Turbulent Landscapes

Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps, by J.M.W Turner. Wikimedia Commons.

The composer Thea Musgrave was born in Edinburgh in 1928. Her prolific output spans over half a century, and as the list of works on her website shows, she continues to compose into her nineties.

I’ve recently been exploring some of Musgrave’s recorded instrumental music. Her online catalogue is headed by a quotation from a critic who praised the ‘Straussian depth and complexity’ of her orchestration. But the first piece that grabbed me was something much leaner.

Green, composed for strings in 2014, begins with what sounds almost like Baroque counterpoint, which then becomes progressively more beset by disruptive dissonance. 

In interviews and published comments, it’s interesting how Musgrave talks about her music in dramatic terms. She made a name for herself in her early career with a number of so-called ‘dramatic-abstract’ works. These use instrumental set-ups in novel ways: for instance, in her 1968 clarinet concerto, the soloist becomes like an actor, wandering between small instrument groups who are set against the orchestra.

Even without such theatrics, Musgrave sometimes gives instrumentalists specific ‘characters’ to play. In Loch Ness (2012), the orchestra’s tuba becomes the eponymous monster. This kind of conception can even apply to chamber works. See how she describes the 2008 piece Cantilena which shares much of the finely-drawn elegance of Green:

An outsider [the oboe] joins the group [a string trio] and adds to their dialogue. At first the newcomer is treated with a mixture of suspicion and agitation, but eventually is made welcome.

In Green, the presence of a deep, rogue tremolo F creeps into the E-major music of the first section, and unleashes the work’s subsequent drama. In an interview about the piece, Musgrave recalled her student composer days, and the lasting importance for her of Donald Tovey’s ideas about structural harmonic planning.

This fact might not always leap out at you while listening to her music, particularly the more dissonant works. Much more apparent, however, is the craft with which she constructs textures, no doubt honed in her lessons with the famously exacting Nadia Boulanger. 

I was intrigued to notice that quite a few of Musgrave’s compositions suggest visual images and colours. Alongside Green, there is a similarly lithe piece for strings, Aurora (1999), its title taken from a line in A Midsummer Night’s Dream about the coming of dawn. More specific is 2003’s Turbulent Landscapes, which is programmed around a series of paintings by Turner. Her visual stimulants are not always so highbrow: the tone poem Phoenix Rising only took flight after Musgrave saw a coffee shop sign in Virginia.

I think ‘turbulent landscapes’ could serve as a decent description of Musgrave’s overall approach to the orchestra – both in terms of its energy and complexity, and how she creates washes of sound, from the pale and ethereal to the downright murky. Among her impressionistic palette, a impulse for rapid upward flourishes sticks out – it runs through the more delicate textures of Green and Cantilena too.

For her 1990 tone poem Rainbow, Musgrave enriched the orchestral colour spectrum with the addition of a synthesiser. But the cutesy title is misleading. ‘In nature, of course, a rainbow heralds the end of a storm’, she casually tells us – and after a briefly shimmering opening, a savage tempest breaks across the orchestra.

When the promised respite arrives, the glowing arc mysteriously reveals itself as a quiet melody on synthesiser, flute and solo violin, backed by ethereal string chords. Rainbow then culminates in a blaze of sunlight, with rippling waves of tuned percussion as the brass section bellows out a ‘chorale of thanksgiving’.

It’s worth remembering that to see a rainbow, you have to stand with your back to the sun. Look towards the retreating gloom. Those bright colours are only refracted back at you from the Straussian depths, the Turnerian turbulence. 

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