Who is she?
Thea Musgrave was born in Scotland in 1928. She studied Music at the University of Edinburgh, and then in Paris under the tutelage of Nadia Boulanger between 1950-1954. In 1958, Musgrave attended the Tanglewood festival, and began studying composition under Aaron Copland. By 1972, Musgrave had moved to the USA, where she still resides now. Musgrave’s compositions have often been at the forefront of both British and American contemporary music.
An award-winning composer, Musgrave was also awarded a CBE from Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth in 2002. Her works cover a wide-range of genres, including opera, chamber music, symphonic works, vocal music and solo instrumental music. With her increasing popularity over the years, Musgrave has been able to work with music groups and organisations such as the New York City Opera, Los Chamber and BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. In honour of her huge archive of music and her 60 year career, the BBC presented Total Immersion. This very special event saw three concerts consisting of Musgrave’s work performed in the Barbican Hall in a single day in February 2014.
Wind Quintet (1993)
Her Wind Quintet was first performed by the Orpheus Wind Quintet on March 19, 1993. The work came from a commission from the Barlow Endowment for Music Composition at Brigham Young University. Due to this commission, the premiere took place at Brigham Young University in Utah.
The quintet is played in one single movement, however there are four distinctive sections within it. Musgrave describes the role of the instruments in her score notes:
“In this work the five instrumentalists, alternating between soloistic and accompanimental roles, enact a kind of mini-drama without a plot. The players are therefore asked to play throughout with the kind of freedom of expression that is found in opera.”
Musgrave depicts the four sections in her programme notes:
“1. Andanate espressivo:con molto rubato. Out of a quiet unison note (E), the flute emerges as a lyrical, expressive voice. Shortly the oboe with increasing agitation begins to challenge this mood. The horn becomes increasingly restless.
2.Più mosso:drammatico. The horn finally interrupts with a dramatic solo. Against this, the bassoon, and then the clarinet introduce an even faster tempo (a kind of moto perpetuo) which leads eventually to a wild, anarchic cadenza, the climax of the piece (con passione).
3. Mesto: elegiaco. When the cadenza dies away, the bassoon sets a slow elegiac mood, accompanied by a simple chordal motif.
4. Andante espressivo. A return of the opening section, where both flute and clarinet now share the slow expressive theme. But this lyricism is not allowed to be re-established for long; the oboe again begins to intrude with increasing agitation, only to be fiercely interrupted by the horn who reintroduces the ‘chordal motif’ as well as a brief memory of the earlier moto perpetuo. The same ‘chordal motif’ eventually leads to a soft tolling cadence.”
The quintet is dramatic, exciting, emotional and ever-evolving. The complexity of some of the sections, such as the second section perpetuo, emphasises and celebrates Musgrave’s flair for musical excellence, her attention to detail, and her sheer knowledge of instruments and how they can work together in an effective way.
Thea Musgrave’s Wind Quintet is a marvel to behold in wind repertoire. Each part is important and plays a defining role in this work. The dichotomy between the lyrical and more agitated sections creates musical colour, which is further supported by the interesting textures that Musgrave has created between the instruments. Her use of the horn in particular is striking in this quintet, as it adds a real foundation to the music alongside the woody sound of the bassoon. Musgrave’s contemporary style shines bright through this work, with it being enjoyable both for the players and the audiences.
2018 saw Musgrave celebrate her 90th birthday - long may her and her music live on!
©Alex Burns 2019
Alex Burns is a musicologist, trumpeter, arts marketing professional and blogger. Her specialisms are the life and works of Gustav Mahler and the lost stories of women composers. She runs the No.1 Classical Music blog on the internet, and has written about a range of different composers with the aim to make classical music more accessible to everyone.
Take a look at this video of Thea Musgrave discussing how she came to be a composer:
In the last twenty years, American composer Jennifer Higdon has made a substantial mark on contemporary classical music. Her work receives dozens of performances each year, and she has commissions stretching into 2022. In addition, she has earned a Pulitzer Prize (2010) and two GRAMMY Awards (2010, 2018) for three separate concertos.
Congratulations, Jennifer! But . . . why should we care?
Higdon is a composer that is far more than the sum of her accolades. In interview after interview, Higdon shows dedication to and investment in the people who perform and listen to her music. She regularly communicates with performers, especially when composing a new work, in order to write music that showcases their instruments and individual skills. When available for a performance, she opens herself to audiences through interviews, concert talks, and various print and digital media. Higdon also recognizes that people will have different reactions to her work. She regards different perspectives of her work as valid, and as such allows performers and listeners to play an active role in interpretation. There is not a single “right way” to play or hear her music. With this inclusive attitude, Higdon invites people into her work, and, more widely, into new music.
Since Higdon encourages listeners to have an active role during a performance, I offer only a brief description of Dark Wood. My hope is that most readers of the blog will be able to experience Dark Wood at the Royal College of Music Illuminate concert on 16th February 2019 and form their own musical thoughts there!
With just a single listening, it is clear that Dark Wood alternates between fast and slow sections. A discerning ear, though, may notice a structural organization of ABA’B’A”. Each time a section returns, tempo and other musical elements connect past music with present sounds.
More specifically, the fast A sections are punchy, featuring separated and sharp articulation. This pointed sound, alongside dissonant chords and trills, creates a “bite” that Higdon references in her own program notes.
“Dark Wood” is a work that features the bassoon...a wonderful instrument that does not have a tremendous amount of chamber literature. I wanted to create a work that features the bassoon prominently, but also respects it within the framework of a true chamber dialogue (along with its partners, the violin, cello, and piano). Since much of the literature for this beautiful instrument is slow moving, I made the conscious decision to explore its virtuosic abilities. While there is slow music within the piece, there is an emphasis on real “bite” within the language, rhythm and tempi.
The title refers to the beauty of the bassoon’s wood.'
The A sections also contain brief periods of single, repeated notes and passages where instruments trade musical fragments, with the latter creating a sense of almost agitated conversation.
Conversely, the slow B sections are lyrical. Often an instrument retains a sense of individuality, moving independently of the others to create its own melodic shape. In fact, independent melodic lines are a hallmark of Higdon’s style, appearing frequently in her orchestral and chamber music. Additionally, the bassoon and the violin utilize their high registers in this section, adding unexpected colors to the calmer sections of the work.
Timbrally, the choice of instruments is slightly unusual. Higdon alters the fairly standard piano trio (piano, violin, and cello) by adding a bassoon. She explains that Dark Wood refers to the wood of the bassoon, the featured instrument of the work. Yet, it is worth mentioning that all the instruments in this ensemble – violin, cello, bassoon, and piano – consist of primarily of wood. The colors may vary, ranging from lighter spruce or maple on a violin to dark or black-lacquered wood on a piano, but wood is central to all four instruments.
Performances of Dark Wood (and Beyond!)
There is little, if any, scholarly writing on Dark Wood, but a handful of reviews over the past twelve years reveal generally positive reactions to the work. Premiered in 2002, the work was written around the same time that Higdon made a big splash with her Concerto for Orchestra at the national conference of the League of American Orchestras. As such, a review by Steve Schwartz places Higdon as an emerging composer in the early twentieth century.
[Dark Wood] is music with a sharp tang, even in the slow sections, and we see the composer coming into maturity. Her artistic search has begun to yield fruit. The momentary echoes of somebody else have been sublimated into a distinct personality. [. . .] The most recent score on the program, Dark Wood rates as my favorite, I'm happy to say, and adumbrates the considerable composer just around the corner.
Performances of Dark Wood have occurred across the United States in large metropolitan areas including San Francisco and New York City, as well as “smaller” big cities such as Tulsa (Oklahoma), Charleston (South Carolina), and Hartford (Connecticut). Dark Wood has played in formal halls and brewery taprooms, in ticketed concerts and open rehearsals. This myriad of performance places and spaces points to what Andrew Farach-Colton of Gramophone identifies as Higdon’s “most striking achievement.”
[This] achievement doesn’t fit so easily into a biography, and that’s how thoroughly her music has filtered into every stratum of classical music culture in the United States. Glance through the “Upcoming Performances” page of her official website and you’ll find that her work is being played not only by the Houston Symphony and Philadelphia Orchestra, but also by municipal, community, and high school ensembles across the country. On the surface, it appears to be a simple formula: Higdon writes music that audiences like to hear and musicians find gratifying to play.
Though Farach-Colton wrote these words in early 2017, his observations hold true today. From October 2018 to June 2019, Higdon’s music is scheduled to play in 29 states and Washington, D.C. Performances are also scheduled in Canada, New Zealand, Sweden, Finland, Norway, and the United Kingdom.
But perhaps more significant than the number of performances is the fact that Higdon’s music resonates with musicians and audiences. Why? Higdon has taken the time to build relationships with performers and listeners and create inclusive environments. She has advocated for her music, and new music, to play in all types of spaces. Her most recent and upcoming concerts are scheduled in museums, churches, and concert halls with performances by youth, university, and professional ensembles. Higdon’s music truly is for everyone: student musicians, seasoned performers, and every person that wants to listen to it.
Written by Dr Laura Dallman
To get a taste of the piece before Illuminate's concert at RCM on 16th February 2019 take a listen to a clip of the Dark Wood from Jennifer Higdon's website.
Bibliography and Further Reading
The City of Charleston, Office of Cultural Affairs. “Magnetic South Music: Bártôk, Higdon, and Koumendakis.” November 2017. http://charlestonarts.org/event/magnetic-south-music-bartok-higdon-koumendakis/(accessed 2 January 2019).
Edwards, Grego Applegate. “Jennifer Higdon, Sky Quartet.” Gapplegate Classical-Modern Music Review Blog. 6 August 2013. http://classicalmodernmusic.blogspot.com/2013/08/jennifer-higdon-sky-quartet.html(accessed 2 January 2019).
Farach-Colton, Andrew. “Contemporary Composer: Jennifer Higdon.” Gramophone. 20 March 2017. https://www.gramophone.co.uk/feature/contemporary-composer-jennifer-higdon(accessed 2 January 2019).
Gasser, Nolan. “Jennifer Higdon Exclusive Interview.” Classical Archives. 24 April 2012. http://classicalarchives.com/feature/jennifer_higdon_2012_interview.html(accessed 3 January 2019).
Hamad, Michael. “Bach, Brahms, Beethoven (And Beer) at Hog River.” Hartford Courant (Hartford, CT). 11 November 2017. https://www.courant.com/ctnow/music/hc-hso-intermix-hog-river-brewing-co-hartford-20171110-story.html(accessed 2 January 2019).
Higdon, Jennifer. Composer’s personal website.http://jenniferhigdon.com(accessed 2 January 2019).
———. Interview by Bruce Duffie. “Composer Jennifer Higdon: A Conversation with Bruce Duffie,” Duffie’s personal website. 14 February 2004. Transcript. http://www.bruceduffie.com/higdon.html(accessed 3 January 2019).
———. Interview by Marianne Lipanovich. “Composer Jennifer Higdon: Enjoying an Explosive Year . . . and Career.” San Francisco Classical Voice: Events and Previews. Online. 25 July 2010. https://www.sfcv.org/events-calendar/artist-spotlight/composer-jennifer-higdon-enjoying-an-explosive-year-and-career(accessed 3 January 2019).
Kelly, Jennifer W. “Jennifer Higdon.” In In Her Own Words: Conversations with Composers in the United States, 42-60. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2013.
McKinney, Donald. “Jennifer Higdon (1962- ).” In Women of Influence in Contemporary Music: Nine American Composers, edited by Michael Slayton, 141-89. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2011.
Midgette, Anne. “Medicine That Really Tastes Smooth.” New York Times. Music Review. 3 November 2007. https://www.nytimes.com/2007/11/03/arts/music/03chamb.html(accessed 2 January 2019).
Oteri, Frank J.“Jennifer Higdon: Down to Earth.” NewMusicBox. 1 September 2007. https://nmbx.newmusicusa.org/jennifer-higdon-down-to-earth/(accessed 3 January 2019).
Reitz, Christina L. Jennifer Higdon: Composing in Color. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2018.
Schwartz, Steve. “Jennifer Higdon: Early Chamber Works.” Classical.Net. 2014. http://www.classical.net/music/recs/reviews/n/nxs59752a.php(accessed 2 January 2019).
Sferra, Joe. “Jennifer Higdon: Early Chamber Works.” Where Are We Now? Classical and Contemporary Music in the 21st Century. Blog Review. 11 October 2013. https://concerthub.wordpress.com/2013/10/11/jennifer-higdon-early-chamber-works/(accessed 2 January 2019).
Verzosa, Noel. “Reverberations.” San Francisco Classical Voice. Online Review. 28 October 2008. https://www.sfcv.org/reviews/reverberations(accessed 2 January 2019).
Watts, James D. “She Benefits from a Trend Toward New.” Tulsa World (Tulsa, OK). 15 June 2008. https://www.tulsaworld.com/scene/artsandentertainment/she-benefits-from-a-trend-toward-new/article_ed42ee04-f292-5e1c-99b8-5c2b679726ed.html(accessed 2 January 2019).
Dr Helen Thomas