On the heels of our upcoming concert Tchaikovsky Serenade, we would like to invite you to meet the composer of Orfeo II: Thea Musgrave, a remarkable person who earned great respect for her work both as a composer and conductor at a time when these were still rather uncommon professions for a woman (Homepage).

Thea Musgrave (Photo by Christian Steiner - from https://www.theamusgrave.com/)

Thea Musgrave (Photo by Christian Steiner – from https://www.theamusgrave.com/)

With such a large and varied career and catalogue, Thea Musgrave is frequently interviewed and questioned about being a “woman” composer, to which she has replied; “Yes, I am a woman; and I am a composer. But rarely at the same time” (Homepage).

Biography Highlights:

  • Born in Edinburgh, Scotland on May 27, 1928 (she has resided in the U.S. since 1972)
  • She studied first at the University of Edinburgh and later at the Conservatoire in Paris, where she spent four years as a pupil of Nadia Boulanger – She also studied composition with Aaron Copland and studied and emulated American composer Charles Ives (Laurance)
  • In 1970 she became Guest Professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara
  • In 1974 she received the Koussevitzky Award and has also been awarded two Guggenheim Fellowships (in 1974-75 and again in 1982-83)
  • Honorary degrees from Old Dominion University, Smith College, Glasgow University and the New England Conservatory of Music
  • Awarded a C.B.E. on the Queen’s New Year’s Honour List in January 2002
  • Distinguished Professor at Queens College, City University of New York from September 1987-2002
  • Her works have been widely performed in Britain, Europe and the USA
  • From time to time she conducts her own works – In the United States she has conducted the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, the San Francisco Symphony, and St. Paul Chamber Orchestra (She has also conducted the Jerusalem Symphony and the Hong Kong Philharmonic)
  • Thea Musgrave’s music is published by Novello & Co. and Chester Music

This is what Thea Musgrave’s website has to say about her composition style:

Musgrave has consistently explored new means of projecting essentially dramatic situations in her music, frequently altering and extending the conventional boundaries of instrumental performance by physicalizing their musical and dramatic impact. As she once put it, she wanted to explore dramatic musical forms: some works are dramatic-abstract, that is without programmatic content (such as the Clarinet Concerto, the Horn Concerto, the Viola Concerto, and Space Play), and others project specific programmatic ideas (such as the paintings in The Seasons and Turbulent Landscapes, the poems in Ring Out Wild Bells, Journey through a Japanese Landscape, and Autumn Sonata, and the famous Greek legends in Orfeo, Narcissus, Helios, and Voices from the Ancient World); — all extensions of concerto principles. In some of these, to enhance the dramatic effect, the sonic possibilities of spatial acoustics have been incorporated: in the Clarinet Concerto the soloist moves around the different sections of the orchestra, and in the Horn Concerto the orchestral horns are stationed around the concert hall. Thus the players are not only the conversants in an abstract musical dialogue, but also very much the living (and frequently peripatetic) embodiment of its dramatis personae.

On the Program for Santa Fe Pro Musica

Tchaikovsky Serenade

Saturday, October 19 at 6pm
Sunday, October 20 at 3pm

St. Francis Auditorium, New Mexico Museum of Art
Santa Fe, New Mexico

Santa Fe Pro Musica Orchestra
Thomas O’Connor, conductor
Carol Redman, flute

George Frideric Handel Concerto Grosso in D Major, Op. 6, No. 5
Christoph Willibald Gluck Minuet and Dance of the Blessed Spirits
Thea Musgrave Orfeo II
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky Serenade in C Major for String Orchestra, Op. 48

Orpheus and Eurydice by George Frederick Watts (Public Domain)

Orpheus and Eurydice by George Frederick Watts (Public Domain)

An in depth look at Orfeo II from Thea Musgrave’s Website

Orfeo II (1975) — An improvisation on a theme
World Premiere:  28 March 1976, Los Angeles
David Shostac, flute
Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra
the composer conducting

First UK Performance: 1976, Cheltenham Festival
James Galway, flute
Orchestra of St Martins in the Fields
Sir Neville Marriner, conductor

Composer’s Note:

This work was originally commissioned by the BBC Transcription Service for James Galway as a work for solo flute and tape (Orfeo I): all the music on the tape would be an electronically treated recording of James Galway playing a variety of different flutes. It was first performed by him in this version in 1976.

Orfeo II was written shortly after, and here all the music on the tape was distributed amongst 15 strings.

Though this work is intended as a concert piece, it was also projected as a ballet for solo male dancer. It is a simple retelling of the famous legend. The flute (and dancer) represent Orfeo; all the other elements and characters in the story are represented by the music on the tape or on the strings. In any staged version they must remain invisible, though their presence can be indicated by lighting effects or even projections: Orfeo’s journey to the underworld exists only in his imagination. To heighten the effect of this separation of reality and imagination, much of the music of Euridice, the Furies, the Shades, is suggested by “memory elements” that is, quotations from the Orfeo of Gluck. They are woven into the fabric of the music. The whole work is thus focussed on Orfeo; on his mourning for Euridice and his vain attempts to recover her. In the end he has to resign himself to her loss.


  1. Orfeo laments.
    Orfeo stands alone on the banks of the river Styx and grieves for Euridice. He hears a distant echo of her voice and he listens. Then it disappears and Orfeo in despair pleads with Charon to ferry him across the river so that he may search for her.
  2. Orfeo crosses the river Styx.
    Charon consents to listen to Orfeo’s plea. The waves of the river begin to ripple and then surge up and part. Orfeo crosses to the other side.
  3. Orfeo calms the Furies. 
    Orfeo is confronted by the Furies and he pleads with them. They gradually quieten as they respond to his eloquence. They allow him to proceed, but on one condition…that when he finds Euridice, he must not look at her until he has returned back to the other side of the river.
  4. Orfeo searches amongst the Shades.
    Orfeo searches amongst the Shades for Euridice. He hears her approaching…he steps towards her, then, remembering the words of the Furies turns decisively away from her and shields his eyes.
  5. Orfeo hears Euridice’s pleas. 
    Orfeo hears Euridice’s insistent pleas to turn and look at her…he cannot resist and he turns. Euridice vanishes forever.
  6. Orfeo is attacked by the Bacchantes. 
    Orfeo is at once violently attacked by the Bacchantes. He makes a last desperate plea to recover Euridice, but he finds himself back on the banks of the river Styx alone and desolate.

In the Press:

Thea Musgrave’s Orfeo II in its concert version for 15 strings and solo flute conjured up quite alot of legendary magic with the help of some of Neville Marriner’s Academy and James Galway. It is a gift to any flautist, but James Galway’s imaginative handling and immaculate phrasing made Orpheus’ tragic history come vividly to life.” Elizabeth Webster, Music & Musicians

The composer elegantly mixes expressive idioms here, her own lean modernism conveying the anguish of the bereaved Orpheus and a transparent distillation of Gluck (mostly “Che faro..”) providing the otherworldly memories of Euridice. The protagonist’s vain search for a forbidden past is depicted in economical, sometimes even literal strokes — strokes which have extraordinary cohesion and dramatic thrust in their favor.” — Martin Bernheimer, Los Angeles Times


Blog Post Bibliography/Works Cited

Homepage. Thea Musgrave, composer. Web. 10 October 2013. <https://www.theamusgrave.com/index.html#Home>

Laurance, Rita. “Artist Biography.” AllMusic. All Media Network, LLC. Web. 10 October 2013. <https://www.allmusic.com/artist/thea-musgrave-mn0001249036/biography>

Orfeo II. Thea Musgrave, composer. Web. 10 October 2013. <https://www.theamusgrave.com/html/orfeo_ii.html>


© Santa Fe Pro Musica 2013


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