Commissioned by the Cheltenham Music Festival, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (as one of its CBSO Centenary Commissions), and the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra Gustavo Dudamel, Music & Artistic Director, for Alison Balsom.
Winner of the South Bank Sky Arts Award for Classical Music 2020
II. 'How the Snow Fell'
III. 'Between Two Windows'
IV. 'White Nights of a Northern Summer'
V. 'Landscape with Hidden Moon' (including a final coda: 'Sonorous Tree')
Written in five near-continuous, short movements, Musgrave's Trumpet Concerto for Alison Balsom, like many of her works takes its point of inspiration from other artworks: here, the nature painting of the Scottish artist Victoria Crowe. Whilst travelling to Edinburgh to meet with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra who were due to celebrate her ninetieth birthday in a portrait concert, Musgrave stepped into an exhibition of Crowe's work. The painting 'Opening Out' forms the principle impetus for the concerto, which itself exhibits the composer's delight in exploring physical and musical dramatics between the soloists and players within the orchestra. A simply-accompanied Scottish tune ‘The Bonnie Earl of Moray’ forms the emotional heart of the work and nods to the composer and the artist's shared heritage.
Unlike most other commissions where I have had more time to ruminate about the subject and the form that the music would take, the inspiration for this piece came from two distinct but immediate “light bulb” visions. The first came at my initial meeting last summer with the uniquely virtuosic trumpet soloist who triggered the commission—Alison Balsom—when in an off the cuff remark she said she loved to ‘sing’ with her instrument. I have, of course, written many works using the trumpet but never as a solo instrument in a concerto. This idea of using the trumpet as a ‘singing’ instrument immediately captured my imagination. The second revelation occurred a month later when I was in Edinburgh for the Festival. I happened to attend an exhibition by the magnificent painter Victoria Crowe, who I first met when she painted my portrait. This particular exhibition (‘A Certain Light’) was all of still life trees—which I found mesmerising and evocative.
I was immediately grabbed by the image of the very first painting I looked at—Opening Out—with the energy of the tree reaching from the roots upwards and outwards. I felt it could be a metaphor for the journey of life: reaching out to find colleagues, friends, lovers, but also ideas and projects – all those things that make life meaningful and fulfilling. I thought that this painting along with several others that I saw could form an overall shape to the work as well as the right environment for the trumpet’s singing. Vicky, who has long since become a friend as well as a colleague, generously agreed to support this musical work with her masterful images.
In the first movement the trumpet interacts just with the strings, harp and percussion, and relationships begin to form. One of these moments is where the trumpet incites the strings to introduce an ascending melodic theme which will reappear several times during the work. At the very end of the movement the horns appear but it is a solo clarinet that the trumpet turns to.
In the following movement, How The Snow Fell, the music begins before snow falls. A pizzicato theme on the cellos playfully accompanies the clarinet. The snow, a big string chordal cluster which grows bigger and bigger represents the gradual arrival of the snow. A dramatic interchange between trumpet and orchestra depicts the frustration of the trumpet who can no longer be playful because of the deep snow!
The trumpet then turns to the horns to begin the next movement Between Two Windows. This is a triple picture with trees on each side. Energized by the horns the musical tree motives reappear and then suddenly a beautiful bowl of luminous flowers arrive… woodwinds and percussion making the musical depiction. At the end of the movement, the tree motives reappear and then incited by the solo clarinet the trumpet recalls the theme which was introduced by the strings in the first movement.
In the fourth movement titled White Nights of a Northern Summer I decided to return to my Scottish heritage and have the trumpet play a wonderful Scottish tune called ‘The Bonnie Earl of Moray’ with a simple accompaniment.
The last movement Landscape with Hidden Moon is a wonderful painting of trees in the darkness with the flickering of hidden life in the distance. I imagined it to be early dawn, and at first the trumpet is rather reluctant to wake up. Suddenly in the distance the sound of an off-stage trumpet… immediately the solo trumpet reacts to this with excitement. After a momentary disappointment when the offstage sound seems to go mute, the offstage trumpet enters and stands upstage beside the percussion. The two trumpets engage in an increasingly excited duet which builds to a big climax. A two-trumpet cadenza follows, along with a few other instruments which leads to another big climax. The coda Sonorous Tree which follows is quiet and marked ‘serene’. Though this relationship is certainly intended to be exciting and fulfilling, it is also grounded in an inherent quietness and solidity—which means that it can last.
A catalogue of Victoria Crowe's work, including the pieces which inspired the moods of this concerto can be found here.
- Thea Musgrave at 95
- Distinguished Scottish-American composer Thea Musgrave CBE celebrated her 95th birthday on 27 May 2023. Her seven-decade career has earned her many honorifics and awards and she continues to compose fresh and exciting work marked by technical precision and a strong sense of drama.
- Alison Balsom Names Musgrave Among Top Five Trumpet Concertos of All Time
- 22nd April 2022
- Filming with Classic FM, Alison Balsom names Trumpet Concerto (2019) by Thea Musgrave as one of the five greatest trumpet concertos of all time.