Photo: Thea Musgrave. © Bryan Sheffield Photography

An Interview with Thea Musgrave

Rich and powerful musical language and a strong sense of drama define Scottish-American composer Thea Musgrave’s work. In 2020, the National Youth Choir will perform her latest choral piece, commissioned by NYCGB, at the World Symposium on Choral Music in New Zealand.

When did you first start composing and what or who were your early passions and influences?

Oh since I was quite young, I was always interested in music. I learnt the piano from about 6 and then later in boarding school our teacher had us dance to classical music. Mozart G minor symphony for example!

But I started seriously composing once I transferred from Medical School to the Music Department at the University of Edinburgh in 1947. I was 19. One very important thing for me - I read  every word by Donald Francis Tovey and sought out the works which he referred to in his writings – they inspired me. One thing in particular - was what he called 'long-term harmonic planning'. The Edinburgh Festival was founded in 1947 and that was such a fantastic event which meant I heard some of the greatest performers of the time.

Tell us about the inspiration behind your new piece for the National Youth Choir of Great Britain.

Well, the choir are heading off to New Zealand and so it only seemed natural to search for a great poem by a New Zealand-born poet to mark the occasion. I ordered a big collection and made a start and suddenly I came across this large poem by Ursula Bethell. It’s about a little stream that joins up with other streams over time to form a river. I thought of this like the journey through life (as does the poet), each ‘stream’ growing as time passes. Quite appropriate for such an energetic youth choir, no? Of course, it was not possible to set the whole thing to music, so I have chosen the final stanza which really spoke to me: when ‘the hour is dark’ and the river ‘strange’.        

What do you find particularly exciting or interesting about the experience of writing for a choir?

I love writing for the voice, be it for opera, in songs or for choir; I have written lots for all of them. The chance to work with text is a fun thing in itself, you get to play with the images in the words and bring that out in your music. But perhaps, if we are speaking about choirs specifically, it is the chance to write for musicians of a particular kind. The vast majority of the world’s choirs are amateur musicians and that often means they come with a sheer love of music, of community, or comradery. That is not to say that I have composed a piece any easier than one of my orchestral works, but I like the idea that my music reaches out to those groups of music-makers too.      

How would you encourage audiences to listen to your music?

The only thing I ask is that you come with a completely open mind! It doesn’t matter whether you read the programme notes or not or if you know my other works. Although I suggest you have a look at the full ‘By the River Ashley’ poem and acquaint yourselves with the moody words of the last moments – it’s fabulous! 

Who’s the most underrated composer or musician that you think people should be listening to?

I don’t know what to say! I don’t think of it like that… I believe you love what you love and that you should follow your inspiration where it takes you. It’s not for me to tell you what to listen to. But if you were asking me what I turn to, it’s no secret that I like Beethoven, Berg, Mozart, Monteverdi, Dowland, Britten...…but I don’t think you could call any of those ‘underrated’.  

What advice would you give to emerging young composers?

Don’t do it! (Laughs!)

Composers are those people who feel absolutely compelled to write music no matter what I advise and no matter the challenges that lie ahead (and there are many). It takes courage. If you want some practical tips then I guess I would suggest three:

1) Make friends with performers, they are not only key in accumulating the knowledge you need of the various instruments, but they are the people who will help you bring your music to life – almost all of history’s greatest composers had great musicians by their side.

2) Work out if you are ‘a night owl’ or ‘a lark’ (i.e. do you work best at night or in the morning?) Knowing yourself and knowing when you work best is key to a happy life as a composer. I have composed every morning until lunch for as long as I can remember. The rest of the day is mine to enjoy and for music to pop into my head.

3) And finally, if you are nearing the end of your session composing and have a fully formed idea in your mind, don’t write it down completely. Wait until the following day to complete the last bit. That gets you going and 'into' it without any delay. It helps too keep the momentum as you compose the next bars.

The National Youth Choir were due to perform Thea Musgrave's latest choral piece 'By the River', commissioned by NYCGB, at the World Symposium on Choral Music in New Zealand in July 2020.

We are hugely grateful to the Golsoncott Foundation and The John S Cohen Foundation for kindly funding this new commission.