Thea Musgrave: Britain's Favorite Composer

Scottish-born Thea Musgrave (b. 1928) was a student of Nadia Boulanger and Aaron Copland, and during the course of her lifetime composed 12 operas (often featuring prominent female historical figures, like Harriet Tubman and Mary, Queen of Scots) and many orchestral works, often being commissioned.

She is active internationally, including spending many years working and teaching in the United States, but a favorite in Britain—as reported by Tom Service in February.

Of her compositional style, Service writes:

[Musgrave] says her compositional process often starts from finding a moment of craziness—such as a dream she had in which a clarinettist stood up in the middle of an orchestral work and began playing something completely different, an outburst of instrumental anarchy that inspired her acerbic but dramatic Concerto for Orchestra in 1967—and then she creates a context to justify and sustain it.

That doesn’t mean Musgrave’s music is about containment or restraint. Paradoxically, by controlling her craziness, she unleashes it all the more coherently and clearly for her listeners. You hear that most powerfully of all, perhaps, in her Turbulent Landscapes, based on paintings by JMW Turner and composed for the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 2003, with which the BBCSO’s Total Immersion culminates. Its six movements create music of more than pictorial power, but also vibrant and violent poetic intensity.

Here are two examples—one of her vocal writing, and another of her orchestral.

Voices of Power and Protest:

Night Music for Chamber Orchestra:


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