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  • Harmony Sinfonia

A Celebration of Female Composers: Thea Musgrave

Welcome to our Celebration of Female Composers series! In the lead up to our next concert, Celebrating Female Composers, on Saturday 9th March 2019, we will be profiling various female composers. Some will be featuring on the next programme, and some are just extraordinary composers that we love to listen to.

Next up in the series is Thea Musgrave, whose career as a composer has spanned six decades and taken her all over the world.

Name: Thea Musgrave

Born: 27 May 1928 in Edinburgh

What They Say:

"It's like she has a baseball team with nine people on the field, but 80 people in the bullpen, and she starts throwing them on the field in different arrangements. So she has so many tricks up her sleeve, but all for the good of the music. Nothing is silly or just thrown in for the sake of doing it. It all makes sense." – Harold Rosenbaum, Conductor

What She Says:

“When I’m writing something, the energy has to go into writing, not discussing – until it’s finished. Then I bore everybody! You can’t wait for approval. You shouldn’t be a composer if that’s why you’re doing it.”

Scottish composer Thea Musgrave has six decades of composition experience behind her and at 90 years old is still going strong. After attending Edinburgh University she studied with Nadia Boulanger (sister of our afore-profiled Lil Boulanger) in Paris in the early 1950s. Nine of her twenty-two classmates were female, and she recalls not realising that being female might be an issue in this field, until she left Paris.

She then moved back to Scotland and got involved with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, who played some of her pieces. In the early 1970s she moved to California where she took up a guest professorship, and there she met her husband, viola player Peter Mark. Musgrave wrote plenty of viola music thereafter, and the two have had an extraordinary professional relationship along with their personal one. Peter Mark set up an opera company in Virginia, and Musgrave went with him – they have lived there ever since.

Musgrave’s music always carries a sense of drama, exploring new techniques as much as possible and always with a view to creating imagery through her music. Her oboe concerto Helios tells the story of the Greek sun god as he drives his flaming chariot across the sky, which is represented by a small group of winds. The soloist then cues this group to stand up, giving a physical shape to the chariot.

This visual theatre to supplement the music had a natural progression to opera, and Musgrave has written ten operas over nearly 50 years, her most famous of which was Mary, Queen of Scots. This 3-act opera was premiered in 1977 and covers the life and relationships of the queen from 1561 to 1568, a particularly turbulent time in political history.

Musgrave has written an extraordinary variety of music and there are plenty of works to dive into and explore, but we love Phoenix Rising, composed in 1997, for its sheer drama and power. Have a listen below:


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