Thea Musgrave: Song of the Enchanter


Thea Musgrave was born in Scotland in 1928 and she began her higher education at the University of Edinburgh (her home town university). As an ever-flourishing composer, Musgrave developed her technique so much so that she earned her place at the prestigious Paris Conservatoire. She was a pupil under the absolutely fantastic, Nadia Boulanger. In her youth, Musgrave worked with some of the biggest names in the 20th Century, for example Aaron Copland. In the early 1970s she became a Guest Professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara. At this point in her career, Musgrave was shaping an incredible prominence in both British and American contemporary music.

Musgrave has also won a plethora of awards and grants for her works, and also her work with gifted, young composers. 2002 saw Musgrave awarded a CBE from Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth. Her works span from opera and chamber music, to large-scale symphonic works, usually based around a prominent text. She has also worked with some of the most prestigious opera companies and orchestras from around the world (most notably: New York City Opera, BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and Los Chamber). Breaking away from (the now ridiculous) conventions of women not composing or conducting, Musgrave did both (incredibly well) during her most active years, and because of this she has gained a lot of respect within the musical world.

In honour of her varied scores and career, which has spanned a whopping 60 years, the BBC presented Total Immersion. This event saw three concerts of Musgrave’s work performed and recorded at the Barbican in a single day (February 15, 2014). Her compositions have consistently pushed boundaries and projected a wealth of dramatic situations that are conveyed vividly through her music. She has also written a fair few concertos from instruments such as the Viola, Horn and Clarinet. Her instrumental works, and the stories behind them, certainly set her up for a colourful career in opera composition. Her works such as The Voice of Ariadne (1972) and Mary, Queen of Scots (1977) are still popular today. Musgrave is often described as one of the most exciting contemporary composers in the Western world.


The Music

Song of the Enchanter was composed in 1990 and it was commissioned by the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra. The work honoured the 125th anniversary of Jean Sibelius’ birth. The premiere of this work was on February 14th 1991 and was conducted by James Loughran. The work is strangely short, spanning out to around 5″ in total, but within this short time, Musgrave has incorporated so much. This is how the original programme note reads:


“It is based on an episode from the Kalevala, the great Finnish epic, where Väinämäinen, the hero-God, has fashioned a magical five-stringed instrument from the bones of a giant pike. Orpheus-like, he plays upon it and enchants the people. All listen and all weep, their hearts melted. Even Väinämäinen weeps and his tears ‘bigger than cranberries’ fall into the clear waters of the deep blue sea. A sea-bird dives down to retrieve his tears – they have ripened into pearls.”


The piece begins, and subsequently sustains, a swirling figure which is played by the winds. The strings at this point are quite static, and the harp plays some glissandi ever other bar. There is a prominent feeling of swelling, which is emphasised by the dynamic shifts that Musgrave has written into the score. Crescendos and decrescendos play a large part in this. A melodic framework is then built into the upper strings, which carry this for some six bars or so.

The percussion and piano embellish this to create a glimmering effect on top of the rather mysterious, yet shimmering melodic cell. This idea is taken further, and varied to create a sequence of atonal melodic cells.

The next section is rather interesting both to listen to and on the score. The strings take a very static position and the upper strings act as the foundation of this section. The wind and brass are all given pitches and a basic rhythmic structure. From here the it is up to the player (or perhaps conductors) digression as to what order and how often these parts are played.

This creates a very unknown part of the work, where each time it is played it is going to be different. It seems that here, Musgrave has dipper her toes into ‘chance music’, which is something that Steve Reich was a pioneer of. There is a lot of written text on the conductors score from Musgrave with instructions with how to play certain parts of this section.

Underneath this chaotic score, the harp is playing constant glissandi, ranging from the top to the bottom of the strings. The notation on the score is a single wavy line, which suggests that Musgrave is intending for a constant swelling sound to support the ‘ad lib’ wind instruments.

The final part of this piece acts as a somewhat recapitulation to the first section of the work. Similar themes come back to the forefront of the work. There are, of course, some interesting variations, especially the addition of some colourful chromatic scalic runs.

The ending to the work is quite abrupt and strangely placed, which adds to the running themes in the work. The enchanter’s tears have moulded into pearls and there ends the piece. One should remember some of the aspects of the story when listening to this works as it can help with some vivid interpretation.


Ⓒ Alex Burns

Happy Reading!

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