Listen: Thea Musgrave

It’s a rare thing one gets a prompt to immerse oneself in the music of a living composer – that’s normally something reserved for the moment when their death is announced.

Not so today: it’s Thea Musgrave’s 90th birthday.

That’s right. A woman composer. Scottish. Alive. 

Here’s the thing. I thought I knew some of Thea Musgrave’s music. I thought there was some music she’d written for clarinet and piano that I’d played for my Grade 5 exam. Turns out I was wrong. Amongst her considerable oeuvre, she’s written a terrifyingly difficult-to-play clarinet concerto, but nothing I immediately recognise from my childhood.

The Horn Concerto is more engaging on a first listen. Less oppressive. Less of a battle between solo instrument and orchestral accompaniment, compared to the clarinet concerto. But across both these works there are defining characteristics: rich textures; demanding rhythmic ideas; peril.

What held my attention during my celebratory listen to some of her works on Spotify was Monologue for Solo Piano – awkward in terms of its musical material yet fitting for a complex indecipherable world. In Monologue for Solo Piano it’s as though Musgrave is able to fill in the blanks and make the world seem ever so slightly more bearable. 

After that, the Excursions, Eight Duets for Piano, recall the composer’s Scottish roots with charm and simplicity. There’s a hint of the southern states of America (Musgrave has lived in the States since 1972) in movement four – The Drunken Driver. I adore the simplicity of the movement that followers – The Sunday Driver – and the Camberwick Green-style industry of Roadside Repairs. The penultimate movement – Fog on the Motorway – is an arrestingly beautiful depiction. 

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