Interview with Thea Musgrave

Thea Musgrave, photograph by Kate Mount
Thea Musgrave, photograph by Kate Mount

On 27 May 2018, one of Britain’s most distinguished composers, Thea Musgrave, turns ninety and will have clocked up almost seventy years in her profession.  An impressive feat, she still maintains an active writing schedule, composing with amazing energy and passion.

Several performances and première recordings marking the occasion are already scheduled to take place in Europe and America in 2018 for which Thea will travel widely to attend. Having just completed a chamber reduction of her seminal opera Mary, Queen of Scots, she is now working on a new ten-minute work for piano and baritone which takes its text from Calderón’s La Vida Es Sueño, a Missa Brevis, and an organ piece based on J.S. Bach’s Orgelbüchlein.

In anticipation of the celebrations to come,  Thomas Le Brocq of Novello & Co Ltd. put a few questions to the composer.

What was studying music like in Paris like right after the war?

There was such a positive feeling of hope and freedom in Paris right after the war that I have always considered myself to be lucky to be there at that specific moment. Coming after the horrors of the war and the occupation, it was easier to speak about important things and form lifelong friends.

What are your memories of Nadia Boulanger?

I have so many that it is hard to single them out. Her amazing focus on detail proved the importance of music on a daily basis to me, and her personal warmth and encouragement of me gave me the courage to pursue my own individual musical ideas.

It seems, looking back, that composing music in the twentieth century was a battleground for ideas, each artist looking to plant their flag as prominently as possible; was that important to you?

What was important to me at the time was hearing other people’s music and understanding the ideas that were behind the music. I was never part of an ideological group of composers, but was close to a few composers who are very important to me personally. Richard Rodney Bennett and Iain Hamilton were lifelong friends from the early years.

What inspires you to write? Art, poetry, everyday life?

I need to focus on an idea to write music. That idea can come from poetry such as Songs for a Winter’s Evening set to poems of Robert Burns, or The Voices of our Ancestors to poems from the ancient world; or paintings such as the Turners in Turbulent Landscapes; the inherent variety of percussion instruments in my Journey through a Japanese Landscape for Evelyn Glennie; or simply a dramatic idea for programme music  – such as Orfeo, Pierrot, Narcissus; or even an abstract idea which then works itself into a ‘dramatic-abstract’ colloquy such as my Concerto for Orchestra, as well the concertos for clarinet, horn, viola and oboe.

To what extent does the work of other composers influence your writing?

I am drawn to composers who really have their own voice and something to say. I feel I can learn from the way they say it, but I feel I am always true to my own voice.

Has there been a performance of your work which has particularly struck you or taken on a new life that you didn’t expect?

Well, there hasn’t been a performance yet … but the piece I am writing on commission just now – a song for solo baritone and piano based on the famous soliloquy of Calderón – has literally transformed itself into a dramatic monologue similar to a full opera scene. It has gripped me increasingly, revealing more of its breadth and its depth and significance as I daily try to live up to its challenges and do it justice musically.

You have ten operas to your name; would you say that’s the form of music you are most comfortable writing?  How important is ‘theatre’ in your concert works?

I tend to think of music as drama – moving from one place to another and usually through some kind of conflict. That is why I feel opera is so natural for me. But I also have always seen and felt the inherent drama of instrumental music which, as you know, has created in my catalogue a whole genre of ‘dramatic-abstract’ works without singers.

You have written such a large body of works but as yet no symphony, is there something about that form which does not appeal to you?

Although never a symphony and that kind of formal structure, I have written many orchestral works, though usually with a dramatic element.

You’ve recently made a new reduction of your opera Mary, Queen of Scots. What was it like returning to your score, your first grand opera, now?

I loved reliving my acquaintance with this watershed opera of mine. Of course it is an entirely different process to reconceive a work you’ve already written to composing it in the first place. But I admit to loving every minute of it and finding new solutions for the new version with reduced forces – which means reconsidering the proportions of scenes as well as the continuity of the story.

Over a long career, unsurprisingly, your compositional style has evolved. But do you see elements of your early work in what you are creating now, or was it different work for a different era?

If I look carefully from one early work to another I can see how I got to where I am now. However, I would never have seen this from where I stood looking forward from my early works. And yet the progression matches that of my own growth and development in life, where there are always new influences and the one constant is change. Whereas the form and notes my works take might have changed over the years, I feel that what I have to say has only become clearer and truer.

You’ve written so much for all types of ensembles, is there anything left to write? Is there a piece of music you are burning to compose?

I truly have not really contemplated this issue – being involved even these days in three commissions that loom in front of me. I always take my deadlines seriously, and know myself well enough to know that I must stretch my commitments out even more now to avoid pressure.

Novello have brought together tributes, in-depth programme notes and previously unseen photos in a new celebratory brochure:

Also available: Catalogue of Operas


Five Key Works

Turbulent Landscapes (2003) 26 minutes


The turbulence of the title represents some kind of ‘event’ that is wonderfully depicted in the various paintings of J.M.W. Turner that have been chosen for this work. To heighten the drama, in each of the movements the protagonist is characterised by a solo player from the orchestra. Turbulent Landscapes was commissioned by the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

View Score   Listen


Concerto for Clarinet (1968) 24 minutes

Clarinet; 2+afl.2+ca.1(bcl).2+cbn/4331/timp.3perc/

The Clarinet Concerto is one of a series of works where Musgrave explores certain ‘dramatic-abstract’ ideas: that is, dramatic in presentation but abstract because there is no program or ‘story’. In this work, the dramatic idea arises out of the original meaning of the word ‘concertare’ — that is, struggle or conflict in the sense of balancing unequal forces; solo versus tutti, or individual(s) versus crowd.

The solo clarinet, as well as having a virtuosic role, also has another function in that it moves around the orchestra to play with various smaller ‘concertante’ groups. The groups in turn are set against the rest of the orchestra. At these moments the solo clarinet is usually independent of the conductor and leads the other members of the group.

View Score   Listen


Concerto for Horn (1971) 22 minutes

Horn; 1+pic.1+ca.1+bcl.1+cbn/4[+3]210/3perc/

The Concerto for Horn, which juxtaposes aggressive and sensitive moods, was originally written for Barry Tuckwell. It belongs to the series of Musgrave’s ‘dramatic abstract’ works. Here the dramatic idea concerns the relationship of the solo horn to the orchestral brass (2 trumpets, 1 trombone and 4 horns) which form a kind of concertante group set against the rest of the orchestra. When they play it is to interrupt, distort, and, as it were, to mock. At several points they break up the mood with wild fanfares, the trumpets taking up new positions during the piece. Later the orchestral horns explore greater stereophonic possibilities when, in the last section, they move so as to surround the solo horn, who mostly directs how they should play. This division of the control between solo horn and conductor allows for ideas of superimposed in many different ways.


Mary, Queen of Scots (1977) 2 hours 12 minutes

Soloists: 3 Sopranos, Mezzo Soprano, Contralto, 3 Tenors, 2 Baritones, Bass Baritone, Bass
Orchestration: 2(2pic)3(2ca)2(bcl)2(dbsn)/3210/timp.2perc/ (

Unlike Donizetti’s opera Maria Stuarda, this opera focuses on the historic and chaotic political pressures (as well as personal ones) on the young Mary. She has just returned to Scotland as the widow of the Dauphin of France. She is a Catholic queen in a Protestant country. She is also confronted by her ambitious half-brother James, the bastard son of James V (and thus excluded from any consideration as monarch), by the rival Earl of Bothwell, a soldier who has always been loyal to her family, and eventually by a suitor from England – Henry, Lord Darnley, an heir to both Scottish and English thrones. Marriage to him would seem to secure the throne of both countries for her son. But Darnley proves to be a very unsuitable Consort, trusted by no one. Later, he is murdered, Mary is compromised, for she very unwisely marries Bothwell who is under suspicion of Darnley’s murder. She is forced to abdicate and flees to England leaving her son in Scotland to become King. Mary will now be in the power of her cousin Elizabeth.

New chamber version (2016) available to hire now.


 Night Music (1969) 18 minutes


Sonic creatures of the night spring to life in Musgrave’s ominous yet waggish essay for mixed ensemble. Hardly a nocturne, her signature quick shifts of mood and dynamic are complemented by striking choreography for the two horns.




View Score   Listen


Thea Musgrave’s works are published by Novello & Co Ltd, part of the Music Sales Group. Works can be purchased at and other local and online retailers.

More from Music Sales Classical

Interview with Thea Musgrave

On 27 May 2018, one of Britain’s most distinguished composers, Thea Musgrave,...
Read More