Musgrave: Concerto for Orchestra


Alexander Gibson, Scottish National Orchestra, Lyrita



For today’s entry, we at last look at music by a living composer, the Scottish-born Thea Musgrave. She belongs to a different category than the others yet addressed in this project—Smyth, Farrenc, and Crawford—in that she has led what can comfortably be labelled as a major international career. As I had not encountered her music firsthand, however, I wished to rectify the situation, and as she still belongs to that criminally underrepresented group of “not-euro-man,” she still belongs in this project. As a point of entry we shall examine her Concerto for Orchestra, as in the present literature it seems to represent well a crucial point in her development (and who doesn’t love a good orchestral showcase?).

Thea Musgrave (b. 1928)

Born in Scotland and a resident of the United States since 1972, Thea Musgrave’s long career has been full of high-profile performances, commissions, and awards. While it might tempt some to declare that her success as composer (and conductor!) prove the glass ceiling is thinner than believed, she is an exception that proves a rule. Certainly, her accolades put to rest the nonsensical suggestion that “there are no good woman composers.”

First a student of Hans Gál in Scotland (of Brahms-editing fame), Musgrave spent the years from 1949-1954 as a pupil of the famed teacher Nadia Boulanger. With receptions of her early music are described by the Grove dictionary as “citing a conservative, clear approach with an emphasis on diatonic melodies and a natural facility for fusing music and language,” a change underwent after Musgrave’s studies at Tanglewood, where while studying with Aaron Copland she also became familiar with the music of Charles Ives and Milton Babbitt. After several years of serialism, Musgrave reclaimed some of the modality of her earlier works and joined them with the prevailing brand of modernism in the creation of her 1965 opera, The Decision. This adjustment of style would be the fountainhead for her later harmonic language.

 Thea and Copland. Source:

Thea and Copland. Source:

It is no coincidence that such a refinement in Musgrave’s style would come through opera, as over the course of her career she has always had an affinity for the theatre and the theatrical. As of this writing, the repertoire listed on her website lists thirteen operas (not counting reorchestrations/reductions) and numerous vocal, concerto, and concertante works. In some cases the drama of opera precipitated the drama of absolute music. Solo instrumental players are described in her own website’s biography as “the living…embodiment of [the piece’s] dramatis personae.” This puts her on firm footing with the great opera composers from Mozart through Strauss and beyond (of all three it could be said that “every note is opera”). More unusually, some of her absolute pieces have seemed to precipitate her operas. Again, from her own biography: “her large-scale operas of the past 30 years…are in every sense the true successors to the instrumental concertos.” This continuum between the theater and the concert hall has been a defining feature of Musgrave’s work, particularly since her concerti of the late 60s and 70s, including the Concerto for Orchestra.

As she is still alive, I would direct those interested in learning more about her life, upcoming performances of her works, and the entirety of her catalogue to her website ( Meanwhile, let’s continue with today’s musical selection.

Concerto for Orchestra

Musgrave’s Concerto for Orchestra, like the earlier Bartok and Lutoslawski and the later Carter and Sessions, represents an orchestral and compositional tour-de-force showcasing not just the virtuosity of the performers, but the composer. Commissioned by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in 1967, the piece is a web of surprise semi-aleatoric cadenzas and disruptions to the orchestral hierarchy, all tied together by a refined sense of structure and a mixture of serial and modal composition that lends expressive depth to technical display.

The central feature of this concerto, however, is not musical fireworks (there are plenty of those), but theatre. According to the Grove dictionary, the idea for the piece came to Musgrave “in a dream in which, during an orchestral piece, the clarinet player stood up and led an orchestral mutiny.” Indeed, while no one listening on record would know the difference (a reminder that there is no substitute for a live performance), the fourth “movement” of the piece instructs the clarinetist to stand and begin to deliver a cadenza over the orchestra. Various members of the ensemble join in to take part in this “revolution,” one-part egalitarian protest and one-part riot. By the end, however, order seems to have been restored.

The following analysis is based upon the published score available through J&W Chester (see the embedded issuu perusal score from the publisher’s website). Reference will be made mostly to rehearsal marks, as discussing measures in any piece involving multiple cadenzas and light-aleatory tends to be more than a little imprecise. For those interested in more publication information, visit


It is tempting with any modern work to make a theoretical analysis preoccupied with the mathematics of composition, to uncover the machinery by which a piece was devised and proceeds. However, these analyses, while useful to a theorist or a composer, are not particularly useful to a lay audience, and while it is an important for a conductor to understand the sonic principals by which a composition is organized, I do not believe that it is critical that we ourselves become “total theorists” to understand and present effectively a piece. As such, there will be no deep quest for row forms and pitch-class transformations in this entry. Instead, we will favor the salient sonic features that are communicable and conscious to both audience and performer.


3(+picc).3(ehn).3(bs).3(cbsn) – – hp – timp.3perc – strings


Although it is written in one continuous movement and with numerous tempo indications, the work is clearly divided into five distinct sections, which for our purposes we will describe as “movements” (the description of the work on her publisher’s website makes the same delineation). Below is the analytical breakdown for each.


The first movement, spanning from the opening until rehearsal 10, is an atmospheric creatio ex nihilo that eases the listener into the sound-world Musgrave has crafted. The glassy sheen of a rolled cymbal is joined by a harp bisbigliando, punctuated by tubular bells ringing out the generating E-flat. A flute trill joins the texture, then a falling bass clarinet, like a sigh, gives us the first hint at a larger pitch collection to be explored. In the fourth measure, strands of melody begin to unwind, first in the English Horn, then in the trumpet. These pitches are relatives of those created by the sigh of the bass clarinet a bar previous, and are given resonant halos by the cello and viola sections. In these measures, the generative nature of the first movement is revealed, and the audience is coaxed, rather than shouted at, to pay attention to this new soundscape.

The seventh measure features the first group cadenza of the piece. Sitting squarely between aleatory and written music, the seventh measure here features “ad lib” indications for the concertmaster and principal second violin while the rest of the ensemble holds fermatas. The written material for these solos, disjointed, leaping pizzicati, are accompanied with the directive: “ad lib passages should be played at approximately the same tempo, unless otherwise indicated.” By the third beat of the measure (written, though not felt as such), the music is back “in time,” and a flute solo carries us into the next phrase at figure 1. Already, we are given the sense that soloistic interruptions are an important feature to the fabric of the music.

The movement continues in much the same manner, the body of sounding instruments increasing steadily over time. “Concertante” groups play semi-aligned cadenzas at structural intervals (usually punctuating the end of a phrase), then continue on in Musgrave’s sinewy lyricism. Rehearsal 7 gives the audience what could, with some accuracy, be called a “recaputalation.” The music from the first measures—harp, bells, English Horn melody—returns, accompanied by fragments of the cadenzas heard prior. Rehearsal 8, however, sees a change come about. The sinews of melody and halo-like chords are punctuated by harsh attacks in the brass and woodwinds. While the materials of the movement so far are not yet abandoned, it is clear this agitation seeks to transition the music to a foreign soundscape. After flourishing one last time and dying back to the E-flat from which the whole piece was generated, we find ourselves at the close of the first movement.


Without break, the second movement of the piece begins. While clearly not in the same space as the first, the sonorities are at least relatives, so the feeling is less one of a break in form than a logical succession. Intervallically disjointed but expressively smooth melodies carry forward, in slightly brisker tempo, the lyricism already present, but by measure four of the movement, staccato, almost jazz-like punctuations tell us the rules of the game have changed. In my analysis, the organizing principle of this movement is the alternation between strict sections and more improvistory “episodes.”

The first section, already mentioned, is generative, the lyric melody and the staccato interruption squared against each other. This is followed by the first episode, which takes the form, like the first movmenet, cadenzas and fermatas. However, these are longer than the first movement’s, and instead of suggesting cadential figures, they make up the fiber of the phrase itself. At rehearsal 14 the second section begins, developing more the jazzy syncopation of the first. This is followed immediately by a version of the first phrase again, this time more ornately embellished. Another cadenza-ridden episode takes place at figure 16, which proceeds to figure 18, where again the jazzy syncopations dominate a variation of the second section. A third episode seems to appear at measure 20, but while based upon the materials all the previous episodes have hosted, the music, minus one tiny flute moment at the end, is devoid of cadenzas and strictly composed. At rehearsal 22, a change comes about with brash arpeggios played by the trombones and tuba, replied to by the horns and trumpets with equal harshness. These two bars, followed by interjections in strings and woodwinds, are the close of this movement’s material. Compared with the atmosphere of the first movement, the prevailing feeling is one of growing unease. From there, the music begins fading away, disintegrating, transitioning into the much different third movement.


The third movement, marked “Piu mosso ma calmo,” begins with a texture that reminds me most of Schoenberg’s Farben, the third movement of his Five Pieces for Orchestra from about half a century earlier. Beginning with a quartet of solo cellos generating a soft, expressive and atmospheric chord, the changes are slow and few, offbeat entrances giving the feeling not of agitation now but of ametricism. In terms of large-scale structure, this is the most vague of the movements. Underpinning this, however, is a clever cadential figure that gives clarity to the otherwise amorphous phrases. Beginning one measure before rehearsal 25, at the end of the first phrase (which I label as an introduction), the oboes and bassoons intone a series of oscillating staccato eighth notes—two alternating chords that crescendo from pp to f, as if approaching from distance (again, lending a dramatic shape to the music). This figure will recur in some form at the end of every phrase throughout the movement, an aural signpost to help delineate architecture.

In comparison with the first two movements, where there was some separation between ametric cadenzas and in time music, the melodies of the third movement are written as barline-less solos across an in tempo progress of slow chordal motion. First up, the concertmaster plays a relative of the very first pizzicato cadenza of the piece (from measure 7), now arco and marked “fantastico.” Knowing the composition’s origins in a dreamstate, this music is the most dream-like, images emerging and receding against a foggy, slow-moving backdrop. Two and a half measures rehearsal figure 26, we hear the our cadence. Although now it starts with the metric value of triplets in the horns, the chords are still oscillating and eighth note staccati still emerge to mark time.

The next phrase starts with the viola as soloist, then again adds the first violin and principal second. The cadence here, however, adds a new feature: erupting from the eighth notes is a still related but almost fanfare-like sixteenth note figure from the oboes and English Horn. Rehearsal 27 gives us another soloistic section, but now the cadence occupies about the same amount of time as the solos, lasting about 6 measures each.

The fourth soloistic section, at rehearsal 29, is also the crux of soloistic density. Assorted individuals from the string section join and join until they assemble into a wall of virtuosic sound, dying away and passing over command to the flute. Figure 30, then, does triple duty—in two statements of the cadential figure, it serves as the closing marker for the preceding section; in local structure, it transitions to the next phrase; in broad structure, it recapitulates the texture and feeling of the introduction.

A fifth solo section starts us on another building course, the cadential figure again balanced evenly against the melodic figures, three measures each this time. The sixth section is closest to the fourth soloist section, but builds to an even bigger wall of sound. The seventh and eighth sections, the final ones of the movement, become saturated with the cadential figure. The improvisatory and the structural are now conjoined. This is by no means coincidental. The prevalence of the cadential figure is a signal to the audience that the movement itself is drawing to a close, and sure enough, after crescendoing to great heights, the music erupts into the fourth movement.


The fourth movement is the home to the true genesis for the piece, Musgrave’s clarinetist standing and revolting against the conductor, the orchestra, and the music. After a five bar explosion from the orchestra that introduces the movement, rehearsal 38 has the explicit instruction for the player to rise and sound out a sustained high B natural above the entirety of the orchestra. The string section closes off and the timpani fades away, leaving the clarinetist to declare, alone, their musical ideas. Hesitatingly convinced, a lone bassoonist starts to join as well, and the orchestra interjects forcefully akin to its first entrance. A second time, the clarinet attempts to incite its fellow players to musical revolution, and this time, the bassoon seems to be convinced. With their fellow reed player incensed, the flute follows, then the oboe, then horn, an entire conventional woodwind quintet in rebellion.

This movement as a whole is the most challenging of the five, not for its technical demands but its conceptual ones. Critical to the notion of the piece is that the conductor loses control of the orchestra in favor of the players themselves. This means, however, that the players must coordinate these aleatoric sections on their own. To help with this, Musgrave has provided clearly marked arrows and instructions for which player to queue whom, but it is still a rehearsal dilemma.

Rehearsal 41 brings the orchestra in again, refuting the woodwind quintet, and still the clarinetist refuses to concede, starting a new group cadenza. Instead of the horn from the original quintet, the bass clarinetist has decided the other four woodwinds are trustworthy. Now, though, in the background, the violins sustain and seethe, joined by the horn section in protest against the unruly mob. The whole brass build to a new interjection by the orchestra, and the clarinet once more will not submit. The bassoon and horn again reply in agreement, and for the first time the strings seem compelled to join, as two members of the cello section join at the end of the phrase.

Figure 44 is, of all the cadenzas in the piece, the only marked “cadenza,” and carries with it the aforementioned mark of “fantastico.” It is a concertante cadenza of more complexity than any previous, and despite the conductor’s temptations Musgrave specifies explicitly in the score that the “concertante section must not be conducted.” Here, the other members of the orchestra that join in stand as well—first the flute, then the bass, then the vibraphone, then the trumpet, then the trombone, then the bass clarinet, then at last the bassoon. Beneath this cadenza, however, the tutti orchestra begins to sneak back in. At rehearsal 48 the violins and percussion begin in the background, and the horns angrily bite out their unhappiness with the state of affairs. These outbursts continue with growing ferocity and complexity, with growing numbers, until figure 57, when the entirety of the brass section stands and decide that they, too, must rebel. With this climax now reached, the orchestra in turn sits, still building and growling, and then rush headlong through a recapitulation of the opening measures of the movement into the final section.


Marked “Presto,” the fifth and final movement is in some ways the most conventional of the five. Built upon almost jazzy off-beats in the horns and with a perpetuum mobile of staccato triplets in the strings, it is certainly one of the most virtuosic. While in its brisk agitation it breaks new territory, in structure it resembles many of the other movements—asymmetrical phrases of varying length, the orchestration increasing in density and the composition in rhythmic complexity. By the time figure 65 has been reached, the triplets have given way to sixteenth notes (or even quintuple or sextuple notes), and the orchestra builds headlong into a subito piano.

Here is perhaps the most interesting feature of the final movement: starting one measure before rehearsal 68, the audience is presented with a small sample of each of the movements of the composition in reverse order. First, the clarinet solo (from movement 4); then, the soft cello chords of movement three with clarinet solo over the top; then the slight off-beat agitation of movement 2; finally, the exact melodies and return to the E-flat of movement 1. This reverse ur-recapitulation fades away, until rehearsal 69 the fifth movement returns as a coda to the entire composition, bursting forth with ferocious energy and ending on an off-beat, off-kilter, but totally final unison E-flat.

Harmonic language

It is a feature (some might even say the point) of many twentieth-century modernist compositions that a harmonic language is derived uniquely from and for the pitch material required for any given piece. Musgrave’s Concerto for Orchestra certainly belongs to this family. That is not to say that her music is all a bramble of dissonance, nor that her composition sounds needlessly intellectual. Amidst the synthetic pitch-class derived chords and the almost row-like use of melodic fragments, hints of more conventionally “tonal” structures emerge. Seventh chords, for instance, which are employed without accusation of atonality in jazz, are frequented upon. Melodic sixths and thirds are likewise important. As her biography states, there is some suggestion of both modality and serial modernism in symbiosis. While a total theoretical analysis could reveal the intricate local transformations of each, for our purposes suffice to say there is a sense of forward momentum, long-term transformation, and harmonic variation amongst the movements.


Musgrave’s use of rhythm and meter, although clearly controlled and intentional, seems to be relevant to her conception for the piece mostly for their impact upon texture. Off-beats are used to create a sense of timelessness or agitation, depending on the movement. The metric logic is mostly based around oscillation between strict and freely pulsed time states. While not a feature of minimal importance (as in the music of Ethel Smyth), it is also not strictly structurally/mathematically important (as in the music of Ruth Crawford Seeger).

One clever deployment of the offbeat that deserves special notice is the final note of the composition. Instead of building directly to a triumphant downbeat, Musgrave offsets the last unison E-flat by an eighth note. This subtle displacement gives the composition a feeling less of arrival and more of a feeling of being jerked to a halt, and gives one less jab of energy into what otherwise might have been a fairly conventional ending gesture.


Thea Musgrave, having set out to write a Concerto for Orchestra, would be expected to handle the rather conventional romantic orchestra well, and indeed she writes sensibly and sensitively. Looking at the score, there’s hardly a moment I can imagine balance issues beyond the usual gamut. Given its title as a “concerto,” the instruments are definitely treated in a more individualistic, more chamber-like mindset, and string divisi abound. The percussion is tasteful, and far more restrained than many other composers of the mid-century (which at times feels like a good thing and at times feels like a bit of a missed opportunity). Admittedly, the sum total of Musgrave’s orchestration doesn’t necessarily “shimmer,” nor does it seem particularly interesting for orchestration’s sake, but more than the orchestral color is the virtuosity on display, and in that department she excels. At its worst her use of orchestral color merely fits in comfortably amongst her orchestra-writing peers of the time—which is not at all a bad thing.

Extant Recordings

 Album cover for the Lyrita reissue of works from Musgrave’s catalogue.

Album cover for the Lyrita reissue of works from Musgrave’s catalogue.

There is only one commercial recording of the Concerto for Orchestra available, recorded in the early seventies by Sir Alexander Gibson and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra (though since released in remastered format through Lyrita). There also appears to be another on YouTube, which claims in its description to be Musgrave herself conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra in a live radio broadcast. Looking at the performance history of the work on her publisher’s website, we must assume that, if correct, this was from 1976. As with every recording comparison made in this project, there is something to be gained from each. Given the broadcast origins of the Philadelphia recording, as well as the fact that it was never commercially released and thus must have been rendered to YouTube through some other means, the sound quality is drastically inferior to the Gibson/RSNO rendition. Also given that Philadelphia was live, the playing quality is a little more uneven than the one from the recording session across the pond.

Examining the score, however, one does get the sense that Musgrave’s own performance is a tad more accurate than Gibson’s. Tempi flex in a way that slightly distorts the already atmospheric music on the RSNO recording, and the instrumental entrances in the strictly composed sections are not always rhythmically accurate. The haziness of the pulse at times is not necessarily “wrong,” nor is it unpleasant. Indeed, an argument could be made that it is nice to have a “stricter” and “freer” version on record, as it offers the listener a chance to explore each. Regardless, the sound quality and note-for-note playing quality of the commercial release make it on the whole more useful than the radio release, and it is a pity that Musgrave herself does not feature as a conductor on a CD.


 Musgrave and another modern master, Kaija Saariaho. Source:

Musgrave and another modern master, Kaija Saariaho. Source:

Thea Musgrave remains a popular voice in contemporary composition, and for good reason. It is in the best interest of any conductor, orchestral musician, or music lover to be familiar with her music. My hope is that through exploring this one piece from her much larger, much more diverse catalogue, those who read this entry will be incited to explore more of what she has to offer and support more performances of her work in their communities.

Next post, we take a look at the Overture in C by Fanny Mendelssohn, who again belongs to the category of “talked about more than heard” female composers. As always, share with your friends and let me know your thoughts in the comments below.

Keep listening!



Barnes, Jennifer. "Musgrave, Thea." Grove Music Online. 2001. 7 Sep. 2018.

Musgrave, Thea. “Biography.” 7 Sep. 2018.

“Concerto for Orchestra (1967).” Music Sales Classical. 2018. 7 Sep. 2018.


Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Sir Alexander Gibson. Musgrave: Concerto for Orchestra, Clarinet Concerto, Etc. Lyrita 253, October 9, CD.

Joseph BozichComment