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Q&A with Trailblazing Composer Thea Musgrave, Still Going Strong at Age 90

Kate Mount
Thea Musgrave

Scottish-American composer Thea Musgrave, born in 1928, has a life most of us—young or old—would envy. Still creative and writing in a bold, distinctive style, she's produced a large body of work over a 60-year career, in music ranging from intimate chamber works to the largest symphonic and operatic forms.

Born in Scotland and educated at the University of Edinburgh, she later studied with Nadia Boulanger in Paris and Aaron Copland in the U.S. She's made her home in the U.S. since the 1970s, and has won two Guggenheim fellowships, holds a CBE (Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire,) and this year was awarded the Queen's Medal for Music, bestowed in person by Elizabeth II herself.

At 90, Thea is busy travelling the world, hearing performances of her work. Best of all, the ideas are still flowing. Her current commissions are numerous, and she shows no sign of slowing down. 

I sat down with Thea to learn more about her work, and how she makes it all happen.


Thea, congratulations on your 90th birthday year, and on the celebrations and performances of your work taking place around the world. If you had to briefly describe your oeuvre for future generations, what would you want people to know about your music? Is there a particular kind of reaction or experience you hope your music evokes in listeners?


I have always heard music as a dialogue and a drama between instruments. What I love most about composing is the chance to follow my emotions when following that drama. I love creating the story of my musical characters — and, once I know the direction their dialogue will take, then setting the stage so to speak with the right musical lighting and scenery.


You’ve composed in a wide array of genres, including orchestral, choral, chamber music, and notably opera (for which you are your own librettist.) Do you have a favorite genre you naturally gravitate toward, when you are writing without a commission, and simply for pleasure, and why?


I have, of course, been very lucky to write many times on commission — which guarantees a first performance. But I do not accept every commission, and in fact I  prefer to change genres after I have finished a commission. Having finished an a cappella choral piece for instance, I would love to work with instruments next. And after a large opera, perhaps a smaller chamber work.


Thea with her husband, Peter Mark.

You were born and raised in Scotland, and educated at the University of Edinburgh. You later continued studies with famed pedagogue Nadia Boulanger in Paris. When teaching at U.C. Santa Barbara  in 1970, you met and married your American husband, violist and conductor Peter Mark, and you’ve made your home in the U.S. since 1972. At this point, do you consider yourself more Scottish or more American? How does your Scottish heritage make itself heard in your work?


I will always considered myself Scottish because that is my heritage and that is where I grew up – those are my roots. However my music has also been influenced by the many places I have lived since — Paris, London, Santa Barbara, Virginia, and New York — as well as the meaningful experiences I have had with terrific performers and organizations along the way. You can imagine what living inside of an opera company for 38 years has taught me! And not just about opera!


American influences are quite noticeable in your operas, starting with many of your subjects, which include Harriet Tubman, short stories of Ambrose Bierce, Micaela Almonester of New Orleans. Is there something particularly compelling about these American settings and stories that lend themselves to opera, and to your style of composition?


The lives of these people spoke to me. And I really wanted to research them and to vicariously live their lives in music with them. To feel how they overcame their obstacles and triumphed.


The late Richard Rodney Bennett was a close friend of yours and influence. He’s probably best known to American audiences for his jazz-inspired music and film work. Your style seems quite divergent from that -- but are there similarities we can listen for?


Works by Thea Musgrave will be performed locally at Music at Bunker Hill, in Sewell, New Jersey, on Sunday, October 21 at 3 PM.

Richard and I were close colleagues throughout his life. I met him while he was still a young composer in his late teens. We often went to concerts together (sometimes with other friends) almost every night in London for a certain period and then went for a drink or a meal to dissect what we just had seen. Richard hung onto the 12 tone technique much longer than I did – perhaps he needed that to separate his classical work from his film scores. He was the only colleague I ever showed my work in progress to. And he shared his work In progress with me.

He wrote the film score to Lady Caroline Lamb as a Viola Concerto for Peter as a wedding present for us when we married back in 1971.


Your work for solo instrument and tape, especially “From One to Another” (1970, later revised in 1980) has an entrancing quality in the sound world you create. What was your process for creating the recorded sounds, and how do you instruct the soloist to perform with those sounds?


I created the electronic type in tandem with Daphne Orem, who was one of the early founders of the BBC Radiophonic workshop. Peter provided all the source material from his viola, and we had a great time running around Daphne’s Studio at Tower Folly - a process that was much more time-consuming and complicated than it is today with the advances in technology!


The viola part was written in the normal way however I had to create a way of timing events in the tape to live reactions. I found that the solution to that situation provided a notation that gave great freedom and spontaneity which I subsequently used in many of my later works.

Another composer with a big birthday celebration this year is Leonard Bernstein. Did you ever work with Bernstein? What is your assessment of his work?


I never had the chance to work with Bernstein although I met him once. He, of course, was a brilliant musician and conductor, and had a lot of vitality and skill as well as vision in his own compositions - where he (like Gershwin before him) was successful in bringing crossover elements of contemporary culture and music into his classical works. He always complained he did not have enough time to compose — with all the other things he did so memorably.


Finally, what projects are you looking forward to taking on as you head toward 91 years strong?


Well, I have just finished two Anthems since my birthday in May. One for Wells Cathedral, which was performed there in London in June along with my new Missa Brevis. My other new anthem is for St. Paul’s Cathedral, Westminster Cathedral and Westminster Abbey. It will be performed by all three choirs at St. Paul’s on St. Cecilia’s Day Nov. 21. And I am composing a Trumpet Concerto for the brilliant Alison Balsom to premiere at Cheltenham Festival July 6, which Alison now is in charge of.

Thea, you are an inspiration! Thanks so much for taking the time to talk with us.


Check out Thea's website!

Thea Musgrave's chamber music will be performed locally at Music at Bunker Hill, in Sewell, New Jersey, on Sunday, October 21 at 3 pm.

One of Thea's best-known pieces, "From One to Another for Viola and Tape" is included on the concert. Violist William Frampton will play the same viola that Thea Musgrave's husband Peter Mark played at the premiere of this piece in 1970.

Debra's last day on the air at WRTI was September 21st, 2021. She's now the radio host for The Metropolitan Opera. Read more here.