Thursday, 20 February 2014

Thea Musgrave: Total Immersion

Thea Musgrave - Photo credit: Bryan Sheffield
Thea Musgrave
Photo credit: Bryan Sheffield
Thea Musgrave - Total Immersion: Barbican Centre
Reviewed by Hilary Glover on Feb 15 2014
Star rating: 4.0

Latest BBC/Barbican Total Immersion event with a day of music by one of our great female composers

Thea Musgrave (1928-), one of our great female composers, is often overlooked. In fact when it came down to my research for this blog post my selection of text books let me down completely. My 2004 edition of Oxford Dictionary of Music lists eight operas (missing out Pontalba (2003) and Bolivar and his Generals (2013)), three ballets and numerous works for voice, chamber and full orchestra. There is a fuller list here from her publisher.

Her compositional technique is listed as developing from diatonicism through chromatic and serialism to a ‘mature style capable of rich expressiveness’ and ‘a robust and luxuriant lyricism’. Artists describe her music as ‘charming and winsome’. With performances by students from the Guildhall School of Music, BBC Singers, and the BBC Symphony Orchestra, Total Immersion at the Barbican Centre gave audiences a chance to hear this progress with a day of concerts of her music encompassing 1966 - 2009.

Thea was born in 1928 in Edinburgh and studied first Medicine and then Music at the University of Edinburgh before moving to Paris to study with Nadia Boulanger. In 1958 she studied with Aaron Copland before becoming a lecturer at the University of London. In 1971 she moved to the United States, where she met and married Peter Mark violist and Artistic Director and conductor of the Virginia Opera, and has remained ever since.


My ‘immersion’ began with the chamber music concert given by students from The Guildhall. Before the concert began Thea talked to the BBC’s Tom Service about her idea of chamber music, as opposed to bigger works, was that the players should be “individualists with their own expressive voice”. She also described how one instrument could disrupt proceedings: for example the Rolo character in Chamber Concerto no. 2 In homage to Charles Ives (1966) who does not accept “new ideas at any cost” and who plays well known tunes, at first disrupting the other players but then distracting them. This idea of interruption and leading other instruments astray is a recurring theme for Musgrave and would be revisited several times during the day.

Pierrot (1885) for clarinet, violin and piano, was beautifully played and acted. In a later interview Musgrave described how she asked the players to become the characters. When it was that character’s voice they stood up and moved around the stage to form new groupings and interactions - the violin (Pierrot) stamped her (his) feet and viciously turned over music pages in frustration. Similarly in Cantilena (2008) the oboe began with her back to the other players at the far side of the stage. Gradually you could see her interest in the group and then an interaction, embellishing and varying their established theme, until she joins them and starts a new theme, which the rest excitedly took on. Also played in this set was From spring to spring (1996) for marimba and wind chime, and Impromptu No. 1 (1967) for flute and piano.

The second interview was more detailed and went some way to explaining Musgrave’s interest in interrupted music and in dramaticising instrumental players. She talked about the difficulties in writing music which allowed performers to be free but that would still work in an orchestral setting and about the importance of experimentation and the use of an internal critic. For example when composing the quarter tone solo in the Horn Concerto (1971) she faithfully copied the original soloist’s (Barry Tuckwell‘s) fingerings into the score. However, she explained, it was important to her to have in mind “long term harmonic planning” rather than concentrating solely on the details. In her eyes tonality is important, as is a feeling of home, regardless of the adventure the music undertakes.

She also talked about opera and the differences between this and instrumental music. For Thea opera is all about emotional confrontations. But it seems to me that there are plenty of confrontations throughout her instrumental and choral music which provide the drama inherent within them.

The second concert was a series of choral pieces starting with the remarkable Rorate Coeli (1973) and the early Memento creatoris (1967). The BBC Singers, conducted by Paul Brough, put their vocal skills to good use - both compositions use a mixture of sung and free sections and soloists required extended vocal techniques. On the underground 1 and 3 (1994 and 1995) set poems found on the London and New York underground rail services and formed a framework for Ithaca (2009) and Midnight (1992). It seems that no one poet is enough for Musgrave – she used poems ranging from the traditional Sumer Is Icumen In and texts by Chaucer through to Emily Dickinson, Yeats, Stevie Smith and Sheenagh Pugh. In a break between songs she talked about how each language has different colours for her and how she was interested in the journey they depict.


In an interview from 2012 with BBC Radio Scotland Thea talked about libretto and setting songs, especially Songs for a winter’s evening of which there is an except (at 5min 30) which we should have heard during the evening concert. However due to illness Lisa Milne could not perform so instead the orchestra performed a 30 piece setting of Green. (It also includes an excerpt of Rorate Coeli (at 7min 39)).

The final concert, given by the BBC Symphony Orchestra conductor Martyn Brabbins, began with Seasons (1987-8) and a chat about drama in music. Musgrave talked about how all her compositions aim to be dramatic, whether this is abstract such as the Horn Concerto (1970-1) or programmatic such as Seasons or Turbulent Landscapes (2003).

Seasons was based on a series of pictures at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, each season with its own mood. Musgrave used an interesting set of colours including overlaying the piano with pitched percussion in Autumn, a very low bass bassoon matched with muted strings for Winter, birds tweeting and romantic strings for Spring and finally lots of brass and lots of noise for a riotous Summer. Similarly Turbulent Landscapes was based on a series of painting by Turner where one aspect of each painting became the focus for a solo.

The horn concerto (soloist Martin Owen) already talked about for its quarter tone solo pulled together various other elements such as the drama of moving instruments around the stage (and indeed around the audience). At times only the back desks of the strings played altering the audiences’ sense of where the music was coming from and contrasting with the solos. It also used unusual instruments including a prepared piano and some interesting sounds from the harp.



This was the first time Green (2008) had been performed in London. Originally written for 12 string players it had been hurriedly rescored for 30 to allow the BBC SO to play it. During an interview in 2009, during a rehearsal for the world premier of Green, Musgrave talks more about her early influences and her interest in long term harmonic planning and in interrupting disruptive forces.

Total immersion indeed! Thea Musgrave was delightful, charismatic, and chatty, skipping onto stage and congratulating all the performers. Her self awareness about her compositions was refreshingly honest and it was lovely to see so many genres over her compositional life. One thing missing from the day was a truly dramatic work. It would have been great to have seen an opera – even if it was only semi-staged or in concert format. Hopefully we will get to see one in London soon.
Reviewed by Hilary Glover
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