“You can’t see the mountains today, but here is the lagoon outside the window.” The camera wheels round to show a large lake below the balcony. Even in early February, the sun is beating down and sailboats are clearly visible on the coast.
This is the flat in Los Angeles where composer Thea Musgrave lives with her husband Peter Mark, conductor and former artistic director of Virginia Opera. He explains that he was a viola player at the time they met and gave the premiere of her Viola Concerto at the BBC Proms in 1973. “Then he joined Virginia Opera and we had 38 years living in an opera company,” says Musgrave. “We will have been married 50 years on October 2. And I still love him!”
If the idea of a Zoom chat with a composer in her nineties had seemed improbable, it does not now. At 92, Musgrave is entirely at ease with new technology and still at work three hours every morning, seven days a week. Her most recent work is the Trumpet Concerto, written for star trumpeter Alison Balsom and given its premiere at the Cheltenham Festival in 2019. The concerto won last year’s South Bank Sky Arts Award for Classical Music.
Now she is at work on a new opera. “I decided that at my age I would do what the fuck I like,” she says. “I have wanted to write an opera on Virginia Woolf’s Orlando since the early 2000s, but wonderful commissions, like one from the Boston Symphony Orchestra, kept coming in, so it is now or never. I must be crazy because it is much harder to write a comedy than a tragedy, but during the lockdown it has kept me sane. I work in the bedroom, where I don’t have a view, but I have my imagination, which can go where it wants. At the moment that is wherever Orlando is through the centuries. For all that, the muse doesn’t always obey me. Orlando hasn’t been behaving himself today.”
Her husband breaks in. “She has gone on with life just the same in lockdown. She lives with these characters, identifying with them, feeling what they feel, even — dare I say it — having social intercourse. Therefore we are perfectly happy to be here and see our friends on Skype. You don’t even have to wear pants.”
The journey to LA has been a long and eventful one. Musgrave was born in Scotland and went to university there. A spell in Paris saw her as a student with the legendary teacher Nadia Boulanger, who taught many of the biggest names in music of the 20th century. From there she went to London in the mid-1950s, because she felt the need to be close to the action, and stayed for 15 years.
In 1970, she met Peter and moved to the US, accepting a three-month stint teaching in Santa Barbara. It was, they both recollect, a difficult time politically, as students there had just burned down the Bank of America in protest against the Vietnam war — “the last time things were as fragile as they are now”. Even so, major works, such as her operas Mary, Queen of Scots and A Christmas Carol, date from this period.
Musgrave has always been ahead of her time. Many of her operas focus on strong women and those who fight for political equality, the very subjects that opera companies are crying out for today. In 1984, she wrote Harriet, the Woman Called Moses about Harriet Tubman, the former slave, political activist and abolitionist (Musgrave had become convinced while sitting through rehearsals for Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess that the opera did not offer the role models African-Americans deserve). In 1995, she followed that with Simón Bolívar and Latin America’s struggle for independence from Spain.
A rediscovery of Musgrave’s music is overdue, headed by pieces such as the innovative choral work Rorate Coeli and the haunting Scottish song-cycle Songs for a Winter’s Evening to poems by Robert Burns. Even more striking are the orchestral showpiece Turbulent Landscapes and Helios, a dazzling oboe concerto written for Nicholas Daniel (“he turned up for the performance as the sun god in a bright red dinner jacket — that was great”).
“You have to make friends with the great performers and learn from them,” she says. “[Before the Trumpet Concerto] I had written a lot for the trumpet, but not as a soloist, and I learnt so much from Alison Balsom. I pick their brains mercilessly to find out what they can do technically. If something sounds difficult, but is easy to play, that is great. Practicality is a wonderful thing. I am not Scots for nothing.”
Contrary to what people might expect, Musgrave says she does not feel life was any more difficult for her than for young composers now. She says she was given a good basic training and was fortunate to have had the opportunity to hear her orchestral music played through (in the 1950s, the BBC helped young composers by trying out their pieces). Even being a woman composer at that time did not cause her obvious difficulties.
“It didn’t occur to me that was a problem until I came to the US,” she says. “There had been other women with me at Boulanger’s Wednesday afternoons in Paris, and we had women composers in London, like Elisabeth Lutyens, Priaulx Rainier, Grace Williams and Elizabeth Maconchy, my mother’s generation, who were my friends. But here it was a problem to be a woman. Why?
“If women want to achieve things, they have to get the same training as men. When I first went to Nadia Boulanger I had written very little, and she said to me: ‘I see you have some ideas, but now you need to get a technique.’ I worked very hard. You can’t just be a woman and expect to be treated specially because of that.”
What advice would she give to herself, if she was setting out on a century-long life as a composer now? “I would like to meet the great performers of the next 100 years and hopefully get to write for them,” she says. “And I would have to learn what is going on. Would there still be orchestras or more electronics? Yes — I would change with the times.”
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