Thea Musgrave's The Seasons is available to view free of charge for 30 days, from 7.30pm on 16 November to the same time on 18 December. You can view all content relating to The Seasons on the event page.
Born in Barnton, Edinburgh, in 1928, Thea Musgrave is not only one of Britain’s most accomplished senior musical figures, but also one of the most distinctive composers working today. After studies at the University of Edinburgh and four years in Paris with composition pedagogue extraordinaire Nadia Boulanger, she began a long association with America in 1958 when she studied with Aaron Copland in Tanglewood, Massachussets. Musgrave has lived in the USA since 1970, when she became guest professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and she was distinguished professor at Queens College, City University of New York, between 1987 and 2002.
And it was in the US that Musgrave fully developed her particularly distinctive style, which she’s described as ‘dramatic-abstract’: it’s often as though there’s a compelling drama being played out, even a particular story being told, in her music, whether it’s been explicitly written for the stage or not. Opera forms an important part of her output – she’s composed ten large-scale operas, and numerous smaller ones – but her dramatic sense is also clearly present in her many concertos (which she’s written for percussion, bass clarinet, piccolo, oboe and viola, among many other instruments), as well as her rich catalogue of orchestral, chamber and choral music.
Musgrave composed The Seasons in 1988, to a commission from London chamber orchestra the Academy of St Martin in the Fields, which premiered it at the Royal Festival Hall that same year. And the piece follows in a long tradition of music charting the course of the year, from Vivaldi’s summer storms and cracking winter ice (delivered by violinist Pekka Kuusisto later in the SCO’s current season) to Tchaikovsky’s charming piano pieces, and even Argentinian tango-ist Ástor Piazzolla’s sultry evocations in The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires.
Musgrave takes a somewhat unconventional approach in her own seasonal depictions, however, basing them not on the changing world around her, but instead on images she encountered in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. It was one image in particular that first inspired her, as she remembers in her own programme note: ‘Piero di Cosimo’s Caccia primitiva, a frightening image of fire and destruction built around a wild and gory hunt scene, gave rise to the idea that various pictures related to the four seasons could become a metaphor for the cycles in the life of man.’
Piero’s grisly image of slaughter and distant conflagration forms the visual inspiration for Musgrave’s dark, dramatic opening movement, ‘Autumn’ (inspired by Picasso's Au bout de la route), with distinctive fanfare-like hunting calls from the orchestra’s horns and trumpets. A solo oboe emits a bleak melody against what Musgrave calls ‘a frozen landscape of ice and despair’ in ‘Winter’. For that second movement, the composer took inspiration from Emanuel Leutze’s 1851 painting Washington Crossing the Delaware, with distant snare drum and trumpet evoking images of far-off battles.
After the bleakness and despair of ‘Winter’, Musgrave’s ‘Spring’ heralds hope and rebirth, with rainfall, melting snow and a dawn chorus of birds – listen out for distinctive cuckoo contributions near the end of the movement. ‘Van Gogh’s The Sower comes to mind,’ says the composer about the movement’s visual inspiration.
That sense of hope and expectation bursts into joyful life in Musgrave’s concluding ‘Summer’, ‘inspired by Van Gogh’s Le 14 juillet à Paris, Jasper Johns’s Flag [not available to view online] and Monet’s Rue St-Denis, Festivities of June 30, 1878’. Accordingly, the composer collides together the French and US national anthems amid a mix of energy, colour and wit not yet experienced in the piece, and even her springtime cuckoo reappears, fluttering around the dancing city flags.
© 2023 David Kettle
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