The BBC Mu­sic Mag­a­zine In­ter­view

BBC Music Magazine - - Contents - PHO­TOG­RA­PHY: LAURA BARISONZI

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’

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