Music interview: At age 90, composer Thea Musgrave is still exploring new ground

Thea Musgrave PIC: Kate Mount
Thea Musgrave PIC: Kate Mount
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Ahead of two Edinburgh International Festival performances of her work, Thea Musgrave tells Ken Walton how she has been inspired by Turner’s landscapes, Edwin Morgan’s poetry and her own dreams

It takes only a few seconds of lively conversation with veteran Scots-born composer Thea Musgrave to realise that, at the age of 90, she has the mental energy of someone 50 years her junior, a sense of humour raucously amplified by indefatigable laughter, and a friendly but firm demeanour that has clearly enabled her to get on so well and for so long in a profession that was once notoriously tough for women.

When we speak, she is in her New York home and far too hot, so being cooled by a whirring army of fans. “You’ll have to excuse us,” she says, “It’s 35 degrees and the air con has packed in. We’ve 45 minutes before the engineer arrives, so let’s get talking.”

Musgrave’s husband, Peter Mark – conductor and founder of Virginia Opera – is also in the room as a ready back-up to counter Musgrave’s growing deafness, one of the few physical manifestations of her advancing years. Another is the need for a walking stick to get around, but get around she does. When Musgrave arrives in Edinburgh this August, where the International Festival is featuring two of her works, it will be her second transatlantic jaunt this year. She was in Glasgow in May for a celebratory birthday concert by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and to receive an honorary doctorate from the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, before heading to London to receive the Queen’s Medal for Music. She’ll also be in London during this coming visit for a BBC Proms performance of her music.

“Getting the Queen’s Medal was wonderful,” she says. “I had a delightful half hour with the Queen and Judith Weir, Master of the Queen’s Music. Thankfully, I was excused from having to curtsey because I had a cane, and I had pre-warned the lady-in-waiting about my hearing.”

Musgrave presented the slightly older Queen with a newly issued remastered recording of the 1970s American premiere of her opera Mary Queen of Scots, along with a card she herself had received from a Finnish soprano who had sung the title role, which read “Respect the Crown.”

I point out the possible ambiguity over which crown the soprano might be referring to, Scottish or English. More raucous laughter as the irony dawns.

Musgrave belongs to that post-war generation of Scottish composers – others included Iain Hamilton and Thomas Wilson – who embraced European modernism and expressed a worldly vision, thereby paving the way for the huge success of later Scots such as James MacMillan, who could feel at ease basing themselves in Scotland, yet operate confidently and prolifically on the global stage.

She was born in Barnton, just outside Edinburgh. “I spent my early childhood there, though my parents split early on. I don’t ever remember seeing them together, I have no memory of that,” she says. “By the beginning of the war, we’d moved into town, a place my mum and I shared with her sister.” Musgrave’s school education took place at a girls’ boarding school in Shropshire.

She entered Edinburgh University in 1947, initially as a medical student, although she quickly transferred to a music degree to “follow my passion”. She missed the opportunity to study with the legendary Sir Donald Tovey, who had only recently died, but signed up with his former assistant, Molly Grierson, to embrace, albeit second hand, “Tovey’s mastery of long-term structuring and the importance of harmonic planning”.

Her first year at university coincided with the first year of the Edinburgh International Festival. “That was so exciting,” she says. “It was only two years after the war, and while Edinburgh was not bombed to the extent of Glasgow, there was still a darkness across the city. So to see Princes Street lined with bouquets of flowers, and to hear such wonderful music– the chamber music was at the Freemasons’ Hall then – was like a blaze of light across the city.”

Edinburgh gave Musgrave the rigorous grounding in compositional technique she needed, but it was her decision to accept a scholarship to study in Paris with Nadia Boulanger that really opened her eyes to the true excitement of composition.

“It was a very different experience from Edinburgh, where studies of modern music only really went as far as Debussy and Ravel,” she recalls. “Boulanger was a friend of

Stravinsky, so her interests were very up-to-date. She didn’t ever force anything, but she was so hot on detail, detail, detail, and she encouraged you to follow your instinct. I was very slow and nervous about it initially, but soon I began to explore things I had resisted in Edinburgh, and find my voice.”

A move to London (“where the real action was”) led to a further opportunity to move to the USA, where she settled in 1972, and an ensuing canon of work that is prolific, distinctive and, even at 90, exploring new ground. “I recently found myself writing with the octatonic scale, which I didn’t set out to do,” she says.

There’s a side to Musgrave’s music that is uncompromising, governed by the “organisational journey” she considers so unshakeably fundamental. But that is just the framework around which her fascination with the overtly dramatic takes flight, most naturally in her many operas – from Mary Queen of Scots (commissioned by Scottish Opera in the 1970s) to Simon Bolivar (real characters fascinate her) – but equally and perhaps more radically in her orchestral works, where she often “theatricalises” the presentation in a style she herself has branded “dramatic-abstract”.

It all started with a dream. “It was sometime in the 1960s,” she recalls. “I was conducting my own music at the time. I had this dream one night that I was conducting, and that things were getting hairy. One of the players stood up and started doing his own thing. I was trying to shut him up, but he wouldn’t. When I woke up, I found I was laughing.

“Then something strange happened. The very next morning, a letter arrived from Birmingham asking me to write a piece for the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. So guess what. I wrote the Concerto for Orchestra in which the clarinet suddenly stands up and does something completely different from the orchestra. The conductor tries to shut him up, but then he has the cheek to suggest themes for other players, who also stand up.”

Similar things happen in Turbulent Landscapes, a 2003 work written for the Boston Philharmonic and receiving its Scottish Premiere in a Festival tribute by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra under Martyn Brabbins. Each of the “landscapes” is based on a Turner painting, and each uses a particular solo instrument.

It opens with Sunrise with Sea Monsters. “That had to be the tuba, of course,” says Musgrave, who recalls the unease one tuba player experienced when faced with the task of “acting out” his solo. “It turned out he was on trial for the job, but I was delighted to hear later that he got it.”

The other work on show this Festival is On the Underground II, choral settings of poems Musgrave first spotted on the London Underground, which are being performed by the National Youth Choir of Scotland. Listen out for Edwin Morgan’s sinister warning about mythical piranhas lurking under the seats on the Glasgow Underground. More hilarity from Musgrave as she reflects on this ludicrous image. “I just had to put it to music,” she says.

The compulsion to compose keeps her going, despite inevitable physical weakening. Is retirement on the cards? “No way,” she says, “I’m having too much fun.”

Thea Musgrave’s Turbulent Landscapes is performed by the BBC SSO on 9 August; On the Underground II is performed by NYCoS on 5 August. Both concerts are at the Usher Hall, 0131-473 2000/