‘American’ Composer Thea Musgrave Honored as Commander of the British Empire

‘American’ Composer Thea Musgrave Honored as Commander of the British Empire

Thea Musgrave
Photo Provided Courtesy of G. Schirmer, Inc.

Though America now claims her as its own, British-born composer Thea Musgrave will travel to London later this month to receive the honorary title of Commander of the British Empire from Queen Elizabeth II. Honored to receive such recognition but laughing over the gravity of the title, she confesses, “I told my husband, ‘We’re going to meet the queen!'”

Musgrave celebrates her 75th birthday next season, but her voice betrays no sound of age (though her accent betrays her British roots) and her catalogue of works continues to grow at a pace that shows no sign of slackening.

As a young woman, Musgrave set out to study not music but medicine at the University of Edinburgh. “I was going to find the cure for cancer, you know, the arrogance of the young,” she admits with a laugh. “The music department was just adjacent to the medical school and I found myself always going into the music department to listen to what was happening. I realized that music was what was in my heart and so I went with it.”

She went on to the Conservatoire in Paris where she spent four years under the tutelage of Nadia Boulanger. In 1970, she accepted the position of Guest Professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Her marriage to Peter Mark, general and artistic director of the Virginia Opera, then solidified her association with the U.S. “Of course I have very strong connections to this country,” she says. “I’m an American citizen now and I feel American, but you don’t lose your background either.”

Though stylistically she hasn’t felt an American influence on her music, she has drawn on American story lines, topics she says she likely wouldn’t have taken an interest in had she remained in Europe. “My childhood is European, but being here, the subject matter of course has had an influence. For instance I wrote an opera on Harriet Tubman, and I probably would never have thought of it living in Europe.” Musgrave’s work list also includes two operas based on short stories by Ambrose Bierce that deal with the American Civil War.

When critics are confronted with her music, they almost always pull out adjectives like “dramatic” and “theatrical” whether she’s specifically telling a story or not. Currently at work on her tenth opera, Musgrave admits that she has always been attracted to the stage and to the dramatic elements of confrontation. “Gradually that idea fed back into my symphonies and instrumental music as well. It didn’t happen as a big thunderclap, you know, it percolated. Certain pieces, even pieces that are totally abstract, have certain dramatic aspects with regard to the players.”

Photo Provided Courtesy of G. Schirmer, Inc.

Characters translate into musicians taking on specific solo lines or dramatic movement, such as the trumpet and viola lines (and performers) in Lamenting with Ariadne, a work which coincidentally will be given its U.S. premiere today by the Sequitur ensemble in New York. “Imagine Ariadne [of Greek mythology], abandoned by Theseus, standing on the seashore watching him sail away. I would be really miffed it somebody did that,” says Musgrave matter-of-factly. “But later the trumpet, which is Dionysus, enters on stage and interacts with the players and Ariandne and they live happily ever after.”

Coming into her own career surrounded by older female colleagues in Britain and France, Musgrave says she never felt that her gender held her back from achieving what she wanted as a composer. Unlike women who found themselves up against various degrees of discrimination professionally, she admits she was a little “like an ostrich with its head in the sand” when it came to that. “It never occurred to me that there was a problem. And when I realized it could be a problem, I decided I wasn’t going to focus on that. I was going to focus on writing and doing the very best that I could and just let the other happen as it may.”

And focus, she did. Her catalogue today numbers some fifty works. Musgrave says she has always worked steadily and came into her voice gradually, a period of maturation rather than a great revelatory experience. “I’m always a little suspicious of things that happen immediately because you have to make things truly your own, you have to find your own voice, and it can’t happen suddenly,” she explains.

That process of careful development is reflected in her teaching tactics as well. “When I’m teaching I tell my students, ‘Don’t try to be original. Get your technique in order, make sure you know what you’re doing and sort of search out the options, know what you like, and let the other happen on its own.’

“I always tried to be very practical. Where it’s wrong is where it’s unplayable because it’s off the register or it’s just too difficult.” Ultimately, she says, “what I really like to do is to throw out a lot of ideas, because I’m not them. I can’t say what’s right for them, only they can know that.”

Though not frequent collaborators, Musgrave says that she and her husband are able to share a special musical life. “It’s wonderful because we’re not in the same line. It’s the maitre d’ and the chef, so to speak.”

She initially hesitated to work with his opera company on projects fearing implications of nepotism. The Virginia Opera’s board persuaded her to let the company mount the American premiere of Mary, Queen of Scots in 1977. As she recalls, “The board of directors said, ‘Well, the critics from out of town are not going to come and see yet another La Traviata, but we perhaps can persuade them to come down and give the company recognition with a new opera.'”

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