• Thea Musgrave
  • Memento vitae (1970)

  • Chester Music Ltd (World)

Commissioned by BBC Scotland and the Saltire Society to celebrate the bi-centenary of Beethoven's birth

  • 2(pic)2224331timpstr
  • 18 min

Programme Note

This work was commissioned by the BBC (Scotland) and the Saltire Society to commemorate the bicentennial of the birth of Beethoven (1970). The first performance was by the BBC Scottish Orchestra, on the 22nd March 1970, conducted by James Loughran.

Memento Vitae is one of the works in the series of ‘dramatic-abstract’ forms and in the subtitle the word concerto is relevant. The conflict, however, is not so much between solo and tutti as between past and present - hence the quotation from T.S. Eliot in the score:- 'Time present and time past/ are both perhaps present in time future,/ and time future in time past.'

Time past is presented here by certain memory elements taken from the works of Beethoven, some actual quotations; some references to works; and third, the structural element which welds the whole work together. This latter concerns the essential feature of the last movement of the 8th Symphony - the clash between the main tonality F major and the sudden C sharp outbursts, which Beethoven only 'explains' much later in the coda.

The short introductory Adagio Drammatico of Memento Vitae with its mood of restlessness and inherent violence, immediately presents this F/C sharp element, but ‘filled in’ to become a chord cluster. In the ensuing Andante Teneramente, delicate, melismatic writing for solo string quartet and winds is all centred round F, but from time to time the texture is interrupted by distant sounds of trumpets and rums (based on C sharp). This latter is not a quotation but a reference to the ‘Dona Nobis Pacem’ section of the ‘Agnus Dei’ in the Missa Solemnis. We also hear short excerpts from the Ecossaise scored for winds.

Much later a short excerpt leading to the storm section from the Pastoral Symphony is heard (F major) and then the heralded storm arrives (D flat, alias C sharp). However the previous reference to trumpets and rums calling for ‘Dona nobis pacem’ makes it clear what kind of a storm is intended here. The storm is the climax of the work and the timpani player has a very important solo role. The well known chorale theme from Beethoven’s opus 132 is played by the solo string quartet (F major but ending in A major and thus including C sharp), and is heard in the gaps of the storm as it gradually dies away.

After some moments of partial recapitulation , the string quartet offers a resolutaion of the F-C sharp conflict in the shape of a softly sustained D flat major chord, but this is abruptly shattered and the work ends not on a note of peace, but with feelings of desolation, lamentation and with an overriding memory of the storm’s violence.

Apart from the Eliot quotation referred to, the other words written at the top of the score are ‘Dona nobis pacem’.


Memento vitae


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