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: