Thea Musgrave, a versatile and prolific composer who has written a myriad of orchestral, choral, operatic, and chamber compositions, turns 90 on May 27, 2018. Musical institutions across the globe are celebrating her legacy this year in the form of birthday concerts in locales ranging from her home country of Scotland to Finland to California to New York City, which she now calls home. The NYC birthday celebration concert on May 27 will take place at St. Mary the Virgin, and features the New York Virtuoso Singers and the American Brass Quintet performing several of her major works, as well as two world premieres.
Last week, Thea warmly invited me into her Upper West Side apartment, where her husband, the opera director Peter Mark, offered me a glass of cold water with elderberry. As I sipped my elderberry water and interviewed Thea, Peter would occasionally chime in or repeat my questions for his wife, who has gotten a tad hard of hearing over the past few years.
NATIONAL SAWDUST LOG: I’d like to hear about your beginnings in composition, how you got your start as a composer, and what that process was like.
I don’t even know when I started! When I was in my teens I was writing things, but it never occurred to me that I would be professional. In fact I went to medical school in Edinburgh, but music was always my love – I’d been studying piano and all that since I was five. And then I had to do boring scientific things at school like cut up frogs, and that just got to be too much. It so happens that in Edinburgh the medical school is right adjacent to the music school – don’t ask me why, I have no idea! So I found myself going into the music school, and eventually I just said, this is really what I want to do.
To begin with, I wasn’t composing; I was busy doing history and harmony and counterpoint and orchestration. It was only in my last year that I started to compose. It’s kind of a funny story, because when I first started to compose it was really tame and ordinary, and when it came time to submit for the final exam I thought, “Well, none of this will do,” and wrote something quite extraordinary, for which they evidently would have failed me if they hadn’t seen the other stuff.
Then I lived in Paris for four years studying with Boulanger. When she saw the composition that had nearly failed me, she said, “Ah yes, I see you have ideas; now it’s time to learn technique!” She understood something that they had not understood. So that’s when I really got going.
So what was that process like, of learning technique?
There are two sides to that. What Boulanger really taught me was the moment-to-moment – the details of different voices going that way [gestures side to side] and also that the harmonies would work going this way [gestures up and down]. But the other thing is the journey that the whole thing is going to go through – the overall structure, because music exists in time, obviously, so where is every detail leading?
And also learning about the instruments, and making friends with performers, and picking their brains—ruthlessly! Find out what’s difficult and why is it difficult. Don’t write things that are unnecessarily difficult. That shows you don’t have good technique.
You know, there were a lot of interesting things Boulanger said. She said, “Don’t try to be original. You have to find your own voice, what is truly what you want to say, and if it’s not particularly original, you still have to be true to yourself.”
What’s your compositional process like, and how has it changed over the years?
Well, we didn’t have Sibelius and all that stuff when I was growing up. I said to my students, “I’m too old for all this, you guys have to learn, but I’m too old.” I’m very old-fashioned; I work with pencil and paper – well, actually pen and paper, because Boulanger always said, “Don’t erase anything.” If you start erasing, rather than writing, you might erase something that would be crucial if you came back and looked at it and reworked it in a few days.
It’s also difficult now for young composers to get the practical experience of working with an orchestra, because it’s so expensive. And really what you write has to be practical as well as imaginative – the two have to go hand in hand.
Is there a work of yours that you particularly did or did not enjoy composing?
[Laughs] I’m not going to tell you! Yes, there are one or two, but I withdrew them.
PETER MARK: But on the positive side, there are some works that really wrote themselves.
Well, yes, that happens once every 25 years. But yes, I have had that experience, especially when you really get going. Not at the beginning of a piece, but in the middle of it. I remember sitting down one day and it was as if somebody was dictating to me. But like I said, that happens once every 25 years. Those are the best pieces, that come to you [makes a rushing sound] just like that!
What’s the process for withdrawing a piece?
Well, I didn’t think it was good. It had its one performance and then I told the publisher, “No, that one’s off the books.”
I’ve also revised things, which is a pain for the publishers. There was one opera where I didn’t leave enough time, according to this particular director, for the chorus to get onstage. So I had to repeat eight bars!
Which opera was that?
I think that was Mary [Mary, Queen of Scots] when it was first done.
So which are the best works – the works that wrote themselves?
Well, whichever work I’ve just finished is the absolute best, of course. It’s funny, some of my very early works I still like a lot. It depends on my mood. But some I do think are quite interesting, like Turbulent Landscapes, which is based on paintings of Turner. There are six movements, and in each movement I got one of the instruments in the orchestra to be kind of a soloist – the tuba for the sea monster, and so on. But they don’t come stand next to the conductor like they would during a concerto; instead, they stand up in their place.
I’m always curious about that process, when composers are inspired by visual works. How did you translate these paintings into sound?
You have to choose the paintings carefully. To get back to the sea monster – it’s very simple, really: it’s a big creature in the sea, so the tuba becomes the monster. And then you’re just dealing with musical things: he comes to the surface, he swims around, he dives back down again. Not all pictures are translatable into music but these are images about which I felt I had something to say musically.
I’m wondering about all of these birthday events…
I am, too!
Did you select the pieces that will be performed?
No, each organization did. But my birthday concert [at St. Mary the Virgin], that really I did choose. I chose The Voices of Our Ancestors, which has not been done in this country yet. It’s a choral concert, it’s with chorus, organ, and the American Brass Quintet. So there’s that work, there’s an unaccompanied choral piece, and then there’s a song which was commissioned, which will be a world premiere. And then opera excerpts with piano, which I called “Three Heroines from Three Continents.” So it’s Mary Queen of Scots, Harriet Tubman, and Manuela, who was Bolivar’s girlfriend. And then – very exciting! – a friend of mine, Nicholas Daniel, a fabulous oboe player, is coming especially to play two little tiny pieces, one of which is a premiere.
And will you be traveling to the other events as well?
Yes – five times flying across the pond this year!
Who do you hear as being the strongest contemporary music composers writing these days?
I can’t answer that; I don’t hear properly anymore. I can’t keep up with things anymore, but I did until 10 or 15 years ago.
PETER MARK: She can hear at Carnegie Hall, but not at Geffen or the Met.
It’s a drag, but that’s the way it is.
Well up until 15 years ago, who did you like?
It’s a whole other generation of composers. George Benjamin, Thomas Adès, Richard Rodney Bennett… do you know him?
I don’t think so…
Have you seen Four Weddings and a Funeral?
So you’ve heard his music. And you know, there are others, like Peter Maxwell Davies, Lutoslawski… but they’re all gone now.
After wrapping up the interview, Thea showed me her studio and archives. During my mini-tour, the apartment landline rang and Peter could be heard answering questions about Thea’s birthday concert. As we made our way back to the living room, Peter was saying, “You know, she gets the question ‘What’s it like to be a woman composer?’ so often that we have her response quoted on the folio.” Thea rolled her eyes: “I always respond, well yes I’m a woman and yes I’m a composer, but rarely both at the same time.”
Peter finished the phone call and turned to me as I handed him my empty water glass. “She hates all of this, you know,” he said. “She’d rather be in her studio composing.”
Thea Musgrave celebrates her 90th birthday with Harold Rosenbaum and the New York Virtuoso Singers at the Church of St. Mary the Virgin on May 27 at 8pm; theamusgrave.com
Rebecca S. Lentjes is a writer and feminist activist based in NYC. Her work has appeared in VAN Magazine, Music & Literature, Sounding Out!, TEMPO, and I Care If You Listen. By day she studies ethnomusicology as a doctoral student at Stony Brook University and works as an assistant editor at RILM Abstracts of Music Literature; by night she hatches schemes to dismantle the patriarchy.