About Thea

Thea Musgrave (Bryan Sheffield)
A conversation with Thea Musgrave, the Scottish-American composer, in a year of celebration

Editor’s Note: This piece is an expansion of Mr. Nordlinger’s piece from the August 13, 2018, issue of National Review.

It’s often indiscreet to mention a person’s age — especially a woman’s — but the cocktail napkins before me say “90th Birthday.” Plus, there have been celebratory performances of Thea Musgrave’s music around the world. So . . . “I’m afraid it’s true,” she says. Her age is no secret.

Thea Musgrave is a Scottish-American composer. We are in her apartment in the Ansonia, which she shares with her husband, Peter Mark, a conductor who specializes in opera. The Ansonia is a fabled apartment building in New York, on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Many musicians have lived here — including Mahler, Rachmaninoff, and Stravinsky, pretty successful composers in their own rights. There have also been opera stars, including Chaliapin, Pinza, and Melchior. Melchior used to practice his archery in the long, wide corridors here.

It’s very hard to believe that Thea Musgrave is 90, no matter what the cocktail napkins say. She is perfectly herself, barely hindered by age, it seems. She is warm and witty, and she speaks a beautiful English. Thea and Peter are excellent company.

They have just been in England, where Thea received the Queen’s Medal for Music, from the lady herself, in Buckingham Palace. I hold the medal, which is impressively heavy. You would not want to wear it around your neck for long.

Over the past 70 years or so, Thea Musgrave has composed a large catalogue of music, in virtually every genre: concertos, operas, chamber pieces, etc. Does she have a favorite genre? No. “Usually, if I’ve just written one kind of thing, I don’t like to write the same kind of thing for the next work. I like to do something quite different, with a new sound world, if I can. I like variety.”

I ask her what a typical day is. “I work in the mornings,” she says. “When breakfast is finished, I go straight to my studio for three hours or so. It used to be longer than that. Then, I have a holiday in the afternoon. Sometimes I deal with the Internet, answering mail and so forth, which is not a holiday. And in the evenings, I like to see friends.”

Does she have music going through her head all the time? Or is she able to “compartmentalize,” as some people say? “Often, when I’m driving, something will float through my head. Also, when I’m in bed, just about to go to sleep, I’ll start composing. An idea will come and I’ll think, ‘Oh, that’s a good one. Mustn’t forget that.’ When I go to my studio the next morning, I try to remember it and get it written down.”

She was born in Edinburgh on May 27, 1928. She had her first piano lesson when she was about five. There was an upright piano. Her teacher asked her to stand on a chair and face the piano. Thea thought that was a weird idea, but she complied. Then the teacher opened the lid and had Thea look down into the piano, as she (the teacher) played. Thea watched the hammers go up and down. She was fascinated. “I remember it so vividly,” she says.

It was in her mid teens that she began to compose — not too seriously, just for fun. She also sang a bit, although “I don’t have a good voice,” she says. She was invited to join a small choir — “not because my voice was good, but in order to stand next to someone who did have a good voice. I gave her the pitch.”

A clever arrangement.

Thea wanted to go to medical school, not so much to become a doctor as to become a scientist who would discover all sorts of cures: TB, cancer, you name it. She enrolled at the University of Edinburgh. It so happened that the music department was adjacent to the medical school, and the young woman couldn’t stay away. She went to her piano teacher and confided, “I think I really want to be a musician.” “Well,” said the teacher, “the thing is this: If you’re a doctor and you’re no good, you just get struck off the list and don’t do anybody any harm. Unfortunately, it’s not like that in music.”

That was a splash of cold water. Nevertheless, Musgrave turned to music and never looked back.

After Edinburgh, she went to Paris on a scholarship. She would become part of the famed Boulangerie — the studio of Nadia Boulanger, who taught practically the whole 20th century to compose. “Going from the slightly sheltered environment of Edinburgh to Paris was just an incredible change,” says Musgrave. “I was so green and so excited to be there.” She spent four years in Paris, with Boulanger. “It was fabulous, absolutely fabulous.”

Did the young Scotswoman absorb a French influence while there? No, not really. She looked to Stravinsky, for one. On a memorable occasion, Madame Boulanger hosted him at a reception. “I stood right behind him,” says Musgrave. “I saw his bald head and the few hairs going across it. That was so exciting.” She did not converse with Stravinsky, being too shy at that stage.

Several years later, in America, she took lessons from Aaron Copland (a onetime student of Boulanger). As she and I talk about him, I think of something: Copland lived until 90 (speaking of that age), but long before that, his creativity dried up. Musical ideas ceased to come to him. “It was exactly as if someone had simply turned off a faucet,” he remarked. The same thing happened to the great Sibelius.

“It happened to me once when I was in Paris,” says Musgrave. “I said to Boulanger, ‘You know, I haven’t done much this week. It has been very difficult. I seem to have this block.’ She said, ‘Here’s what you do: You go home, and, every single day, you write a complete piece, however short. And here’s the important bit: It does not matter how bad it is.’ And I thought, ‘That’s what’s causing the block.’ You see, you have this critic sitting on your shoulder, and you get an idea and the critic says, ‘Oh, that’s a stupid idea!’ You must show him the door. Lock him out. And get on with your work.”

Musgrave has given this advice to her students — her own students — over the years. She further advises: Write everything down. Write down every idea that comes to you. Don’t erase it, don’t delete it. Put it in a pool: a pool of ideas. Then, as you go along, dip into the pool and see what you can make out of this idea or that.

In 1971, Thea married Peter, and she has been living in America since shortly after that time. She has dual citizenship. For many years, she taught at Queens College, part of the City University of New York.

“Have you been a combatant in the musical wars?” I ask her. “Atonality versus tonality, Boulez versus Barber, serialism versus neo-Romanticism? Or have you stayed above the fray?” More like below the fray, she answers, puckishly. The truth is, Musgrave has availed herself of whatever style or method suited her fancy at the moment, for the piece at hand. “I like to have variety,” she says again.

“I’ve written a couple of serial pieces,” she notes, “and my great friend Richard Bennett did it through most of his career.” That was Sir Richard Rodney Bennett, the English composer who lived from 1936 to 2012. “I was very close to him, and we would sort of share works we were in the process of writing, which I’ve never done with anybody else. He was always serial. But it didn’t suit me, though I used it from time to time. Sometimes I write with an octatonic scale.”

Again, variety is her spice.

In 1958, an essay by Milton Babbitt, an American composer, was published under the notorious headline “Who Cares If You Listen?” How about Thea Musgrave? Does she care? “You write for yourself,” she says, “and you never know who will be in your audience or what they might desire. You hope that what you feel very strongly about will find someone’s ears. You hope that some people will understand what you’re doing and what you’re after.”

She has favorite pieces — of her own, I mean — and they include her viola concerto, which she wrote for her husband in 1973. Before becoming a conductor, he was a violist (and a boy soprano at the Metropolitan Opera before that — the stories he can tell!). Musgrave also mentions Turbulent Landscapes, a work for orchestra written in 2003, inspired by Turner, a painter dear to her heart. Then there’s an opera, Mary, Queen of Scots, from 1977. And another opera, Simón Bolívar, from 1992.

In between those operas, Musgrave wrote one on Harriet Tubman — yes, the American hero, or heroine. The composer was moved to write an opera on a black-American theme — or, more particularly, for black-American voices — after seeing her husband conduct Porgy and Bess.

“I write my own librettos,” she tells me. “You and Wagner!” I reply. This gives her a chuckle. Years ago, she had a bit of a tussle with a collaborator, a librettist. From then on, she has done her own words. When she wants to argue about text, she can argue with herself, not anybody else. One thing she attends to is this: The words have to sit in the right places on the vocal line, so that they are not obscured. “Really?” I say, half seriously. “You care whether people understand the words?” “Of course!” Musgrave exclaims. “I take a lot of trouble setting them!”

In due course, I ask her about composers — composers who have meant something to her over the years. She first mentions Berio, Luciano Berio, the Italian who lived from 1925 to 2003. She also mentions Stravinsky (of course), Bartók, and Britten (whom she knew).

“What an ear!” says Musgrave about Bartók. What an ear for color, in particular. “He was extraordinary in what he did with string quartets. That is a very familiar sound, but what he did with them!” Furthermore, Bartók used folk songs from his country — Hungary — “and that gave me the idea that I could use Scottish tunes,” says Musgrave.

In 1967, she wrote a concerto for orchestra. About 25 years before that, Bartók wrote the mother of all concertos for orchestra. Did she have a shadow hanging over her? Not at all. “My concerto is different,” she says.

It came to her in a dream, a dream she remembers as clearly today as when she was having it: She was conducting an orchestra in a piece of hers, and, suddenly, a player got up and defied her, causing a big ruckus and wanting to go his own way. She woke up and laughed about it. The next morning, a letter arrived in the mail, inviting her to write an orchestra piece. She did, incorporating her dream. In her concerto, various players stand up, defying the conductor, making a big scene and going their own ways.

Once, she conducted the Philadelphia Orchestra in her concerto. (She does not consider herself a conductor, but she knows enough about it to lead her own works.) Eugene Ormandy was the music director at the time. Ormandy was famous, or infamous, for being — not the friendliest personality. “Was he cordial to you?” I ask. Yes, she says. But Peter set him off by referring to him as “Eugene,” conductor to conductor (and man to man).

I would love to have been there.

We talk a little about the future of classical music — always a worried discussion — and about its present state. There is a whole lot to listen to, Musgrave agrees: through YouTube and numerous other avenues. But are people, especially young people, playing music? With their own hands, on real instruments? Are they participating or just listening, passively?

A big question.

Decade after decade, Musgrave has been described in the press as a “female composer,” or, at any rate, her sex has been noted. How does she feel about that? “You get used to it,” she says. “I think it’s ridiculous. You know, when you’re composing, you’re a human being, and that’s what’s important.” Composing, like painting, dancing, etc., “is a human activity.”

There have been long-lived composers — Saint-Saëns, for example, who lived to 86. Leo Ornstein beat that by a lot. He lived to 106. His dates are 1895 to 2002. David Dubal, the piano scholar at Juilliard, told me that Ornstein is likely the only human being ever to have composed music in three different centuries. He surely had musical ideas as a tot. And also at the end.

Elliott Carter lived to 103 (a few weeks shy of 104). Like Thea Musgrave, he was a Boulanger student. I interviewed him on the occasion of his hundredth birthday, in 2008. I look forward to talking with Thea in ten years, and before that. By the way, does she think she would have made a good doctor, and discoverer of cures? “I have no idea,” she laughs, “probably not.” But who knows? What we do know is that she has had a splendid life in music. And that she is a total treat of an interviewee.



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