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The Glasshouse

Thea Musgrave

And her piece, Green

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Ahead of Royal Northern Sinfonia’s performance of Green by Thea Musgrave on Friday 30 April, we found out more about her life and work.

Born in 1928, the 92-year-old Thea Musgrave has composed over 150 pieces in her lifetime. Her music has been described by Classic FM as ‘thoroughly contemporary while remaining true to her tonal roots’ and is known for it’s sense of drama.

Was she always destined to be a composer? No. She initially attended a pre-medical course at Edinburgh University, but found herself bored and drawn to the music school. It was then she decided to pursue a music course.

Was it plain sailing from here, though? Also no. She almost failed her undergraduate course for writing a piece that was ‘too adventurous’, and only passed as examiners knew she had previously written more traditional pieces.

Thankfully, famed French composer Nadia Boulanger (sister of Lili, whose music we played last week!) saw potential in her more adventurous works and encouraged her to develop this style. Musgrave studied with Boulanger in Paris for four years, where her teacher helped her develop techniques and put them into practice. Though she has argued that it was when she returned from Paris and attended performances of all kinds (opera, concerts, ballet) almost every night that helped her learn the most.

Now a teacher herself, Musgrave passes this message to her students: you should follow your artistic vision as a composer, but you must also always have technique. Central to this is her belief that any composer must learn about instruments and know what they are capable of.

“If something sounds very easy and is difficult to play, that’s a no-no. However, if something sounds very difficult and it’s relatively easy to play, that’s great. Go for it. Don’t write unnecessarily difficult things.”

What expectations should we have about her music? Well, it’s already been described as full of drama, and often uses spatial acoustics – with players encouraged to move around the performance space. She summed it up nicely herself though, hoping that audiences will ‘come open-minded and with a certain curiosity; they may like it or they may not like it…give it a try!’

In the 1970s Musgrave began conducting as well as composing, but she only ever conducts her own music. She’s received her fair share of awards too, including The Queen’s Medal for Music and a CBE, as well as the Ivor’s Classical Music Award and two Guggenheim Fellowships.

And her word on being a female composer? Characteristically opinionated. ‘I am a woman and I am a composer, but rarely at the same time.’ Which means what, exactly? ‘When you’re writing music, you’re a human being.’

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‘This short work is about conflict – expressed here by the clash of opposing musical forces’.

This conflict is essentially led by double bass, interrupting the established music of the first violins. The opening music is melodic, simple and sometimes emotional. In contrast, the double bass enters on a discord, gradually suffocating the established sound. At first, the interruption isn’t all that threatening, more of a surprise, but it becomes stronger – irritation then anger.

The violins do fight back, with some support from their colleagues in the viola and cello section, but to no avail. The force of the bass is too strong, and we are tricked into believing the violin is the intruder after all.

‘Many parallels to this conflict can of course be drawn from real life. The title, Green, for me represents either the freshness of youth, or the plant life in our world on which we all depend.’