Composer Profile: Thea Musgrave and the Dramatic Element

The following is a guest post from Music Cataloger Laura Yust.

A page from “Space play : a concerto for nine instruments” by Thea Musgrave, holograph score. ML30.3c M87 no. 1, Music Division, Library of Congress.

Scottish composer Thea Musgrave was born in Barnton, Midlothian, near Edinburgh, Scotland on 27 May 1928. Still a busy composer as she celebrates her 84th birthday, Musgrave has written operas, concertos, chamber music, solo vocal and choral music, solo instrumental music, and electro-acoustic music. Initially, Musgrave intended to study medicine at the University of Edinburgh, but found herself so drawn to the activities of the music school that, happily for the rest of us, she decided to study music instead. After finishing her degree at the University of Edinburgh, she continued as a composition pupil of Nadia Boulanger. Commissions from the BBC early on helped launch Musgrave’s career. Connections in the U.S. began in 1959, when she received a scholarship to Tanglewood. In 1970 Musgrave taught at the University of California at Santa Barbara where she met the violist and conductor Peter Mark, whom she later married. Eventually Musgrave and Mark made Norfolk, Virginia their home, where Mark conducted the Virginia Opera.

Musgrave is well known for her many operas on historical and compelling subjects such as Queen Mary (Mary, Queen of Scots, 1977), Harriet Tubman (Harriet, The Woman Called Moses, 1984), Simon Bolivar (Simón Bolívar, 1993), and the Baroness de Pontalba of New Orleans (Pontalba, 2003). Drama seems to have particularly interested Musgrave because she wrote the librettos for most of her operas herself, and much of her instrumental music also contains a strong dramatic component. Musgrave has written concertos for solo instrumentalists and orchestra that emphasize the drama between soloist, orchestra, and conductor, in both musical and theatrical ways. In her clarinet concerto, the soloist walks, while playing, from one concertante group to the next, pointing out visually what is happening musically. In her viola concerto, the solo violist joins with the entire viola section to challenge the role of the conductor, who must then bring in the brass players to regain control of the orchestra!

Over the course of her career, Musgrave has received two Guggenheim Fellowships and two Koussevitzky Commissions. As a result of the Koussevitzky Commissions, the Music Division owns two of Musgrave’s holograph manuscripts. The first is Space Play, a work for wind quintet and string quartet (1974), and the second is The Mocking-Bird, a work for baritone, flute/piccolo, oboe, violin, violoncello, and percussion (2000). These two manuscripts are beautiful and fascinating to study as musical documents. They are meticulously written by hand using innovative means of conveying the musical material. Many recordings of Musgrave’s music are available; the Library owns about 50 sound recordings that contain her music, including two recorded interviews. Many of her published scores are also available in the Music Division’s collections. Of course, online resources are available as well to explore Musgrave’s music. Youtube clips include performances of some of her works and several interesting interviews with the composer herself. Musgrave’s own website provides detailed information about her life and works. Many happy returns of the day to Thea Musgrave!

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