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Thea Musgrave

Publisher: Novello & Co

Largo in Homage to B.A.C.H (2013),
LARGO in homage to B.A.C.H. was commissioned by the Carmel Bach Festival 2013, and Music Director Paul Goodwin to whom the work is dedicated.
Novello & Co Ltd
Sub Category
String Orchestra
Year Composed
6 Minutes
Programme Note
Thea Musgrave Largo in Homage to B.A.C.H (2013),
My very first idea was to use the BACH initials as a basis for the work - not as the melodic
motif often used by composers, but rather as a harmonic structure. This is possible because in the German musical tradition, B stands for B flat and H for B natural. This led to the thought that there would be four short sections, each led by a different soloist, forming an emotional journey: Lamentoso (mournful), Ardente (fervent), Inquieto (restless) and Sereno (peaceful).

The double bass leads the first section, B. Lamentoso (B flat major). The cello leads the next, A. Ardente (A major), faster and higher in pitch to reflect the change of mood, and when the viola soloist urgently interrupts in C. Inquieto (C major), the scene is set for a big climax. In the final section, H. Sereno (B minor), the mood, persuaded by the violin soloist, quietens and eventually leads to a brief quote from the famous chorale from the St. Matthew Passion, O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden which ends the work, in calm and peace, with a 'tierce de Picardie'.

In turn, each soloist carries the linear activity as protagonist on this emotional journey, and
the accompaniment to each section is dominated by the “tonality” indicated. But there is also a mysterious “misty” overlay, only dissipating after the viola’s tempestuous climax.
The cluster of notes that makes up this “mist” is formed from the octatonic scale, in each case incorporating notes of the triad of the relative section to determine its tonality (B flat major, C major etc).

Each section therefore uses only the notes of the octatonic scale1 associated with it - until the viola begins to incorporate a chromatic scale2 - and it is only in the final section that the
familiar diatonic scale3 appears and the mist is dissipated. Therefore, although the overall feeling of the four sections alters to travel spontaneously and 'organically' through the arc of the piece, each section (B.A.C.H.) is rigorously organized and controlled with similar internal ingredients as well as within a "master plan." This, for me, is the essence of Bach.


Score Preview

The continuing potential of Bach’s legacy to inspire new music was vividly displayed in the premiere of Scottish composer Thea Musgrave’s LARGO in homage to B.A.C.H., for string orchestra, this year’s festival commission. Although Musgrave is identified as one of the leading composers of her generation to emerge from the U.K., she has spent much of her life in California, and was an apt choice for the commissioning role. Following Bach’s practice of using the melodic motive spelled by the German musical letter B-A-C-H (Bb-A-C-B in English), Musgrave instead uses the four pitches as a chord. Sounding together, the pitches have a moody, unsettled quality that defined the tone of the piece. Musgrave has devoted a substantial amount of her writing to concerto forms, and the LARGO is a kind of miniconcerto, with the solo role moving from bass to cello to viola to violin over the course of this short work. The musical roles were dynamic and fluid, as a given soloist would remain interwoven with the next one before the new solo voice asserted itself at the center of the music. At the same time, surging lines in both the solo parts and the string sections created a continuous exchange of foreground and background roles. Traditional harmonies occasionally appeared as musical signposts, before the work ended, movingly, with a quote from the chorale “O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden,” from Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. The only real flaw in the piece is its brevity. The solo lines, especially, are full of gritty, exciting material and rhythmic force, and the command Musgrave displayed in varying the hues and tension of the orchestral material proved that the work could have gone on quite longer. I’d guess the piece was written to a prechosen length, and Musgrave’s formidable abilities led to a satisfying piece, but I was left wanting more.
Benjamin Frandzel , San Francisco Classical Voice,13/07/2013
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