) was all of still life trees—which I found mesmerising and evocative.

I was immediately grabbed by the image of the very first painting I looked at—Opening Out—with the energy of the tree reaching from the roots upwards and outwards. I felt it could be a metaphor for the journey of life: reaching out to find colleagues, friends, lovers, but also ideas and projects – all those things that make life meaningful and fulfilling. I thought that this painting along with several others that I saw could form an overall shape to the work as well as the right environment for the trumpet’s singing. Vicky, who has long since become a friend as well as a colleague, generously agreed to support this musical work with her masterful images.

In the first movement the trumpet interacts just with the strings, harp and percussion, and relationships begin to form. One of these moments is where the trumpet incites the strings to introduce an ascending melodic theme which will reappear several times during the work. At the very end of the movement the horns appear but it is a solo clarinet that the trumpet turns to.

In the following movement, How The Snow Fell, the music begins before snow falls. A pizzicato theme on the cellos playfully accompanies the clarinet. The snow, a big string chordal cluster which grows bigger and bigger represents the gradual arrival of the snow. A dramatic interchange between trumpet and orchestra depicts the frustration of the trumpet who can no longer be playful because of the deep snow!

The trumpet then turns to the horns to begin the next movement Between Two Windows. This is a triple picture with trees on each side. Energized by the horns the musical tree motives reappear and then suddenly a beautiful bowl of luminous flowers arrive… woodwinds and percussion making the musical depiction. At the end of the movement, the tree motives reappear and then incited by the solo clarinet the trumpet recalls the theme which was introduced by the strings in the first movement.

In the fourth movement titled White Nights of a Northern Summer I decided to return to my Scottish heritage and have the trumpet play a wonderful Scottish tune called ‘The Bonnie Earl of Moray’ with a simple accompaniment.

The last movement Landscape with Hidden Moon is a wonderful painting of trees in the darkness with the flickering of hidden life in the distance. I imagined it to be early dawn, and at first the trumpet is rather reluctant to wake up. Suddenly in the distance the sound of an off-stage trumpet… immediately the solo trumpet reacts to this with excitement. After a momentary disappointment when the offstage sound seems to go mute, the offstage trumpet enters and stands upstage beside the percussion. The two trumpets engage in an increasingly excited duet which builds to a big climax. A two-trumpet cadenza follows, along with a few other instruments which leads to another big climax. The coda Sonorous Tree which follows is quiet and marked ‘serene’. Though this relationship is certainly intended to be exciting and fulfilling, it is also grounded in an inherent quietness and solidity—which means that it can last.

A catalogue of Victoria Crowe's work, including the pieces which inspired the moods of this concerto can be found here.

★★★★★ - Visually stimulating (inspired by Victoria Crowe’s paintings of trees) is the new Trumpet Concerto by Thea Musgrave, a CBSO Centenary Commission supported by the John Feeney Charitable Trust, and premiered at this summer’s Cheltenham Music Festival, played there as well as here by its dedicatee Alison Balsom. Musgrave has picked up on Balsom’s desire to make her instrument sing, and the soloist responded gratefully to the sustained melodic lines — including a tune from the composer’s native Scotland — as well as rattling out passages of brilliant articulation. There are also theatrical duets with various orchestra members, with one slapstick mime with the principal cellist, culminating in a highly moving collaboration with an initially offstage trumpet, the excellent Jonathan Holland eventually taking up a position onstage, ending with a radiant major third from the two instruments. Applause was deservedly prolonged.
Christopher Morley, Slipped Disc,03/10/2019
★★★★ - Still, it meant that when immediately afterwards we heard mastery, it was unmistakable. The dark opening string phrases of Thea Musgrave's new trumpet concerto fall on the silence with the certainty of something that is as it is because it could be no other way. Throughout this short, dramatic, often skittish work you felt that same sense of an artist in complete control of her material, and saying what she has to say precisely as she means to say it. That makes the concerto sound less entertaining than it was - specially when play by its dedicatee Alison Balsom,.. who performed it tonight with a warm-hued expressive palette and an almost conversational ease. Conversation is a large part of this concerto.... whilse she rejoices in setting up arresting musical images... the heart of the piece comes in the playful interactions between soloist and various members of the orchestra. A long, luminous duet with the CBSO's own trumpeter Jonathan Holland gave the concerto its smiling and understated final resolution; but before that Musgrave had brought the clarinetist to his feet in what might or might not have been a conscious echo of her previous CBSO commission, her Concerto for Orchestra, premiere fifty-one years ago in 1968... At one point a ripple of appreciative laughter ran round the the audience; not something you hear with every piece of contemporary music.
Richard Bratby, The Arts Desk,03/10/2019
The 18-minute score certainly came over as attractive, even sweetly so, with a sure orchestral mastery.
The Sunday Times Culture Magazine,14/07/2019
★★★★ - Written for Balsom, Musgrave's concerto presented as a fivefold sequence of sketches. Where most new concertos act as a technical display case, Musgrave prioritises communication. Despite the brilliance and beauty of Balsom's sound, a sweet skein of Scottish folksong and allusions to baroque concertos, the material drew the ear to the orchestra: a bed of mossy green from the lower strings, exquisite passages for the violist Adam Römer and the clarinettist Oliver James, and a gleaming duet between Balsom and the CBSO's principal trumpet Jonathan Holland.
Anna Picard, The Times,08/07/2019
★★★★★ - The five fingers of one hand are probably more than enough to number the truly great trumpet concertos in the repertoire, but after Saturday's premiere of the new Trumpet Concerto by Thea Musgrave we certainly need another digit... the only factor that might preclude frequent hearings of the piece is its scoring for a large percussion section, three players needed to deploy a cornucopia of instruments. Combined with an otherwise modest orchestra they provide a kaleidoscope of colours with which the music responds to a series of tree- paintings by Victoria Crowe, burgeoning with vitality even at moments of stasis. Balsom's solo trumpet sings, almost pastorally at times, though there is also much tricky technical figuration, brilliantly encompassed, and throughout this 20-minute work there is much interaction between the trumpet and orchestral soloists, most spectacularly when an offstage orchestral trumpet takes the platform and converses as an alter ego.
Christopher Morley, Midlands Classical Music Making,07/07/2019
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