Thea Musgrave: An undimmed passion for music

Thea meets the Queen Image copyright John Stillwell
Image caption The Queen presents the Queen's Medal for Music to Thea Musgrave CBE

There are two things which strike me instantly about Thea Musgrave, the celebrated Scottish composer of opera and classical music.

Firstly, she has a passion for music, which is undimmed, even at the age of 90.

But more than that she has a love of life which means everything, from eating lunch in a newly-discovered fish restaurant to sitting in on rehearsals for a special birthday concert, is done with genuine joie de vivre.

Although born in Edinburgh, she has lived in the US for most of her 60-year career.

But she is back in the UK to receive a string of accolades, among them the Queen's Award for Music and the Ivor Novello award for classical music.

And on Friday night, the most personal tribute of all, Dame Evelyn Glennie and Nicholas Daniel will perform Two's Company, a piece for oboe and percussion Musgrave composed for them in 2005.

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Image caption Thea Musgrave said it was difficult to be a composer and conductor

The concert also includes three more of her works, and Celebration, by Musgrave's lifelong friend Richard Rodney Bennett, all performed by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra where her career as both composer and conductor first began.

"It was very important," she says of the BBC SSO.

"It was wonderful in those days, and I hope it still is.

"After Edinburgh University I spent four years studying in Paris with Nadia Boulanger.

"And then I came back and the BBC SSO played some of my pieces."

Image caption Thea Musgrave with her husband Peter in 1973

She recalls how difficult it was for young composers to get experience with orchestras.

Musgrave says: "It's so hard and the conductor in those days was Colin Davis who was still only the assistant conductor and I learned so much and the orchestra were so patient with me."

In rehearsals for the 90th birthday concert, Musgrave is following the score and giving advice to both musicians and the conductor.

She says: "It's essential. There's not time in orchestral rehearsals to work things out.

"Time is limited and expensive. I say to my students - as I said to myself way back then - get to know the performers and get to know the instruments."

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Image caption Elizabeth Maconchy, Aaron Copland and Thea Musgrave on Aldeburgh Beach in 1960

She says that is partly why she prefers to conduct her own compositions - although hearing loss in recent years has made that impossible.

"When you have a wonderful conductor, I'm happy to sit back," she says.

"I enjoyed conducting because you can have direct contact with the performers and you can change it, and learn from it."

She admits she is in a minority as a female composer or conductor but says it is not something she dwells on much.

And she says it wasn't any harder for her, than male counterparts, despite a post once being offered to "Mr Musgrave".

"We had a rarity value and now I don't think that's true," she says.

"It's difficult to be a composer, period.

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Image caption Thea advised people not to be a composer unless they really had to

"It's hard, really hard. I'd say to people wanting to be a composer, don't do it, unless you really have to."

She was recently quoted as saying "I am a woman, and a composer, but rarely at the same time."

"What I mean by that, is that when you're writing music, you're a human being.

"Men and women all share the emotions of anger, fear, despair, love and we share them.

"Also the technique you learn is the same for men and women. We're all the same."

She's been married to the viola player Peter Mark since 1971. Together they set up an opera company in Virginia, and have lived in the US ever since.

He is by her side in rehearsals.

A week ago, she went to Buckingham Palace to receive the Queen's Award for Music.

Musgrave says: "She was amazing. We had a wonderful conversation. I was with Judith Weir, the Master of the Queen's Music and we had half an hour together to talk."

Like the Queen, she has no plans to retire and is still busy with commissions.

She'll be back in August for another concert with the BBC SSO at the Edinburgh International Festival.

Image caption Thea was born in Scotland but has worked in the US for most of her career

"It's very special to be back in Scotland and to be working again with the BBC SSO," she says.

And her advice to young musicians, composers and conductors, or indeed her younger self?

"Don't do it, unless you have to. And if you do, enjoy every minute of it. Be true to yourself."