Rich, powerful musical language and a strong sense of drama have made Scottish-American composer Thea Musgrave one of the most respected and exciting of living composers.
Works by her were first performed under the auspices of the BBC and at the Edinburgh Festival. As a result, she has been widely performed in Britain, Europe and the USA and at the major music festivals, such as Edinburgh, Warsaw Autumn, Florence Maggio Musicale, Venice Biennale, Aldeburgh, Cheltenham and Zagreb, on most of the European and American broadcasting stations and in concert halls throughout the world.
From time to time she has conducted her own works: the premiere performance of Mary, Queen of Scots in August 1977 at the Edinburgh Festival and her opera The Voice of Ariadne in Britain, New York and Los Angeles. In the USA she has conducted the Philadelphia Orchestra, Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, San Francisco Symphony and St Paul Chamber Orchestra, as well as the Jerusalem Symphony and the Hong Kong Philharmonic. It is a measure of her talent and determination that Musgrave earned great respect for her work both as a composer and conductor at a time when these were still rather uncommon professions or women.
Born in Edinburgh on 27 May 1928, she studied at the University of Edinburgh then in Paris, where she spent four years as a pupil of Nadia Boulanger, before establishing herself in London with her orchestral, choral, operatic and chamber works. In 1970 she was named guest professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, which anchored her increasing involve-ment with the musical life of the United States. In 1971 she married the American violist and opera conductor Peter Mark and she now lives in the US. In 1974 she received the Koussevitzky Award, resulting in the composition of Space Play. She has also been awarded two Guggenheim Fellowships, and was recognized with honorary degrees by Old Dominion University (Virginia), Smith College, Glasgow University and in 2004 the New England Conservatory in Boston. She was awarded a CBE in the Queen's New Year Honours List in 2002. As Distinguished Professor at Queens College, City University of New York from September 1987 to 2002, she guided many young and gifted student composers.
Musgrave has consistently explored new means of projecting essentially dramatic situations in her music, frequently altering and extending the conventional boundaries of instrumental performance by physicalising their musical and dramatic impact. As she once put it, she wanted to explore dramatic musical forms: some works are dramatic-abstract, that is, without programmatic content (such as the Clarinet Concerto, Horn Concerto, Viola Concerto and Space Play), while others project specific programmatic ideas (such as the paintings in The Seasons, the poems in Ring Out Wild Bells, Journey through a Japanese Landscape, Autumn Sonata and the famous Greek legends in Orfeo, Narcissus, Helios and Voices from the Ancient World) – all extensions of concerto principles. And most recently, the large-scale work for the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Turbulent Landscapes based on paintings by J.M.W. Turner. In some of these works, to enhance the dramatic effect, the sonic possibilities of spatial acoustics have been incorporated: in the Clarinet Concerto, the soloist moves around the different sections of the orchestra, and in the Horn Concerto the orchestral horns are placed around the hall. Thus the players are not only the conversants in an abstract musical dialogue, but also the living embodiment of its dramatis personae.
It was therefore not surprising that her focus on the lyric and dramatic potential of music should have led to Musgrave's fluency in writing opera, and it is interesting to note that her large-scale works of the past thirty years, beginning with The Voice of Ariadne (1972) and followed by Mary, Queen of Scots (1977), A Christmas Carol (1979) and Harriet, the Woman Called Moses (1984), are in every sense the consequence of the instrumental concertos. Simón Bolívar (1993), like many of her stage works, focuses on an historic figure whose life takes on an epic or archetypal dimension. Her newest opera, Pontalba (2003), again places the heroic struggle of its heroine in a larger historical context, the Lousiana Purchase and the forging of the new United States.
With such a large and varied career and catalogue, Thea Musgrave is frequently interviewed and questioned about being a 'woman' composer, to which she has replied: 'Yes, I am a composer, and I am a woman, but rarely at the same time'.
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