The BBC Music Magazine Interview
Composer Thea Musgrave talks to Clemency Burton-hill
As she celebrates turning 90, the composer talks to Radio 3’s Clemency Burton-hill about the secrets of living a good life and carving out a distinctive career in music
In a modest apartment in an iconic Beaux-arts building on New York’s Upper West Side, the great Scottishamerican composer Thea Musgrave is trying to convince me to have a glass of wine rather than a cup of tea. It’s 5.30pm. ‘Are you going to have one?’ I ask. ‘I already have,’ she shrugs, matter of factly. ‘We always have a wine at four o’clock.’
The novelist Maya Angelou once noted that ‘life loves the liver of it’. Musgrave, who celebrated her 90th birthday in May, is walking proof. ‘We’ is Musgrave and her devoted husband of almost five decades, the American viola player, conductor and founder of Virginia Opera, Peter Mark.
All around their home are glimpses into lives well lived: bookshelves crammed with volumes on everything from law to poetry to orchestration; a bowl full of fresh tomatoes, sweet potatoes, apples from the farmers’ market; huge windows through which floods Manhattan’s late-afternoon light. Wine duly poured, she insists on giving me the tour before we sit down to talk, explaining that she first lived in this extraordinary building – The Ansonia, also once home to Caruso, Stravinsky and Rachmaninov – as an illegal sub-letter decades ago, while teaching at Queens College. (‘I thought I’d seen everything!’ she quips. ‘Then you move to New York.’)
Musgrave is certainly a person who appears to finds interest in everything. Down the narrow hallway, her study turns out to be filled with paintings. ‘This little one, somebody gave it to me, to look at when I don’t feel like working,’ she guffaws. Does she ever not feel like working? ‘Sure. But I just do. And then you get over it.’ Here is a little Turner seascape, on which she once based a piece, Turbulent Landscapes; there is a ‘gift from a friend about coal miners’, which also became a Musgrave subject. (Her myriad other topics have included the American Civil War, various Greek myths and historical figures such
as Mary, Queen of Scots, the activist and abolitionist Harriet Tubman and Simón Bolívar.) As we leave the room – she is a brisk walker – she points to an abstract, kinetic swirl of colour. ‘I love this painting,’ she says. ‘I don’t particularly like sport but to me it’s like Bolívar, who said “America is ungovernable” … you see the ball coming, and then it’s gone, you just missed it.’
This compact room, with the permabuzz of New York traffic audible from Broadway below, is where Musgrave still works, every morning. Upon her desk is a well-thumbed instrumentation and orchestration manual. ‘Oh, I always use that to check registers,’ she explains. ‘I know the instruments but I forget – you know, “how low does a harp go”. You don’t want to put a note in that doesn’t exist.’ Such pragmatism is central to Musgrave’s approach. ‘If you’re going to do this professionally, you have to bloody well sit down and learn how to do it,’ she says. ‘You really have to know what you’re doing.
And you know, I’m still learning. Every day I discover something new.’
It was almost something else that Musgrave did professionally. When she went up to Edinburgh University in 1947, it was originally to study medicine. ‘I was going to discover the cures to all the diseases: cancer, TB, well AIDS hadn’t happened yet but I would have wanted to cure that too. Such is the arrogance of youth.’ Instead she found herself in a pre-med class, ‘cutting up frogs and doing all sorts of other boring stuff.’ She had been playing the piano since childhood, however, and found she ‘kept going into the music building next door to see what was cooking’. ‘Finally I said to my piano teacher: “I think I really want to go into music”, and you know what she said? “If you are a bad doctor you get struck off the list so you can’t do anybody any harm. Unfortunately that’s not the same in music.” With that warning in mind, I still decided: music was the thing.’
That fateful decision has been roundly vindicated over the course of a sevendecade career, which has included major works such as a Horn Concerto for Barry Tuckwell that premiered in 1971 at the Proms, and the 1977 opera Mary, Queen of Scots, for which she also wrote the libretto and conducted the premiere. This year alone, Musgrave has juggled multiple world premieres; taken on a slew of new commissions including a new work for a major English music festival next year; and regularly criss-crossed the Atlantic as the central focus of festival celebrations
‘With the arrogance of youth, I was going to discover cures to all the diseases’
everywhere from Edinburgh to Stockholm to London’s Trinity Laban, which this December gives a rare outing of her 1979 opera A Christmas Carol as part of their Venus Blazing festival. Her boundarypushing music, which is spectacularly rich in musical language and narrative drama, was also recently honoured with the Ivor Novello Classical Music Award and the Queen’s Medal for Music. ‘Quite a lot of loot for one summer,’ jokes Mark, who has been pottering around the apartment and now, after rummaging around at the back of a drawer, produces a thick, solid silver disc, around which spools an immortal phrase of John Dryden: ‘What passion cannot music raise and quell’. ‘They’ve etched her name in too,’ he says, proudly. ‘See: look.’ ‘It’s heavy,’ Musgrave warns.
It’s touching and humbling, being in the presence of these two, who have been married some 47 years and remain evidently besotted. (They’ve never had children – ‘we married late and never wanted them’.) It was a stroke of chance that brought them together at all, when Musgrave agreed to cover a colleague’s three-month sabbatical in California.
‘I had no intention of leaving London,’ she recalls. ‘I had my friends there, and a “special” friend whom I was living with. I certainly wasn’t husband-hunting. But I met him, and then: whoops. I said to myself “no, no, no”. But things changed and a year later we got married.’ She almost hadn’t gone to the US in the first place. ‘It was the height of the Vietnam war. I was at home watching television and saw that the Bank of America in Santa Barbara was being burned. I said “I’m not going anywhere where students burn banks!” Then it calmed down a little and I came, but the Kent State shootings happened not long after I got here. When you meet in those circumstances, you don’t waste time on bullshit like “it’s a lovely day today”. You talk about real stuff, right off.’
What, I wonder, does she make of our own turbulent political times, especially here in America? ‘I think we have to do a lot of serious thinking and talking,’ she says, gravely. ‘I’m not especially political, but these kind of politics hit everybody, especially women. Women have to be treated fairly for what they do.’
Ah, yes. The ‘W’ word. I’m glad she brought it up, because I certainly wasn’t about to. She must surely, by now, be bored of people remarking on her gender. ‘Well I never had the thought, “I’m a woman so I can’t do this”,’ she admits. ‘All I knew was that, whether I was a woman or a man, I bloody well had to learn what I was doing. I really had to study hard, which I did: three years at university and then four years in Paris to study with [Nadia] Boulanger. Well there she was, and her sister Lili had been a famous composer, and when I went back to London, there were people like Lizzie [Elisabeth] Lutyens, Betty [Elizabeth] Maconchy, her daughter Nicola [Le Fanu]. It was only when I came to America that people really started saying: “you’re a woman, how do you do it?” I thought it was a little late in the day to start asking that. It doesn’t matter who you are: the battle for anybody, women or men, is to really learn your profession.’
On that front, the legendary Boulanger, who taught musicians from Aaron Copland to Elliott Carter to Quincy Jones, must surely have helped? ‘Oh, she was incredible, really incredible. For a couple of years I had private lessons with her, then I also went to her “piano accompaniment” class at the Conservatoire, with colleagues such as Michel Legrand. She always said “you have to be true to yourself, but don’t try to be original: do what you feel is right. Because what’s original today will be old hat tomorrow. But if it rings true, something will last from that.” I think that’s true – it’s what I have also told my own students. And perhaps you might think: “but what happens if people don’t like it?” Too bad. You have to go with what you like, and if you like something strongly enough there’s always the hope that someone else will also like it! You can’t take care of everyone in an audience. The thing is to find yourself and do what you want to do.’
At 90, I wonder, has she found it? Can she now sit back, take stock, perhaps even allow herself a moment to bask in what has been a remarkable and trailblazing career? Her twinkling eyes widen; she looks genuinely horrified. ‘No! Every piece is a new beginning. I’m doing something new, with entirely new challenges, and I have to work bloody hard to figure out how to deal with them!’
Symphony in tea: composers Richard Rodney Bennett, Malcolm Williamson, Thea Musgrave and Peter Maxwell Davies get together in 1965
Personal view:‘You have to go with what you like’