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The BIG Question…with Thea Musgrave

In celebration of her 90th birthday, Thea Musgrave CBE, master of the modern orchestra
and recent Ivor Novello Award recipient, talks about her life in music.

When did you start making music as a child?
My first musical experience was my very first piano lesson as a child of five in Edinburgh. My teacher had the wisdom to ask me to stand on the piano bench and peer over the top of the opened upright piano and look in at the mechanisms all the while as she played the notes on the keyboard. Well, naturally, I was hooked for life! I also had a baby sitter who used to sing Swanee River to me! You studied at the University of Edinburgh, but began studying medicine before switching to music.

How did you realise that you needed to change path?
Well, unlike the rest of the University, the medical school and the music school happened to be in close proximity to each other. Originally I had started studies in medicine intending to find cures for all (yes, all!) the major diseases – but I found myself spending more and more time in the music school rather than cutting up frogs. And the creative opportunities in music eventually won out for me with a different kind of ‘discovery’.

After Edinburgh you moved to Paris for four years to study with Nadia Boulanger. What was she like as a teacher?
Nadia Boulanger was a very important influence on me. The four years I spent with her in private lessons and at the Paris Conservatoire really shaped my discipline and technique as a composer, and helped me enter the wider world of music where I came to find my own individual voice. After studying, you established your career in
London. What was the musical scene like there? It was filled with concerts. I went to one almost every night – frequently with Richard Rodney Bennett, or other composers, or with friends. How did your idea of ‘dramatic-abstract’ composing come about? From a dream actually! I woke up in the middle of the
night terrified from dreaming that, while I was conducting an orchestra, suddenly an instrumentalist stood up and challenged me by going his own way with the music. I laughed about that with my friends at dinner that night. And the very next day (and I mean the very next day) I got a commission to write a piece for Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. That became my very first ‘dramatic abstract’ piece – The Concerto for Orchestra, during which the clarinet
stands up to defy the conductor.

How do you decide which topics or stories are going to work as operas?
The stories that have attracted me and have formed the basis of my operas have all been about issues such as power struggles, sexism, racism, and individual heroic journeys – whether they were successful in the end or not. They are also often about well-known historic personages like Harriet Tubman, Simón Bolívar, or Mary, Queen of Scots – who were all up against strong odds but nonetheless still persevered. But always dramatic situations. As a composer I have been fascinated to shape their journeys for the stage, to write the words they might really have said. And to set and surround their emotions with music, bringing their
dramatic confrontations and lives to the stage so others can feel them as I do.

You have written some of your own libretti. What are the advantages of doing this and what are the challenges?
It was from Mary, Queen of Scots onwards that I took over writing my own libretti. And never looked back. Although other writers may be more experienced at writing plays and poems and prose, I find that the needs of words that are going to be set to music are very different indeed. For instance some pages of text can fly by in fast-moving music, and yet just a few lines can suffice for a long slow aria – where the orchestra can also elaborate upon the feelings and the moment. And it is certainly more efficient for a composer to write the words for the music they will eventually compose, thereby consolidating and organically intensifying their understanding of how the drama moves. It also means one can change words up to the last minute if one needs to. Nobody’s permission needed! Richard Wagner certainly understood the benefit of that process! Ultimately, it is easier for me to talk with myself as both librettist and composer. There is much less chance of misinterpretation, and certainly no need for tact or compromise.

You have written a lot of orchestral music and often conduct your own works. Which orchestras have you particularly enjoyed working with?
I have loved working with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, which gave me my first chances, as well as the other BBC orchestras. In the US, the Philadelphia
Orchestra, Boston and Chicago Symphony Orchestras as well as several opera companies including San Francisco Opera and the New York City Opera. And then I must mention the years in Virginia.That is where I really learned about opera: from my husband, Peter Mark, who conducted there for nearly four decades, and from all
the wonderful singers, directors, musicians and organisers as well!

Which soloists have you particularly enjoyed working with?
Barry Tuckwell, the famous horn player, now retired. Oboist Nicholas Daniel and French horn player Martin Owen, who are both very active. Conductors Norman
del Mar and Colin Davis, earlier in my career – and, more recently, Martyn Brabbins and Susanna Mälkki. I have only mentioned European (and Australian!) performers.There are also many, many wonderful American performers that I have had the pleasure of working with. I must mention Ashley Putnam, soprano, who gave the first US performances as Mary in Mary, Queen of Scots. She was right at the beginning of her career.

Which composers’ music do you most enjoy listening to?
A long list, inevitably incomplete: Igor Stravinsky, Béla Bartók, Witold Lutosławski, Luciano Berio, Peter Maxwell Davies, Richard Rodney Bennett, the classics, and, of course, Johann Sebastian Bach. Then there is opera. And let us not forget Claudio Monteverdi.

What are the differences in the musical scenes between the UK and United States?
The UK of course is much smaller and its musical life is more concentrated and interconnected. The US is enormous and one simply can’t be in contact with all the
different music centres that exist there. There is also a huge difference in how musical organisations are funded.We need to keep that in mind and make very sure that young people can get the right kind of exposure to the wonders of music at the right age.

Your 90th birthday year is being celebrated with performances throughout the US and Europe. How much will you try to get to? And what are you most looking forward to?
As many as possible! It’s great to see old friends and haunts as well as meet new friends and colleagues. I am very much looking forward to hearing my two new works, Missa Brevis and A Collect for John the Baptist, for the Wells Cathedral this June. And I’m also to going to Stockholm, Sweden – where I have never been – for four concerts of my works as their FOCUS composer in November.

What advice do you have for young composers starting out today?
Be true to yourself. And don’t try to be ‘original’! Above all, make friends with wonderful performers.