Magazine | August 13, 2018, Issue

About Thea

Thea Musgrave (Bryan Sheffield)

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. Her teacher asked her to look inside the piano and watch the hammers go up and down, as she (the teacher) played. Thea was fascinated. When she was in her mid teens, she began to compose, just for fun. She sang a bit, although “I don’t have a good voice,” she says. She was invited to join a small choir — “not because I have a good voice, but in order to stand next to someone with 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.”

Thea married Peter in 1971 and 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.

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). She also mentions Turbulent Landscapes, a work for orchestra written in 2003, inspired by Turner, a painter dear to Musgrave’s heart. Then there’s an opera, Mary, Queen of Scots, from 1977. And another opera, Simón Bolívar, from 1992.

In between those operas, she 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!”

Among her favorite composers is Bartók, the great Hungarian. He used folk tunes from his country in his music, “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, on this wise: 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.

Over the years, 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.”

In 2008, I interviewed Elliott Carter — another Boulanger student, as it happens — on the occasion of his hundredth birthday. I look forward to talking with Thea Musgrave in ten years, and before that. 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.

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