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Woman of note

Thea Musgrave is one of the world’s foremost modern composers. Born and raised in Edinburgh, now living in the US, she tells Anastasia Mills Healy about her long and celebrated career, composition with the help of dreams, and ushering at the first Edinburgh Festival.

Thea Musgrave
Thea Musgrave, BMus 1950


Let’s begin with your time at the University of Edinburgh. You are from Edinburgh, correct?

I lived in Edinburgh, so I went to the University. But I’d also been taking piano lessons from one of the professors there. One of the most famous teachers at Edinburgh in those days was a man called Donald Francis Tovey, who I never met because he died, but the person I took piano lessons from was his assistant so I felt that I knew him through her. He is one of my gods. I read absolutely everything he ever wrote.

There was a very small but very good faculty. Classes were usually three or four people so we had very individual attention. I studied counterpoint with Hans Gál who was not such a well-known composer but he was somebody that Tovey brought over; Mary Grierson I think taught harmony. It was really wonderful.

The music department was right by the medical school. I actually started in the medical school – I thought I was going to do medicine but music was my love so I went to music.

What are your fondest memories about your time as an Edinburgh student?

The first Edinburgh Festival, which was in 1947. Students at the University were allowed to be ushers at the chamber music concerts. I had very little money in those days, and I got in to hear a lot of wonderful recitals.

The other thing that I’m very grateful for is that when I had done my degree I thought it would be really wonderful to go to Paris to study with Nadia Boulanger, who was the famous teacher in those days. Mary Grierson wrote to Clifford Curzon who was a well-known pianist and put me in touch. So it was through her that I got to Paris. I had a scholarship through the University.

Could you characterise your experience with Boulanger — how it affected your career?

It was absolutely vital. In a way it was complementary to what I learned from Tovey’s teachings. I learned from Tovey what we call long-term harmonic planning — planning of a tonality through a whole work — and all his wonderful analyses of works.

Boulanger was a details person. Absolutely everything had to be perfect. One wonderful thing she said was, when a really good jeweller makes a really beautiful ring of course it looks beautiful on top, and if you turn it over and look underneath it’s also beautiful. In other words, things had to be perfectly crafted.

I had a dream. While I was conducting, a player suddenly stood up and kind of defied me.

When you have an inspiration, how do you work?

You have to have a start, which is often very sudden. For example, I got a commission from the BBC to write something for the Proms. I said to Peter [husband Peter Mark, violist and opera conductor]: “I can do this piece if you give me a title.” He thought for 10 seconds and said: “Loch Ness.” I said: “That’s it, now I can write the piece.”

Right away I had a vision of seeing Loch Ness — the mist on it and then a monster. Who’s going to enact the monster? The tuba. I had the piece as a dramatic outline right off. There’s a sort of energy that gets you going, but not necessarily programmatic like that.

In the mid-1960s one night I had a dream. While I was conducting, a player suddenly stood up and kind of defied me. Then a couple of players stood up. I was taken aback and unnerved. That night I was out with some friends and told them about the dream. We all had a good laugh and I thought that was the end of it. The next morning in the mail I got a commission from Birmingham to write an orchestra piece and my dream became that piece, 'Concerto for Orchestra'.

How did Mary, Queen of Scots come about?

I’m the only person who could possibly write that because I’m a woman, I studied in France and I am Scottish!

Actually, it happened because Peter Hemmings, who was head of Scottish Opera at that time, commissioned several composers to write an opera. There’s a famous opera called 'Maria Stuarda', which is written about Mary’s later life. I wanted to write about when she was in Edinburgh, when she first arrived back from France as a widow of the Dauphin.

I learned from Tovey what we call long-term harmonic planning — planning of a tonality through a whole work.

Let’s talk about February 2014 – the BBC’sTotal Immersion day devoted to your work.

That was an incredible experience. There was a wonderful conductor I had not met, Martyn Brabbins. They did the 'Horn Conerto', which was written for a wonderful horn player called Barry Tuckwell.

There’s a soloist who stands beside the conductor and doesn’t move but the horns from the orchestra move halfway through the piece and go out into the hall. When we did the performance at the Proms, which I conducted with Barry playing, in the rehearsal he disappeared suddenly. When he came back a little out of breath I said, “Oh my goodness, Barry are you okay?” And he said, “Yes, I was just checking that there’s time for the horn players in the Albert Hall to cover these big distances in the time that’s allotted in the music.”

I know you can’t talk about what you might be working on now, but…

When I’m working on something I never talk to anybody about it except the people that it’s for because it takes away the freshness and the energy. Once it’s finished I bore everybody silly.

I had two very exciting premieres in 2015. One was called 'Voices of Our Ancestors', inspired by poetry from several thousand years ago. That was done in July in London at St Bride’s, a wonderful church. The other one was for the Science Museum in London – they commissioned composers to create music for rooms that would be recorded and put on earphones. I wrote a piece called 'Power Play': I had the big opening room with big wheels and big machinery. That premiered in October.


Anastasia Mills Healy

Anastasia Mills Healy (Junior Year Abroad 1989) is a writer, editor and communications professional living in the greater New York City area. She spent a year studying English and Scottish Literature at Edinburgh when a student at Tulane University, New Orleans.

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