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It all began with a dream. “I was conducting, and a member of the orchestra suddenly stood up and got agitated. I thought, ‘What am I going to do?’ Then I woke up, and laughed.”
Thea Musgrave laughs again as she recalls the origins of her “dramatic abstract” pieces, some of which will be represented at a day of performances and talks devoted to her music at London’s Barbican Centre on February 15. “I told a friend about my dream”, she continues, “and the next day I had a letter from Birmingham asking for an orchestral work. So, when I came to write it, I decided to have a player stand up and agitate.”
Musgrave talks as if she had the dream last week – but it was 50 years ago. It gave her the idea for the Concerto for Orchestra (1968), one of several large-scale compositions that established her reputation. The piece reformulated her dream by dramatising the role of solo instrumentalists, not from the front of the orchestra in traditional concerto fashion but from within it. One or more musicians breaks out of measured time and meets up again with the others at an agreed synchronisation point.
The device is taken a stage further in the Horn Concerto (1971), which provides the climax to the Total Immersion day, presented by the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Three horn players position themselves round the perimeter of the hall at exit doors or on balconies, playing only when the soloist on the platform gives them a nod.
Written for horn virtuoso Barry Tuckwell, it caused controversy at its premiere. Musgrave relates how “one critic asked, ‘Do they have to lock the doors to stop people leaving at the sound of this contemporary music?’ Barry’s retort, quick as a fiddle, was ‘There’s a horn player at every exit so no one can leave!’ ”
Cue another chuckle from Musgrave. What her laughter masks is the seriousness behind her artistic thinking. Despite the novelty, half a century ago, of instrumentalists moving round the platform during a performance, there was never a hint of modishness or gimmickry in the way Musgrave did it. That’s because, like the early Venetians’ spatial ideas or Beethoven and Mahler with their offstage wind solos, she has always used space in a way that appeals to an audience’s imagination.
Now 85, with an accent that mixes her native Edinburgh with her adopted California, Musgrave is the embodiment of practical good sense. After an early flirtation with serial music, which concentrated and enhanced her expressive palette, she has followed a remarkably consistent line, with a personal voice that commands respect even when her music has sometimes seemed dry and unfashionably conservative. What distinguishes her oeuvre is its craftsmanship and sense of dramatic pace. Her orchestral pieces are atmospheric but clear-headed, their polished surface masking a gritty sense of colour and argument.
Married since 1971 to conductor Peter Mark – who ran Virginia Opera for 25 years, championed her operas and played her viola concerto at the Proms – Musgrave still seems remarkably young at heart. She and Mark spend summer and winter at their beach-facing Los Angeles apartment, and the rest of the year in New York, where for many years Musgrave was a renowned teacher of composition at Queen’s College. Now that they are both free of institutional commitments, they talk of the “next chapter of our lives” – travelling, lecturing, private teaching – as if retirement has yet to be fully embraced.
When Musgrave recalls her early years, it’s as if she is talking history. Invited to take up a temporary teaching appointment at the University of California, Santa Barbara, in 1970, she arrived at the height of the Vietnam war protests, when students notoriously ran riot in the local business district and burnt down a plush Bank of America office. The unrest subsided and Musgrave soon found herself at home: she stayed.
By then she was already well established as a composer. The Chamber Concerto No 2 (1966), which also features in the Total Immersion programme, has its roots in a lecture she heard at the Dartington School of Music, seedbed of many a distinguished British musician’s career. “William Glock [the celebrated BBC Proms director and champion of modernism] talked about Charles Ives. I knew nothing about Ives’ music but I was very excited by what Glock said.”
Glock duly commissioned the Chamber Concerto, which gives an instrumental role to Rollo, a character invented by Ives to represent the forces of conservatism. The part is played by a viola. “Rollo does not approve of newfangled ideas, so he disrupts the proceedings,” says Musgrave, alluding to the work’s pawky humour.
Fast forward to the present, and Musgrave is still open to creative challenges. Last year she was asked by the Carmel Bach Festival to write a piece in homage to Bach. “If that’s not scary, what is?” she jokes. But she produced a six-minute jewel for string orchestra that played on a Bach-inspired harmonic idea and ended up quoting one of his chorales.
Then, as part of the Britten centenary celebrations, she shared with three other female composers an Aldeburgh Music commission for an “Innocence and Experience” songbook, setting the poems of William Blake. And when the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge, was looking for a new carol for last month’s Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, they turned to Musgrave. “It just jumped off the page,” she says of her choice of Blake’s “Hear the Voice of the Bard”. She admits the poem has no religious associations. “It’s really about the beauty and mystery of our existence on earth.”
When I ask if she has given up writing big pieces, there’s an intake of breath. Like many composers Musgrave is superstitious about discussing work in hand. “I can’t talk about it,” she mumbles, referring to a new 25-minute commission. A pause – then, through a hesitant smile, she confides: “I’m full of it.”
‘Total Immersion: Thea Musgrave’ is an all-day presentation at the Barbican, London, on February 15, bbc.co.uk/orchestras