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Thea Musgrave by Francis Routh

This article first appeared as Chapter 8 of Contemporary British Music published by Macdonald in 1972
Francis Routh1972/1998

It is an accepted datum, common to all post-Schoenberg composers, that style is a result of choice. Instead of the acceptance of a common tradition, Schoenberg substituted the necessity of the individual composer's own choosing. This is therefore the starting point from which those younger representatives of the 'new music set out whose formative years occurred after about the mid-50's, when the newly-discovered serialism exerted an almost irresistible force. Thea Musgrave's style has been one of steady and continuous movement, first towards serialism, then away from it, and with variants of style in succeeding works. She was born in Edinburgh in 1928, and after reading music at Edinburgh University, where she was firmly grounded in the classical tradition under Sidney Newman, and received early lessons under Hans Gal, she went for four years (1950-1954) to Nadia Boulanger in Paris-one of the comparatively few British composers to do so. Indeed the 'Boulangerie' was not where you went if you wanted the very latest in serialism or avant-garde experiment. That remarkable teacher, whose pupils include most of the best-known American and European composers and musicians, did not indulge in such things; she was concerned with traditions, with technique, with attention to detail; also, perhaps justifiably, with the most distinguished horse from her stable, Stravinsky, who had not yet defected to the serial ranks. It was a period for Musgrave of artistic awakening.

In her search for a style that would fully suit her idiom, Thea Musgrave tended to 'let it happen'. The means adopted are, after all, of less importance than the end towards which they are directed; the finished art-work is what matters. Nevertheless, one is not possible without the other, and her style resulted from various and continuing influences. Her early works were tonal, and mainly vocal; songs such as the Five Songs for baritone, which occupied six months of her student years; the Cantata for a Summer's Day, the Suite o' Bairnsangs. The exception to this was a two-act ballet A Tale for Thieves, from which the composer extracted an orchestral Suite; straightforward, Stravinskyan, abounding in ostinato figures, yet showing an unspoilt freshness.

Another influence was felt in 1953, when she attended a Summer School at Dartington Hall, organized by William Glock. She found Glock a persuasive lecturer and teacher, and through him became acquainted with Schoenberg, Webern, and the American composer, Charles Ives. So gradually her style became more chromatic; in the chamber opera The Abbot of Drimock (1955) key signatures are dispensed with, and though the vocal parts are still quite simple, certain complexities begin to appear, such as Schoenbergian sprechstimme. This tendency is pursued in the Divertimento for Strings (1957) and Obliques (1958), which feel their way tentatively towards a 12-note style. The second of these works, in the form of orchestral variations, happened to coincide with a visit to Tanglewood in 1958, when her meeting Aaron Copland and Milton Babbitt resulted in an even stronger pull towards serialism. The first works to adopt it were the Song for Christmas (1958) and Triptych (1959) for tenor and orchestra. In this score, which is a setting of Chaucer's Merciles Beaute, those precise instructions, so familiar in serial scores, are used for the first time by Musgrave; they would have been unthinkable five years previously in the ballet suite. Also the orchestral percussion section, swollen as it was for Obliques, becomes even more swollen to include claves, crotales, and bongos, as well as the inevitable vibraphone. Moreover the metre, hitherto regular, now becomes fragmented; irregular patterns, with rapid upbeat figurations, begin to colour the score. Another somewhat experimental work of this period was the String Quartet, commissioned by Glasgow University, in which one idea appears in different guises, and of which the style is an indeterminate chromaticism.

The process is pursued in Colloquy, for violin and piano, and the Trio for flute, oboe and piano. Both were condensed pieces, for which short motifs were appropriate; both were written in 1960. The first is a study after the manner of Webern, while the second is more concerned with the textural problem of academic serialism. In her search for that style which will please her technically and aesthetically she is highly susceptible to the influences around her that are strongest felt; but she has not yet fully discovered that marriage of idiom, style and structure that is the mark of mature artistry.

Nor does she discover it in the Sinfonia (1963), a somewhat transitional piece, which was written to a commission from the Cheltenham Festival, and in which she used a serial style for the last time. She found the fragmentation technique, and the use of small motives, though suitable for small-scale pieces, a limitation in a bigger work; so the phrases become longer, more legato. This is particularly felt in the second movement, where she harks back to that scherzando style of A Tale for Thieves which is inconsistent with the serial principle, but which was naturally hers, and to which she had already reverted in the Scottish Dance Suite (1959), as well as in the Serenade (1961). She was beginning to find herself, and to reconcile that freedom of expression, which was instinctive, with that strictness of technique, which she was persuaded was proper to the composer of the 60's. In The Phoenix and the Turtle she reverts from serialism, and searches for a more lyrical, flexible, intense quality. This was followed by two large works. First was The Five Ages of Man (1963), a setting for choir and orchestra of parts of Hesiod's Works and Days. The melodic lines are longer, more legato; though still angular and chromatic. In accepting the commission from the Norfolk and Norwich Festival, the composer wrote a work within the recognizable confines of the old oratorio tradition. There are no soloists, but the choir is divided into chorus and semi-chorus. The choice of a Greek poem of the eighth century B.C. is somewhat surprising. It is really a treatise on farming, plentifully interspersed with moralizing maxims about the progressive decline of the human race, as illustrated by the social and economic distress of Boeotia, where the poet lived. The 'five ages' represent this gradual declension - golden, silver, bronze, heroic, iron - with proportionately increasing gloom and misery. It is a pagan account of the Fall of Man, and the composer found it not merely powerful, but disturbingly relevant to the present day. Her score concentrates on the drama and colour of the mainly descriptive text. The work, which lasts twenty-seven minutes, is sung without a break, and the sections fall approximately into those of a symphonic work: introduction - quick, scherzo - slow-quick, finale. Chromatic lyricism pervades the choral writing, and a certain rhythmic restlessness, such as an avoidance of the first beat of the bar, which is one of Walton's chief characteristics. Like the text, the music is descriptive, and allows for performance by good amateurs by means of orchestral doubling of the main leads.

The chorus also predominates in the next major work, the opera The Decision (1964/5), which is a continuation on a larger scale of the style and trend of The Five Ages of Man. The libretto by Maurice Lindsay is about a miner, John Brown, who was trapped for twenty-three days in Kilgrammie coalpit, Ayrshire, in 1833. He was taken out alive, in full possession of his mental faculties, and lived for three days after. The 'decision' was whether or not to rescue the trapped miner, a decision which was complicated by the fact that Katie, the wife of the pit-foreman, had been his lover, and died after giving birth to his child. Like The Five Ages of Man, the opera shows a gradual decline in fortune, starting with past memories of possible happiness and finishing with Brown's death. These memories are shown in flashback, which has the effect of interfering somewhat with the opera's momentum. Furthermore the cumbersome, unwieldy nature of the plot presented the composer with formidable problems of structure and balance. The work lacks dramatic working-out, and consists of a succession of scenes, whose unifying feature is their unrelieved and overwhelming gloom. Again the music is mainly descriptive, right from the opening, where a repeated quaver movement suggests the turning of the wheel at the head of the mine-shaft.

But after the opera Musgrave entered a new phase, and wrote a succession of highly characteristic instrumental compositions, which have earned her a deserved recognition. The Chamber Concertos Nos. 2 and 3 (1966), the Concerto for Orchestra (1967), and the Clarinet Concerto (1968). (The first Chamber Concerto dated from 1962, and is not quite so individual a work.) It is as if, like Britten, after long years of exploration, she has found that true style consistent with the many requirements of her artistic personality; her need for freedom, dramatic content, lyricism, length of phrase, continuity, simplicity, discipline. The more chromatic and fragmented her style became, the less memorable had been the themes; something else was needed to hold the listener's attention, and this was provided by a dramatic content. The opera is variable in its effect, in proportion as the dramatic tension ebbs and flows. But in the works that follow the opera, this dramatic content was expressed in purely musical terms, and integrated into her style. She thinks dramatically. All these later works are in one continuous movement, divided into sections; they are conceived as one span, in a growing, cumulative form, with a gradual quickening of pace towards the end.

The Second Chamber Concerto, which uses the same players as Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire, is indebted chiefly to Charles Ives, whose music Musgrave had studied. It introduces metrical freedom for the players. Different tempi are placed together, with cue-lines to facilitate performance; in this way rubato and lyrical playing are possible, as well as the simultaneous playing of different speeds. Musgrave also incorporates popular tunes, after the manner of Ives; tunes of firmly diatonic simplicity, such as 'The Keel-row', 'Swanee River' and 'All things bright and beautiful', which are in total, bland contrast to their dissonant surroundings.

The Third Chamber Concerto uses the same instruments as the Schubert Octet-for obvious reasons of concert-giving.(Other composers have also written octet with Schubert's instrumentation; Howard Ferguson and John Joubert, for instance.) It is dedicated to Nadia Boulanger for her eightieth birthday, 16th September, 1967, and begins with a motto, like the Berg Chamber Concerto. As it was commissioned by the Anglo-Austrian Music Society, Musgrave had recourse to the academic parlour-game of translating the letters of composers' names into notes. The first and second Viennese Schools thus appear thematically:

Haydn    Mozart Beethoven   Schubert (on the clarinet)
H=B Arnold Schoenberg (on the viola)
B = B flat Anton Webern (on the bassoon)
S = E flat Alban Berg (on the horn)

Thus are derived the basic thematic outlines of the material. The same freedom of construction is followed as in the Second Chamber Concerto, but in addition the players are required in turn to stand to play their cadenzas.

The Concerto for Orchestra, commissioned by the Feeney Trust, extends the notational innovation into orchestral terms; thus the vertical effect is made subservient to the horizontal lines. Different speeds are possible, and the free repetition of fixed patterns; at the same time control is not lost. Again, the players are required to stand for solo passages, like jazz musicians. The work as a whole is a contrast between solo and tutti sections, as different groups take over the solo function.

This principle is carried logically forward in the Clarinet Concerto, commissioned by the Royal Philharmonic Society, in which the soloist moves from one group of the orchestra to another. The clarinet can combine satisfactorily with all the different sections, and by this technique not only are independent leads possible, apart from the conductor, but the correct balance can be ensured. Also the somewhat extrovert personality of the original soloist, Gervase de Peyer, was a positive factor in the composer's mind. Thus it is the dramatic structure, more than the thematic material, which holds the concerto together; and this is a, if not the, saving grace for a style that has such strong links with established traditional procedures.

© Francis Routh1972/1998


Horn Concerto (coupling: Elgar Symphony No 1 Op.55)   NYOS 004 - Full Price

This is a very unusual disc in that it tries to appeal to two different markets, admirably succeeds in one and fails in the other - in other words a bit of a curate's egg. I have no doubt it was intended as a showpiece for the  National Youth Orchestra of Scotland and it succeeds with the Musgrave Horn concerto which is brilliantly played by the orchestra and Michael Thompson as soloist. This is enhanced by a Lin recording produced by Adnrew Keener which is faultless.You must make your decision based on this piece alone. It is only 22.33 min in length but the disc is full-price. If it is the Musgrave you are after you have no alternative and provided you do not baulk at the price you will be well satisfied.

The coupling is Elgar's first symphony and it is not the only recording of this work in the marketplace. Again the recording is excellent and the playing immaculate. The youth orchestra is large, as you might expect (36 violins,14 viola, 13 celli, 10 double-bass) which lends great weight to the Elgar. My grouse is with the interpretation of tempi by Bramwell Tovey. All speeds are slow or sound slow even when the movement takes no longer than other performances. This has the advantage that there is time for articulation and admiration of the skill of these young players but I found the whole work devoid of interest. Barbirolli took his time over thi work but I never felt aware of it - I do here.

I doubt you will find the disc available locally so try direct:

National Youth Orchestra of Scotland
13 Somerset Place
Glascow G3 7JT

Tel: +44(0)141-332 8311 Fax: +44(0)141-332 3915  e-mail

See also:

Concerto for Clarinet and Orchestra, The Seasons, Autumn Sonata (Concerto for Bass clarinet and Orchestra)

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Thea Musgrave at Schirmer

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