One of the most delightful afternoons I’ve had this year was spent visiting Thea Musgrave in her New York apartment, located in a landmarked building on the Upper West Side. That 1899 edifice, once The Ansonia Hotel and now simply the Ansonia, once also counted among its tenants Enrico Caruso, Igor Stravinsky, and Serge Rachmaninoff, as well as Babe Ruth, Theodore Dreiser, and Natalie Portman. Though today the building is one of the city’s most glorious architectural marvels, its history is loaded with some incredibly bizarre stories. That building’s mix of grandeur and narrative intrigue proved to be a very apt setting for a conversation with this distinguished, soon-to-be nonagenarian composer (“Each birthday, I’m going to take a year off”) who turned out to also be one of the greatest raconteurs I’ve ever encountered.
Musgrave had so many stories to tell: almost flunking out of the University of Edinburgh for writing a too “adventurous piece” which Nadia Boulanger subsequently saw promise in; sharing space with electronic music pioneer Daphne Oram who put “recording equipment in the gent’s bathroom; having a dream in the 1960s about conducting an orchestra in which members started defying her and playing other music, which ultimately turned into her theatrical Clarinet Concerto; including a huge chorus of local children in the Virginia Opera premiere of A Christmas Chorus to ensure that “the parents will all come so you’ll sell out the house”; and never giving a thought to being a “female composer” until she moved to the United States in the early 1970s and people here made such a fuss about it.
Read on for her further elaborations of each of these experiences and many, many more. Better yet, watch and listen to all the video footage of her we’ve included here, since listening to her reminisce is even more entertaining. However, in addition to how pleasurable it is to listen to her various quips, they are also full of tons of take away value for other composers or, for that matter, anyone else dedicated to an artistic pursuit since at the root of all of Musgrave’s anecdotes is a deep sense of practicality.
“If something sounds very easy and is difficult to play, that’s a no-no,” she remembered telling her students at Queens College. “However, if something sounds very difficult and it’s relatively easy to play, that’s great. So, go for it. Don’t write unnecessarily difficult things.”
But that doesn’t mean she believes in avoiding risk-taking.
“Sometimes you have to follow your crazy ideas and just go with it to see what happens,” she acknowledged toward the end of our visit with her. “I used to say to my students that we all have this critic sitting on our shoulder who’s very fierce and rather nasty. When you’re beginning a work, you take this person—him, it’s always a he—you take him to the door and you say bye-bye. I don’t want to see you just now. So when you have an idea, you say, ‘Well, let’s just put it there. Maybe if I did that, then that would happen. And on the other hand, if I did this then that could happen.’ You don’t say that’s a stupid idea right off. You leave it, and you get all these ideas and put them down to be looked at. And eventually you bring him back in and say, ‘Now help me to evaluate what I’ve got here.’”
Frank J. Oteri: As I was listening again to recordings of many of your compositions and studying your scores over the course of the past few weeks in preparation for our conversation today, I was struck by how open-minded and yet practical your music is.
Thea Musgrave: Well, I’m Scottish, so that’s where the practicality comes in. I always used to say to my students when I taught here at Queens College for CUNY for some 15 years: “If something sounds very easy and is difficult to play, that’s a no-no. However, if something sounds very difficult and it’s relatively easy to play, that’s great. So, go for it. Don’t write unnecessarily difficult things.” So that’s what I’ve been applying for myself. I also think that when you write, particularly for an orchestra, orchestras don’t have time to mess around with difficult notations and things that are very unnecessarily complicated. I like to have my orchestral pieces basically sight-readable by a good professional orchestra. When you come to the rehearsal, you spend the time on making the phrases flow and getting the balances right so they all know to hear each other. Good orchestras, they’re smart. So they know what to listen for and they adjust. That’s where you should spend the time. Not working out notation. However, you can do some exciting new things, which I did for certain reasons, which maybe we’ll come to in a moment.
FJO: We definitely will. But before we do, I wonder if you’d agree that part of the practicality of your music stems from the fact that you have not been dogmatically beholden to any of the so-called “isms” that were so pervasive in the 20th century.
TM: Yes, but I explored them. There was a period when 12-tone-ism was very powerful and very interesting. There were a lot of wonderful pieces. And so I explored that for a while, but it wasn’t for me. My friend Richard [Rodney] Bennett really lived in that world and did some absolutely fabulous things. I didn’t stay there, but I think the idea of how it worked has influenced me.
FJO: You might take some aspects from somewhere. You mentioned 12-tone writing. Electronic music is also something that you’ve explored to your own ends and have done some very interesting things with.
TM: I didn’t have an electronic studio, so the important thing for me was to meet somebody. And in London, there was Daphne Oram, who started the BBC Radiophonic Workshop way back when. She said in the early days she used to have to work at night when the place was basically closed, so she would have the recording equipment in the gent’s bathroom, and then would be running down the corridor with the mic to get the distance effect. All this, of course, you don’t need now. But I remember working in her studio, and we had loops hanging up all around. Young people now working in this have no idea what it was like when it was all new.
And when I was studying in Paris in the ‘50s, we talked about musique électronique and musique concrète. Electronic music, which was basically sound waves, was very boring to work with; musique concrète, which was from live sounds—that’s what I liked. I didn’t like the sine waves; they were not interesting in themselves. But that was really the beginning of things. When I was a kid, we didn’t have television. You went to the movies to see what was happening in the war. You didn’t have television at home, let alone not having internet. People can’t imagine that now.
I wrote this radio opera called An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, which of course is a well-known story here about the American Civil War by Ambrose Bierce. And, as I had learned by listening to the radio, wonderful plays were done with incredible sound effects, and sometimes with music. I thought, “Okay, we’ll have music and we’ll also have sound effects in this opera.” So there’s horses galloping, dogs barking, soldiers marching, and stuff like that. There were two levels in this opera. One was a real-life level. So I had spoken voices of certain characters. But central characters, like Peyton Farquhar who was an Ambrose Bierce character, could speak as he is in the outside world, but in the internal world he sings and he’s accompanied by a chamber orchestra. He hears what’s in the outside world, but they don’t hear his comments and feelings. It was wonderful to work on these two levels.
FJO: You conceived of it for radio, but has it ever been staged?
TM: It’s difficult to stage because of what it’s about, but it actually has been done. It’s tricky because of the nature of the story.
FJO: Before we go into greater detail about some of your other pieces, I’m curious about how you first became exposed to various things that were going on in music during your early years, especially since you mentioned that you learned about things from the radio and news reels about the Second World War that would only be something you’d be able to see in a movie theater. You were already studying music before the war and continued to do so afterwards. The way that history is presented to us now, it’s as if there was a sea change in musical composition right after the war. Of course, Schoenberg and other composers of the Second Viennese School were writing 12-tone music and their work was not completely unknown. After the war, however, there was a real flowering of this music but there also seemed to be much more polarization between composers who embraced that approach and composers who didn’t. The neoclassicists and the serialists seemed to be opposing camps that didn’t speak to each other. And the folks who were creating music using chance procedures were in their own separate camp. Or so the story goes. But I wonder how perceptible those animosities really were to people at the time.
TM: Well, in Britain, we spoke to each other actually. And music by chance happened a little later. I knew most of the composers around in Britain at that time. I’ve lost touch now because I’ve been here for so long. Here there’s no way you can know everybody; this country is so vast—there are pockets of composers in Chicago, Boston, New York, Houston, whatever. I like meeting other composers and comparing notes, as Richard [Bennett] and I did all through our adult lives. It was wonderful to have that kind of exchange, because he was a wonderful musician. Not only did he write 12-tone music when he was writing so-called serious music, but of course he wrote all those fabulous music scores for the movies.
FJO: When you were growing up in Scotland, how connected was the musical life in Scotland to the rest of the United Kingdom?
TM: Well, I went to university in Edinburgh and then I went straight to Paris from there. The auld alliance! I lived in Paris for four years. It’s not true anymore, but in those days you really had to be in London. So after Paris, I came back and I settled in London. Things happened from London, even though there was a BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, and so on. I think most decisions seemed to have happened in London. So people lived there. I think it’s different now. People live in different places, and with the internet one can be connected in other ways.
What was wonderful about the BBC Scottish was that it had a policy—and I hope it still exists—of helping young composers learn their craft, because although you can learn a lot in school, then comes the practicality of learning how to write for an orchestra and how an orchestra functions. And in those days, in the late ‘50s, the assistant conductor was Colin Davis. So one of my early works was conducted by Colin Davis. He was a clarinet player and was married to a singer in those days, and had just started to conduct. That’s where I began to learn how to work with an orchestra, the BBC Scottish—thank you!
FJO: And the reason you went to Paris before that was to study with Nadia Boulanger.
TM: That was wonderful! What’s really funny and I think quite influential for me is when I was at university, Donald Francis Tovey had brought over a composer from Vienna—I think realizing something terrible was about to happen—Hans Gál. So I was studying composition with him. I wrote some rather staid pieces, and then I started getting more adventurous. For my degree, I wrote a much more adventurous piece and apparently they nearly failed me. They passed me because they’d seen the conventional pieces before that. Now when I went to Boulanger, I showed her the old fashioned pieces, and she sort of looked and said, “Qu’est-que c’est que ça?” And I said, “Well, I do have this.” And I showed her the thing that I had tried to do. “Ah,” she said. “I understand. I see that you have ideas; now we have to learn a little bit of technique.” She understood that there was something there that could be developed, which they had not seen.
So that’s how it started with her. She was fabulous. I really knew her very well, because I was there four years. I saw her absolutely every single week. I went for my hour’s lesson, and then at the Conservatoire. Because she was not primarily a composer, though her sister had been, she was not allowed to teach composition. Can you imagine? And she taught Elliott Carter, Aaron Copland, and many, many other people. So instead, she taught the cours d’accompagnement—piano accompaniment—which turned into a composition class: how to arrange things, doing figured bass, sight reading from a score, and all those sorts of things. It was not normal piano accompaniment. And so that was really wonderful.
FJO: So all these people who studied composition with her were studying privately with her.
TM: Yes. They had the option to go to Conservatoire—whether they did or not I have no idea—but she had her classes at home in a great big sitting room with an organ right there and, of course, a piano which is where she sat. And I sat to one side. Then you could talk about what you’d been working on, and she’d go over it. What to me is very interesting was I had come from Edinburgh. To me, Donald Francis Tovey is a god and one of the most important people in my musical life, though I never met him. He died in ’40 and I arrived in ’47. I studied with his assistant, Mary Grierson. I did piano with her. But I think I read absolutely every single word he ever wrote. So what I learned from him was what he called long-term harmonic planning. In other words, the overall direction of things are mainly from a harmonic point of view. Whereas, with Nadia, although of course she knew that, it was much more detailed, how a moment goes to the next. Those two together is what it takes.
FJO: So tell me more about that piece that almost got you failed in Scotland that Nadia saw the promise in.
TM: I have no idea what it is. I’ve lost it. It was probably terrible, but somehow she saw something.
FJO: Was it an orchestra piece?
TM: I absolutely don’t remember.
FJO: That’s a pity, because it seems like that piece was perhaps the earliest example of that very elusive and perhaps inexplicable phenomenon of you finding your own voice as a composer. How this happens and how to develop it is a very important lesson.
TM: I’ll tell you one of the main sources which is, again, very extraordinary. I always tell my students, “Don’t forget about coincidences.” In the ‘60s, round about ’64, ’65, a long time ago, I had a dream one night. I had just started conducting, and in my dream I was conducting an orchestra and suddenly one of the players stood up and defied me. I tried to go on and couldn’t. Then I suddenly said, “Brass, stand up. And shut him up.” I woke up and I burst out laughing. That night, I went out to dinner with some friends which we’d already arranged and I said, “I had the most hilarious dream.” I told them and we all had a good laugh about it. I swear to you, the very next morning, a letter arrived in the post from Birmingham, England. Would I write an orchestra piece for the Birmingham Symphony Orchestra? So guess what? I wrote a piece, and halfway through, the clarinet player stands up and does something quite different. Then he/she gets other people to stand up by suggesting tunes that they might like to play. There are about five or six players standing up. Finally the conductor gets the brass to their feet, and things are resolved and they sit down. Some years later that work had its premiere with the Philadelphia Orchestra, and Ormandy asked me to conduct. I said, “Yes, that’s wonderful. How exciting! I’m honored,” and all those things. So two hours rehearsal. I told him, “I can do it in two hours if I have half an hour with six players.” I arrived that morning and there were the six players sort of saying, “The Philadelphia Orchestra is really good. We don’t do sectional rehearsals with this orchestra. What’s this?” So I said to them, “I’ve asked you to come because you defy the conductor, and you’re independent of the conductor.” “Oh.” “I want to explain to you what I’m doing, and how you are doing something slightly different.” So we went through it all, and they did their bit so that they would see what was happening. I was conducting and they couldn’t hear anything because the orchestra wasn’t there, but when the rest of the orchestra came in, they were all set.
FJO: Now so when you say they defy the conductor and they asked other players to play tunes they like, is this an indeterminate thing? Can they play any tune they want?
TM: No, no. It’s all worked out. This is one of the things about being practical. I arranged a way of doing the score which is not in a tempo. There are big, big long bars, and I always put a big arrow with a big black center. And that means the conductor gives the downbeat. At that point, the players continue to play in the same tempo, but they’re not necessarily together. So it’s like a cadenza, but several people are playing. They don’t necessarily match. And then the conductor or the player can give cues. If the conductor gives cues, there’s a sort of hollow arrow, so I point there to the horn or here to the cello or here to the brass. Or whatever. The part of the soloist—in this case a clarinet—will be written on a separate line. What they are doing is underneath, but they all see the clarinet and so they know, “Okay, now I switch to this.” That’s how the score works.
FJO: But that still means that no two performances are ever going to be exactly the same.
FJO: So in that sense, it is indeterminate music.
TM: Well, any live performance is never exactly the same, even if it’s with the same players. It’s always a little bit different, thank goodness. But this reminds me of something. When I was starting out and was very inexperienced and didn’t quite know how to hear my scores, I was very jealous of painters because a painter finishes his painting and invites friends in to look. And they all say, “Geez, that’s wonderful. How nice!” Well, if I put a score of my music up, who’s going to read it? Very few people. Even for musicians, it’s difficult to read an orchestral score. So I was jealous of painters. But then I discovered performers. It’s like writing a play. You can read a play, but you don’t really know what it sounds like until you have great actors. They transform it. And the same with music. You have great performers. I’ve been lucky to have worked with some of them. They transform it, and again, it’s not exactly the same every time. They take a little bit more room around this phrase or, if there’s something a little bit improvised, they might do something a little different. And so on. So the performers are intrinsic to the whole thing.
FJO: Even more than it resembles a play, the Clarinet Concerto is almost like choreography in terms of the way the soloist is required to maneuver from section to section. And I imagine that this is something that gets, at least in part, transformed by the personality of the soloist. The person who premiered it was one of the great performers.
TM: A wonderful performer, Gervase de Peyer. The Clarinet Concerto is like a concerto grosso. There are the tutti sections where everybody is together and then there are solo concertante sections, where Gervase played—here to start with, and then he moved through the violas and second violins over there and played in that section. So he’s controlling the players in that part of the orchestra by this system of cues. They follow not because he’s conducting, but by the way he played his cues. And then there are these black arrows I talked about for the conductor to hold the synchronization points together. Then there’s another tutti section during which Gervase went over to play with the horns and other clarinets and I forget what else. Oh yes, I brought in a new instrument. When I was in Paris, I went to a dance company and I heard an accordion played with a clarinet, and I thought, that’s wonderful. It blends really well. So I brought in an accordion. Then there’s that concertante section and again, another tutti section. Gervase goes far stage right, this being my left hand, but it’s stage right if you’re looking at the orchestra, playing there with the harp and percussion. I think the flute, even though the flute’s over here, joins in, and then finally comes back to the start. So he made a circle of the orchestra.
FJO: Another piece of yours which involves spatialization and which was also premiered by a very famous soloist, was your equally fascinating Horn Concerto.
TM: Oh, Barry Tuckwell. Gervase de Peyer and Barry were actually both in the Lincoln Center Chamber Music Players at a certain point, even though they both came from London. Well, Barry comes from Australia, but he was living in London. It’s really funny. He was coming back, flying over the Atlantic, and he suddenly thought, “You know, a horn can do quartertones.” Because of our very strange music system, some of the notes are out of tune. A G-flat and an F-sharp are different pitches. When you do it on the piano, of course, you can’t change the pitch. But if you’re a singer or a player, you alter pitch a little bit because of the harmonies. Pianists can’t. It’s very interesting if you tune up to a C, in octaves. You get a C to C. If you tune up in perfect fifths, and they are true, you arrive at a B-sharp, which is not the same note as a C. There’s a word for that. I forget what it is.
FJO: The Pythagorean comma.
TM: Whatever, yes. Anyway, it’s not the same note, and that’s why piano tuners have to tune the fifth a tiny bit flat, so that you have a beat in there of like one nanosecond or something like that. So horn valves are tuned exactly and they adjust; that’s how you can make a quartertone scale because you’re using these out of tune harmonics. So in the middle of the concerto to have ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba—twelve notes going down—is totally fabulous. And I did it in some other places. Horn players have looked at me and said, “What’s this? This can’t be done.” I said, “Well, I hope I got the fingerings right. They’re actually Barry’s fingerings, so you know, it should be okay.”
FJO: In addition to those wonderful quartertones, the other really unusual aspect of the piece is that at one point the horn section plays in the audience.
TM: They go out into the hall, and that’s also funny. It’s halfway though the cadenza. I didn’t write the notes in, I just wrote gestures. And then there are real pitches, then it’s another gesture. When we did it in the Albert Hall, which is a big hall, Barry disappeared and I thought, “What’s happened?” He came back a little bit out of breath, and I said, “Barry, are you okay?” He said, “Well, I was just checking how long it would take a horn player from the platform to get out into the back of the hall to the new place where they have to stand. I can always lengthen those little gestures if I need to, to give the horn players time to get there.”
FJO: There’s a funny story you mentioned to someone you did an interview with some years ago about how in one of the performances of that piece, the horn players were actually blocking the exits.
TM: That was in Hong Kong. I didn’t know about it, but one of the Hong Kong people came to Barry and said, “What happens if the people here don’t like it?” And Barry said, as quick as a flash, “Well, they may not. But there’s a horn player guarding every exit so they can’t get out.” I love that. He didn’t tell me. I heard about it years later.
FJO: Now, one thing about all this that I have to confess is that although I know both of these pieces, I have only listened to them on recordings. I have never witnessed either of them in a live performance.
TM: It was done with the New York Phil with Sarah Caldwell, but she changed the seating. She brought them all to the front, which wasn’t the point. But whatever.
FJO: But the point I want to make here is that they sound fabulous on recordings, but obviously if listeners are not seeing all these thing you’ve been describing, they’re missing a very important aspect of your conception of these pieces.
TM: Well, we have to have lots of live performances.
FJO: Ideally, but at least nowadays there are other ways people can watch performances; there are many performances posted to YouTube, Vimeo, and other platforms. Although the sound quality for a lot of them is terrible, at least people could see the visual aspect. There are also DVDs, Blu-ray discs, etc. But all this begs the question: you’re a composer, so the key element for you is still ultimately sound, right? You mentioned artists being able to show their paintings to people, whereas composers can’t show people a score and expect them to appreciate it. But we do have recordings, although if they’re just audio recordings they’ll be missing an important ingredient in several of your works.
TM: What can I say? The music has to sound right. If the sound quality is awful, that’s really off putting. But I think the visual element can add to it. Recently the Horn Concerto was done in London with Martin Owen, another wonderful player. I was talking to him beforehand and I said, “Your part is cued into these players. They’re way out in the audience, but you don’t have to worry about it at all. Just play the way you would play comfortably, dramatically, it’s yours. You don’t have to worry at all. However, if you feel you can do a little signal, like you do in chamber music, in the direction of the player who is responding, the audience will hear it better because they’ll see it.” They’ll see Martin giving the cue over there. And they’ll look, and then they’ll hear the horn responding. They’ll hear it better. It adds to the drama and hopefully to the audience’s enjoyment and appreciation. But it’s not actually necessary.
FJO: Interesting. Another divide among composers, beyond all the “isms,” is between composers of instrumental music and composers of vocal music, particularly dramatic vocal music such as opera or musical theater. Years ago we did a talk with Joan Tower and she claimed that although there are a few very notable exceptions, the majority of composers are on one side of the fence or the other. She was about to write her first choral piece at the time, and it turned out that it was quite wonderful, but she thought of herself as an instrumental composer. You’ve been equally in both worlds.
TM: Oh yes, like Britten was. And I’ve written a lot of choral music. But they’re different sound worlds, and they need a different kind of attention.
FJO: Although we have not yet talked about any of your operas, the way that you approach a lot of the instrumental pieces that we have been talking about is in a narrative, almost theatrical way, like what you were just saying about seeing a player respond to a cue adding to the drama.
TM: That happens in chamber music when there’s no conductor. In a quartet, the leader with the bow will say now and give an upbeat. There’s nothing new about that. It’s just that the horn didn’t have to do that, but I said it just helps the audience to hear.
FJO: Well even though it’s done all the time, it’s mostly taken for granted I think. But you’ve actually foregrounded this phenomenon in your music.
TM: When I started doing this, I thought, “Oh, I have to have a word.” So I called it “dramatic abstract” because we’ve been talking about the Horn Concerto and the Clarinet Concerto and they’re not programmatic pieces. They have a form, but it’s abstract. However, I’ve written other pieces where they’re not abstract; it’s programmatic, like Turbulent Landscapes, which is based on pictures of Turner and so on, and so I decided to call it the dramatization of the orchestra.
FJO: One of my favorite pieces of yours actually is a concerto you wrote for marimba and wind ensemble.
TM: Journey Through a Japanese Landscape–a concerto for solo percussion and an orchestra without strings! It was very exciting to work with Evelyn Glennie. Have you met her?
FJO: I did an interview with her many years ago.
TM: You know, she’s really deaf, but she lip reads just extraordinarily. She heard, I think, until she was about 11 or 12, so she has a nice Scot accent, which you will have heard. And she’s from Aberdeen, I think. When I wrote this piece for her, I never talked to her about her deafness. I thought, that’s it. I know about it. So the only thing I did differently was not to give her aural cues. She takes visual cues, or cues from the conductor, but not aural cues from other members of the orchestra. She gives them, because they can hear, but she doesn’t take them.
FJO: I love her recording of it and I also recently discovered a great performance of it online by this group based in Portugal. Because it’s scored just for winds, it theoretically could get many more performances than an orchestra piece and certainly more rehearsals, since there are so many wind bands all over the country as well as all over the world and they don’t have the same kind of limitations on rehearsal time that orchestras do.
TM: I haven’t done very much with the wind band, just a couple of pieces. But it’s always exciting to work on a slightly less familiar medium, for me that is–makes me consider new ideas. I like to work with everything. You know, just what happens, what comes along.
FJO: You mentioned that you’ve written a lot of choral music. That’s another medium where you can explore more unconventional ideas since, if it’s a school ensemble, you can rehearse the whole semester. And the same is also true with many community choruses.
TM: I love it. But I did one very unusual piece which I don’t recommend, again for practical reasons. I don’t know if you’ve come across Voices of Power and Protest. It’s an anti-war piece for which I wrote the words. Part of it’s on YouTube. It’s not complete; for some reason they weren’t allowed to do the whole thing. Anyway, an opera chorus is used to memorizing and being blocked, and is usually accompanied by an orchestra. A [stand alone] chorus is not used to being blocked. They’re usually standing in rows, and they’re on book and are often unaccompanied, or maybe with a piano or organ. I thought it would be great if they could be off book and would become the set themselves. It’s a piece about civil wars. At one point, the chorus comes into two lines and makes a wall between two singers, two brothers who are separated like in the American Civil War. Then some of these are prisoners, so the singers surround this person. And so on. I made a libretto where the chorus could act it out by the way they moved and the shapes that they made. Harold Rosenbaum did it with his New York Virtuoso Singers and Dottie Danner directed it. It was done right here in the hall at Ethical Culture and was really fabulous. However, it’s really not practical because they have to have many, many more rehearsals to be off book. It was very expensive to put on, so I can’t get that work going. Eventually it maybe could be done with a much bigger chorus surrounding on book, and then the soloists would have to be off book, because there are some solo parts, but then the group of singers would do the movement and make the shapes that a big chorus could surround, something like that. But I was very excited by that work. Harold did a wonderful job, and it was done at the U.N. as well as [at the New York Society for] Ethical Culture.
FJO: You’ve written a lot of imminently practical choral pieces though. I’m quite fond of the series of pieces you wrote based on poems that you read in the subway.
TM: Oh, On the Underground. I was going out to Richmond in London to meet some viol players, because I didn’t know much about viols and I had to learn about the frets and all this kind of thing. While I was going—in the Tube we call it—they have poetry up on the thing. There are one or two in New York, but they’re too full of ads. There’s very few, but in London there were a lot at one time. I saw this poem, and I thought, “Oh, I want to set that.” So I quickly got started writing it down, and you know, then the Tube got there, and so what am I going to do? Then I found a book in the bookstore called On the Underground with all the poems that were up on the Tubes. So I did three sets of Undergrounds. And all the poems came from what actually you can see on the Underground, including one by Edwin Morgan about a seat with a small hole in it and under that there is a tank with piranha fish and the passengers get eaten. There are some absolutely hilarious and gory ones, as well as beautiful ones.
FJO: Getting back to your idea of dramatizing an orchestra, or any instrumental ensemble for that matter, music obviously can convey emotions even when there are no words.
TM: Of course.
FJO: But usually it can only directly communicate what it is, as it were—the sounds of the instruments, the form. Music communicates music. You’ve played around with that idea in a dramatic way, too. One aspect of many of your pieces is that they reference snippets of pre-existing music. One particularly interesting example of this is Memento Vitae, something you wrote for the Beethoven bicentenary in 1970, which uses passages from the Sixth Symphony and also from the Opus 135 String Quartet.
TM: Using quotes.
FJO: I think in doing that you’re able to conjure up a sound world, provided the audience knows the pre-existing music. That music become a signifier that has a dramatic meaning. People will think, “Ah, Beethoven.” Whereas if you just had chords that were your own chords exclusively, they would just mean those chords.
TM: It’s like in a book you read with quotes from other people. It refers back to another time. Not that you can copy that other time—it is then and relived now—but you can quote and then comment. There’s usually a dramatic reason for doing it. I’ve done that sometimes. I think Charles Ives did that.
FJO: Yes, quite famously. There’s a whole cottage industry among musicologists of trying to figure out what all these quotes are because some of the tunes he referenced didn’t survive.
TM: You know, something very interesting, Rabbie Burns—Robert Burns as you say it, we say Rabbie Burns. There’s something you perhaps don’t know, and I didn’t know it either, then I found it by chance because I wanted to use some of his tunes when I did Songs for a Winter’s Evening. I found out there were tunes that existed way back when, and he then wrote the words to preserve the tunes. He wrote the words to existing tunes. These tunes were often fiddle tunes, so they had a very wide range which was difficult for ordinary people like me to sing. So in the 19th century, they kept the words and re-wrote some of the tunes—much more banal. I went back to the original tunes for Songs for a Winter’s Evening, which are wonderful and sometimes with interesting scales—not just the normal diatonic scale, but the Lydian mode or something like that. They’re fascinating. However, I didn’t just set the tunes. I had the tunes somewhere in the orchestra, sometimes in the voice, but sometimes not in the voice. Sometimes they’re singing words, not to the tunes but to something else, but the tune is always lurking there.
FJO: So this begs the question: how important is it that members of an audience hearing a piece of yours that references some pre-existing music know what that music is?
TM: Well, any Scot would know some of these tunes or they would recognize that there was a tune there even if they didn’t already know it.
FJO: But an American wouldn’t.
TM: Ah, they might. You all sing Auld Lang Syne.
TM: Everybody does.
FJO: Another example, which for me is one of the most effective ways that you used a pre-existing tune, is in your opera based on Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. You used “God Rest You, Merry Gentlemen.” That tune becomes sort of an idée fixe throughout the entire opera. You change the harmonies underneath it, or you use a hunk of it, and then another hunk again. It becomes a musical commentary on the transformation of Ebenezer Scrooge. And it works so effectively I think because we all know this tune.
TM: Well, if you don’t know the tune, perhaps you get to know it.
FJO: You do hear it a lot.
TM: The other thing was I decided it would be really nice to have kids involved. My husband, Peter [Mark], who conducted the premiere in Virginia, said, “Wait a minute. That’s a lot of rehearsal time.” So the next thing I said was, “Don’t worry. This is what I’m planning to do. They don’t have to be in costume, because they don’t actually go on stage. They just have to have a very simple something, maybe a head dress of some sort, one or two may carry lanterns. And all they have to sing is ‘God Rest You, Merry Gentlemen.’” They come on through the audience at the very end of the opera. They just come slowly down the aisle, up to where the stage is, and that’s when the opera ends. And I said, “You know what, the parents will all come so you’ll sell out the house.” I’m not Scot for nothing.
FJO: That’s practicality. Now, in Mary, Queen of Scots, it sounds like you’re also using some Elizabethan music, but I can’t place what it is.
TM: Well, you know what, at one point I needed a pavanne. We were in Santa Barbara and I thought I can’t be bothered to get in the car—this was before the internet—and drive out to the university, find a pavanne, and drive back. So I’ll just invent one. It’s not a real one. I mean it’s real, but it’s mine. I saved myself a trip 20 miles out to the university and back, half an hour there and half an hour back. I didn’t have an hour to spare. That’s what happened.
FJO: Here I was, scratching my head, thinking I should have known what it was since it seemed like it has some real dramatic meaning in the opera.
TM: It’s just a pavanne. Just for dancing.
FJO: But it could have had some additional coded meaning, depending on whether it was an English pavanne or a Scottish pavanne, since the opera is all about events that ultimately led to their unification.
TM: Nothing like that. Just laziness.
FJO: Oh well. Another interesting story I came across related to this opera is that after it premiered in Scotland there was talk of doing the American premiere at the Virginia Opera. This was shortly after your husband Peter became the company’s artistic director. You tried to talk the company out of doing it. This might be the first instance I know of any composer trying to discourage a performance.
TM: I said to Peter, “You can’t do it.” This is his company. A contemporary opera? Norfolk’s not ready for that. And Walter Chrysler, who made the Chrysler Building, was living in Norfolk with his wife. She came to Edinburgh to see the premiere, which I was conducting. She happened to be sitting next to Plácido [Domingo], which she rather liked. When she came back, she said, “What’s good enough for Edinburgh is good enough for Norfolk.” She told Walter that and so the president of the board, Edythe Harrison, decided they would do it. I didn’t encourage it. I was very nervous. I wanted Peter not to have problems with bringing in his wife’s opera. But in Richmond, they said, “Next time we should have a Richmond composer. Not a Norfolk composer.” That’s what they said. You wouldn’t believe it.
FJO: This unification story is obviously very significant in the history of Scotland, but now with the way the world is going, with various independence movements around the world, it seems more universal as well as very timely.
TM: It was Mary Queen of Scots’ son who united the two kingdoms in 1603. And now Brexit happened! There was a vote for Scotland about a year before to separate. I couldn’t vote, because I live here in America, but at that point, I would have stayed together. Now I don’t know what I would do.
FJO: Well, I guess why it’s so important is that in many ways King James’s mother was really a catalyst for a lot of these things. She had her eye on the throne of England. She had been married to the king of France, which almost united France and Scotland. There was all this intrigue.
TM: It’s a very complicated story. Somebody else started the libretto, but I took over for a very simple reason. She was a much better writer than I am, but I said to her, “For this aria, this poetry here is just too long dramatically. It has to be cut.” “Oh, those are my best words!” I said, “I know, but it’s too long.” You need to have moments, but they can’t go on too long. So, at that moment, I thought I’m going to do my own [libretto]. I’m not a great poet, but I make sure the right word with the right vowel sound is on the high note and so on, move it around so it matches the musical line that I want to do. The words come first, but then you can alter them. And when you write about history, you sort of have to be accurate. You can cheat a little bit because you can’t do everything, but there came the moment when Mary lost her husband and she marries Bothwell. I said to her, “Mary, don’t marry Bothwell. Can’t you see it’s really stupid to do that?” Well, she didn’t take my advice, and then look what happened!
FJO: You can’t rewrite history.
TM: You can’t go back. You can’t change that now.
FJO: Well, I suppose you could. You could have gone in the direction of speculative fiction and alternate reality.
TM: Whatever. Yeah, what if such and such had happened?
FJO: But that would have been a very different opera than the one you wrote, which is really an historical panorama. There are so many characters in it. It’s called Mary, Queen of Scots, but she’s actually just one of many significant characters.
TM: It’s really her and her half-brother [James Stuart]. He was a bastard and could not really be king. Then there’s Morton and Ruthven, who were James’s henchmen, then Bothwell. Those are the prime characters. And then Darnley, her husband, and Riccio who’s a musician. But it’s really Mary and James’s struggle.
FJO: To me it seems more an ensemble piece than it is about Mary, even though you named it after her and she does get that great high note at the end.
TM: It revolves around her. Her arrival at Leith in the fog. Nobody’s there. It’s her arrival and her departure. At the end of the opera, her child is just a baby, and she has to get out fast. A portcullis comes down upstage. Everybody’s left behind and she’s downstage in front of the portcullis. At the last minute, she reaches back for her baby and she’s separated by this curtain. She can’t go back. So there she is in the hands of Elizabeth and the baby who eventually unites the two kingdoms is left in Scotland.
FJO: That high note she sings towards the end sounds monstrously difficult. Is that an example of something that is actually easier to do than it sounds, as opposed to something that really is very difficult?
TM: Well, if she hadn’t sung it, I would have changed the note.
FJO: You would have changed it?
TM: Yes, of course. Sometimes I put in ossia. You need the performers to be comfortable. Most singers have a top C. I mean sopranos, dramatic sopranos like Ashley [Putnam]. It’s not a problem. If it had been a problem, then I’d have said sing an A instead. What’s the deal?
FJO: Wow, well the deal for me as a listener was that was the most exciting moment of the entire opera.
TM: Sure. Of course, you want the top C, but if it comes out as a screech, you don’t want it. You don’t want the singer to be embarrassed. I’ll tell you a funny story, which is relevant. When I was studying with Copland—my first visit to the States was to study with Aaron at Tanglewood—during our lessons he said, “When I wrote my Clarinet Concerto, I wrote in this top A way up for Benny Goodman. And Benny Goodman said to me, ‘I can’t play that.’” And Aaron said to him, “Well, I’ve heard you play that note.” He said, “Ah, when I’m improvising. If I’m in the mood, I can play it. But sometimes I’m not in the mood and I don’t play it.” Several years later, Peter and I were in Santa Barbara. We happened to meet Benny Goodman. So I sat him down, and I said, “I have to ask you if this true.” So I told him the story, I said, “Is it true that Aaron said this and you said that?” He said, “Of course.”
So it’s the same thing. When you do a cadenza or something free, you have the freedom for a player— like Barry [Tuckwell] in the cadenza in the Horn Concerto can sometimes go way up high, if he’s in the mood that day. But he doesn’t have to do it if he’s not in the mood. So there are moments it’s appropriate. There are moments it’s not appropriate. Of course I prefer the top C, but if Ashley felt she was not going to sing it beautifully, an A is fine. Not as good, but it’s okay. But she never did that; she was right there. She was wonderful. It was right at the beginning of her career. She was in her 20s.
FJO: I’m very glad it got preserved on a recording, even though now it’s out of print.
TM: A recording’s different. If the tape is bad, you can re-do a take. But you know something, that Mary, Queen of Scots recording that you heard is one single take on one single night. The musicians’ union allowed us one take—period. We were not allowed to re-record anything. Actually, there are a couple of errors. I think the chorus came in wrong once. I don’t remember. It doesn’t matter; they corrected it very quickly.
FJO: Wow. It definitely feels very much like a live recording, which is actually very refreshing and somehow more exciting.
TM: That’s right. When players know they’re recording, in a recording session, they play just a little bit more carefully. Because they don’t want to make mistakes. They don’t go for it. This was a live performance with a big audience, and they went for it. Yes, there are some errors, but that’s the excitement, which is wonderful. That’s why you go to live performances—to hear the real thing.
FJO: But now if people want to hear Mary, Queen of Scots, the only way is to track down that recording, which is now out of print.
TM: Well, the trouble is it went from the Virginia Opera to Moss Records, and then it went to Novello. There was a fire and the master was destroyed. I still have some copies of the LP, because those were the days of the LP, so you can make copies of copies. The CD is actually not quite as good as the LP; the LP is actually slightly better.
FJO: I hope that the master has survived for A Christmas Carol.
TM: Yes, that wasn’t in the fire. And there were several takes, so we could choose.
FJO: That also needs to be reissued.
FJO: And you’ve written many other operas, but none of the other evening-length operas have been recorded commercially. I wish there was a commercial recording of your Harriet Tubman opera Harriet, the Woman Called Moses. I’ve never heard a note of it, and I’d love to learn more about it.
TM: Well, what happened was Gordon Davidson, a very famous person in Los Angeles, ran the whole theater world out there. He was the director and was wonderful. And he said, “Harriet is a young person who’s going into a new world. I don’t want an established, wonderful black singer. I want somebody who’s in the same kind of situation, starting out.” So Peter auditioned a number of people and finally found Cynthia Heyman, this young singer who was singing in the Santa Fe Young Artists Program. Very inexperienced, but a wonderful voice. We flew out to Los Angeles so Gordon could meet her.
In the fall we did it. She came and lived in Norfolk for several months and studied. About four or five days before we opened, she slipped on stage and broke her leg. So she had a crutch, and she went to Gordon and said, “If you don’t let me go on, I’ll sue you.” So he said, “What are we going to do?” We had a cover, but Cynthia was determined. So Gordon said, “Tell you what. We will go to New York and we will find a dancer who will be a kind of alter ego. She came in and they quickly built her a costume, but we didn’t find the right hat. So we said, “Okay, they’ll share the hat.”
At the beginning of the second act where Harriet is being chased by slave capturers, Cynthia obviously couldn’t do that with her crutch. So she stood stage left, gave her hat to this dancer, the dancer did all the action and escaped from the slave capturers. Then as she went off stage, she handed the hat back to Cynthia. You know, tears come to my eyes. It was so moving. One of the people in the audience came up after and said, “Cynthia really broke her leg? I thought that her being on crutches was a metaphor for being a slave.” Can you imagine? That was a great moment. Unintended, but a great moment.
FJO: I wish I could have seen that.
TM: I did a chamber orchestra version which is called The Story of Harriet Tubman where there’s spoken dialogue and sometimes, like Brecht used to do, the main character will talk about Harriet in the third person. When she sing, it’s “I.” But when she’s speaking, it’s “she.” The characters set up the scene by talking about it. And sometimes members of the chorus say a few words. The whole thing is in one act. It’s much shorter. It was done in Mobile, and now here in New York; Utopia Opera’s going to do that this coming season.
TM: They want to do the big one, but I don’t know if they really can because it’s got chorus and orchestra and so on, but Will Remmers is extraordinary. He’s determined to do it, so I don’t know which version they’ll do. But either one, I’m absolutely thrilled. It’s either this season or the beginning of next season.
FJO: And Simón Bolívar and Pontalba are two other operas of yours I’ve still yet to hear.
TM: Thank you for trying. Bolívar is an incredible story. I got all the books and had his own words, and I can read it sort of. But I don’t speak Spanish, so I wrote the libretto in English. Then I thought it really should be in Spanish. So I thought I have to have somebody. So Gordon Davidson introduced me to Lillian Groag, a playwright and an actress who lives in L.A. She’s actually Argentinian, so she’s a native speaker. The first time we met was in the late ‘80s, I think. She came up to Santa Barbara where we were living, and we started working together. It was very interesting. At one point, I forget who says it, Bolívar or somebody else, “Decisions made today cast a long shadow.” There are nice ahh vowels and good consonants. But Lillian said, “I can’t do that in Spanish.” So I said, “We’re not going to do a translation word for word. Let’s make a version which sort of means the same thing, but not exactly word for word.” So, she looked back at it and said, “Las decisiones de hoy te seguirán mañana.” Decisions of today follow you tomorrow. “Mañana” for “cast a long shadow.” The same kinds of vowels and consonants. It works perfectly. So that’s how we worked all through the opera. Sometimes I’d alter the English, so that I could have the right word to match the Spanish word on the right top note. But I never called it a translation. I called it a version. I said I want it be wonderful Spanish. It’s got to sound natural. It was an absolutely fascinating collaboration. I loved every moment of it. And she had directed plays, so she was very experienced in that, but she’d never actually directed an opera. So Peter brought her in the previous year to do something else, so she’d get her feet wet. I think she did a Tosca. Then she directed Bolívar at the premiere. That was wonderful. And then she became a great friend.
FJO: It’s very nice to hear about this collaboration, especially after learning that you initially had a librettist with Mary, Queen of Scots, but then you went on to write your own libretto because it was too frustrating having that give and take. You’ve actually written the librettos for all of your operas after that, except in this one instance.
TM: Yes. Before that, I had worked with other people. But then I enjoyed doing it. I’m not a great writer. I’m an okay writer. But for me, the words really had to go with the music. I cheated once in Mary, Queen of Scots. I have James sing at the end of his big aria “Rule I must.” So it’s “Ruuuule I Muuusssst.” Good vowel at the end consonant cut off. Well, I didn’t want to put “Rule I must” in the libretto. The written words looked so phony, so I put “I must rule.” But that’s not what’s in the score. Don’t tell anybody.
FJO: You just did.
TM: Right. I cheated.
FJO: You’ve written three large pieces based on stories that are very much American or Pan-American themed: Harriet Tubman, Simón Bolívar, and the Baroness de Pontalba in New Orleans.
TM: Nah’lins. I had to learn how to say that. It’s not New Orleans. It’s Nah’lins. One syllable. I had to be trained by my friends there how to pronounce this word.
FJO: The current mode of thinking is that we see everything, we create everything, we do everything through the prism of our own identity. I have very mixed feelings about that way of thinking, and it seems like you do, too. Whenever people have asked you if you think of yourself as a Scottish composer or an American composer, you’ve balked at that, which you’ve also done when people ask you about being a female composer. There’s your famous quote, “Yes I am a woman, and yes I am a composer, but rarely at the same time.”
TM: Apparently I said that to my dear friend Claire Brook, whom I knew for many years. She was also a student of Boulanger and lived in New York with her husband, and worked for Norton as the head of music books. Apparently I said that to her and we had a good laugh about it. She quoted me somewhere, so it has become famous. I feel very strongly that identity is where you are as a kid and where you have grown up. Those memories and influences are there in your whole formation for life. However, when you move somewhere different, or you meet other people, that influences that somewhat. It changes you; you think in different ways. Since I’ve come to America, I think in slightly different ways. But nevertheless, the core is still where I grew up, who my parents were, how I lived as a kid. With all of us, it has to be like that. You can’t cheat on that. You can grow, and you develop, and you can develop in different ways, and you have some choice in how you develop.
FJO: So where does gender fit into that? Or does it?
TM: I think it’s nurture or nature. I think women have to make up their minds what they want to do. Women bear kids, but they don’t necessarily have to look after them. In the 19th century in Britain in middle class families, they all had nannies. They didn’t actually bring up the children themselves. The children had to behave themselves and appeared at dinner time, and they had to sort of sit quietly and not say too much. That doesn’t happen now. Very poor families, that was different. They didn’t have nannies, but they had to be on their own much more, because the parents probably had to go out and work. So you make choices. I think women have the choice, as men can have the choice, of what they do and how they do it. Why not?
It’s very funny, when I was in Britain I never really thought about that question because I studied with a woman. My first teacher in Edinburgh was Mary Grierson, who was Tovey’s assistant, and then Nadia in Paris. And a lot of my friends were women. Priaulx Rainier and Lizzie Lutyens, whose dad was a famous architect who did New Delhi—Edwin Lutyens. That’s why we had to go to India; I wanted to see Liz’s father’s work. Excellent. Of course I knew men composers, too, and we talked about composing. We never really talked—I’m a woman, so I do something different. No way. We were composers. There are also gay composers. Where does that fit in? I think it’s not a very interesting question. Only when I came here, people said, “Oh, you’re a woman composer.” I said, “Really? I never thought of that.”
FJO: Now one thing that you have to be thinking about and certainly your publishing company is making a big deal about it, is you’re turning 90 next year.
TM: Turning 90. Yeah, that’s another question. I mean, I think I’m going to go backwards now. Each birthday, I’m going to take a year off. But that happens to men too, okay.
FJO: Yes. We actually recently did a talk for NewMusicBox with another one-time Boulanger student, George Walker, who’s 95 and just completed his fifth symphony.
TM: Oh wow.
FJO: He’s still actively composing and so are you. It’s wonderful, but it also begs a question. You talked about how your childhood experiences formed who you are. But is there something that you feel—having reached this stage, having composed for decades, and having all this experience—that you can do now as a composer that you couldn’t do before? Has the passage of time changed you?
TM: Yes, of course. But you know something very extraordinary happened recently. I’m not sure it quite answers your question, but I’ll tell you about it. In the summer we go to escape the summer heat. We go out to California. When I just got there in the middle of July, I got an email from somebody I didn’t recognize. I nearly didn’t open the email because there’s all this hacking and so on. But then I saw it was copied to somebody who is a great friend of mine, so I opened it. The letter said, “Are you interested in a commission?” So, I answered, “It all depends.”
Then I got this long email from this person who’s obviously a therapist, because my friend is a therapist. She had been to a performance of one of my works about ten years ago, something to do with light, she said. She liked it so much that she and her husband had then gone to London to hear it when it was repeated there a year or two later. Well, she’s lost her husband and she’s dying of lung cancer. She wants to leave something of beauty in the world, so she wanted to commission me to write something to do with light and something with an important cello part for her friend Josephine Knight.
So, I thought, “What can she be thinking about? Something of beauty in the world?” My thought then went to Journey Into Light, which is the name of the piece that she heard, and I suddenly thought, “What happens if I put a cello in there instead of a singer?” And I started. Then I thought, “I can’t do this. Nothing’s been arranged. I haven’t told my publisher.” But I kept saying if the cello did this, then I could do that. I was writing the piece. So I emailed my publisher and told them what had happened. “Do you know Josephine Knight?” “Yes, of course. She’s wonderful. Go ahead.” And I got going. Well, I still haven’t had a contract. I finished the piece in six weeks, which I never do, and we have a first performance arranged on February 3 with the BBC Philharmonic with Josephine Knight. I have never written anything as fast as that, ever. In part it’s because it’s sort of based on the other piece; some of the material is repeated. But it’s not the same piece. It has become something different because I didn’t have the words, you know. There’s no singer. The words aren’t there. So there are certain themes, like the Dies Irae. You were talking about themes. Well, I’ve used that theme in quite a number of works. It’s for death and for the anger. God is angered, Dies Irae. So here it is. It was already in Journey Into Light. I decided I’m not going to give it the same title, so I called it From Darkness Into the Light. And what happens is that certain instruments represent the darkness. The darkness is not necessarily death. It’s to do with any kind of difficult decision that you’re faced with and how you come to terms with it. So the cellist is coming to terms and finally comes to terms with the horn player, who’s been leading the darkness. They end in the light, and I found a wonderful way of doing this light.
Then, next coincidence, I come back here and there’s a pile of mail. Mostly bullshit, you know, all the fundraising things that you get. And in the middle of it, I see this thing from my friend Nicholas Daniel, who has a festival in Leicester, England. I open it up to see what Nick’s doing this year, and you know the title of the festival? “From Darkness to Light.” So, I write to him, “Darling, you’ve stolen my title. What’s this?” And he writes, “Bitch, you stole my title!” When he was a kid, he had a beautiful soprano voice. He sang in Salisbury Cathedral at Easter time. All the lights of the cathedral would be turned off, and there would be one person with a single candle going up in a procession. And he said, “That was what illuminated my childhood.” So that’s why he called it that. Talk about coincidence! I mean, nobody knew about this. This is a brand new work. I hadn’t told him about it or anything. So, there we are. I don’t think I could have done that earlier.
Also I think sometimes, like when I had this dream I told you about of the player rebelling, sometimes you have to follow your crazy ideas and just go with it to see what happens. I used to say to my students that we all have this critic sitting on our shoulder who’s very fierce and rather nasty. When you’re beginning a work, you take this person—him, it’s always a he—you take him to the door and you say bye-bye. I don’t want to see you just now. So when you have an idea, you say, “Well, let’s just put it there. Maybe if I did that, then that would happen. And on the other hand, if I did this then that could happen.” You don’t say that’s a stupid idea right off. You leave it, and you get all these ideas and put them down to be looked at. And eventually you bring him back in and say, “Now help me to evaluate what I’ve got here.”
Another thing Boulanger always said to me—you didn’t write on computers in those days; you wrote with pencil and paper, or pen and paper—she said don’t ever erase anything, because sometimes you go back to the very earliest idea, and there’s the nugget of something that’s absolutely essential to the thing. You don’t say that’s a bad idea. You put it there and something will come out of it. So I believe in going with crazy ideas and not just rubbing them off the plate right away.
FJO: That’s fantastic.