Born in Edinburgh, Scotland on 27 May 1928, she studied first at the University of Edinburgh with Hans Gál and later at the Conservatoire in Paris, where she spent four years as a pupil of Nadia Boulanger (1950-54). In 1958 she attended the Tanglewood Festival and studied with Aaron Copland.
Her music was initially recognized in Scotland, and it was from there that she received her earliest commissions. Among these are A Suite o’ Bairnsongs, A Tale for Thieves, and The Abbott of Drimrock. She has composed in many genres, but showed an early aptitude for dramatic mediums. The ballet A Tale for Thieves and her first opera The Abbot of Drimrock (1955), were both written on commissions from BBC Scotland.
In the 1960s she embraced serialism, which infused her work with a newfound liveliness and energy. Arising from her work with the Composer’s Guild, in the Spring of 1961, along with another Scottish composer William Wordsworth, she undertook a fortnight’s tour of the Soviet Union at the invitation of the Union of Soviet Composers of Moscow, where she met, among other composers, Shostakovich and Khachaturian.
She was commissioned to write her second opera, The Decision (1964-65), a work about a Scottish mine disaster characterized by Hugo Cole as “a closely worked, contrapuntal, freely chromatic score,” befitting the “glim and claustral mood” of the libretto.
Her best known works include The Seasons, Rainbow, Black Tambourine (for female voices, piano and percussion) and operas The Voice of Ariadne, A Christmas Carol, Mary Queen of Scots, and Harriet: The Woman Called ‘Moses.’
In 1970 she became Guest Professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, which anchored her increasing involvement with the musical life of the United States. In 1971 she married the American violist, opera conductor and general director of the Virginia Opera Association, Peter Mark, and has resided in the U.S. since 1972.
Mary Queen of Scots was the first opera for which Musgrave wrote her own libretto. She conducted its premiere performance at the 1977 Edinburgh International Festival. As a Scot she states it’s a work close to her heart, though admits “I would love to see Mary, Queen of Scots done in Holyrood [Palace] and Edinburgh Castle and France to gain some of the realism of the setting… and it would be quite good if we saw it in Holyrood and had the murder scene actually there in the place. On the other hand, that opera is really about people; it’s really about confrontations, and the settings are incidental.”
From 1987 to 2002 she was Distinguished Professor at Queen’s College, City University of New York. She was awarded a C.B.E. on the Queen’s New Year’s Honour List in January 2002.
Thea Musgrave is a composer who frowns upon pigeon-holing. To questions on being a female composer she has stated: “Yes, I am a woman; and I am a composer. But rarely at the same time.” and “Music is a human art, not a sexual one. Sex is no more important than eye colour.” And to questions of her versatility: “I do chamber works, I do orchestral works, I do opera, I have done ballet, I’ve done songs, unaccompanied choral pieces — all sorts of things. I like to do different things, so I don’t really like to be pigeon-holed. There are even some electronic things — mostly with live music, not on its own.” Instead, Musgrave tries to champion contemporary classical music composition: “I don’t think it’s a matter of sex, I think it’s not enough done for composers. Until the concerts have much, much more 20th century music of today in them, everybody’s neglected. You look at any concert program, it’s a huge preponderance of the Classical and Romantic period! Now a little bit of early music is coming into its own, very early music, but not 20th century music for the most part.”