Commissioned and first performed by the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir Andrew Davis at the Royal Festival Hall, London, on 18 February 1998.

  • 2+pic.2+ca.2+bcl.2+cbn/4331/timp.4perc/2hp/str
  • 23 min

Programme Note

My original sketches for this work were based on an idea of an extended single movement progressing from darkness (low and fast music) to light (high, slow and peaceful). This idea only became focused dramatically in my mind some months later, when, by chance, I saw a sign Phoenix Rising hanging outside a Virginian coffee shop. As I like to interpret the ancient fable of the phoenix rising from the ashes as the promise of hope and rebirth, this sign struck me immediately as a visualisation of what my piece was really about.

Hence the centre piece of this orchestral work is the magical moment when the phoenix rises. It is a short section marked mysterious, which starts with low set chords (played by two harps seated on different sides of the orchestra), and as they gradually rise to reach a luminous chord played by pitched percussion (marimba, vibraphone, xylophone and glockenspiel) perhaps we can imagine the fabled bird unfolding his giant wings, poised for new flight.

Prior to this central moment, the orchestra depicts a world of stormy violence which leads to a terrain of emptiness and despair. The second half of the work in contrast builds to a romantic climax and a coda of serenity of peace.

Throughout the work the timpani player represents the forces of darkness, and the solo horn (at first off-stage) the distant voice of hope that eventually grows to lead to rebirth and life. The use of physical spaces in the positioning of the orchestra is meant to underline the drama; on-stage and off-stage soloists, and the four percussion players widely spread around the back of the orchestral.

Phoenix Rising is thus a single movement of about 23 minutes. The specific emotional journey that it takes is indicated by the headings given to each section.

Dramatic, violent: the timpani player and his colleagues, the percussion galvanise the fast stormy music. An important theme led by the cellos is continually interrupted by loud outbursts. Eventually after a violent climax the music dies down.

Desolate: a solo cor anglais emphasises the mood of emptiness and desolation. An offstage solo horn intervenes, at first rudely interrupted by the timpani, but then gathers strength and enters the stage.

Aggressive: the solo horn and timpani incite their colleagues into confrontation which culminates in Wild, chaotic - a dramatic climax. The solo horn prevails - Confident, appeasing. The timpani finding no response or support makes his exit.

Mysterious is a short section which is the pivot for the whole work and the mood completely changes.

Peaceful: gentle strings envelope the original cello theme now played by the solo horn and lyrical themes unfold gradually in Warm, lyrical to lead to a Passionate climax. Here the cello theme now stated jubilantly by all the horns draws excited response from the whole orchestra.

A short coda, Floating and luminous, is in a mood of serenity, peace and completion. The timpani is a distant (off-stage) memory.

Phoenix Rising was written between January 1996 and August 1997.

Programme note by Thea Musgrave


Thea Musgrave: Phoenix Rising



  • Thea Musgrave at 95
    • 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.
  • Anton Bruckner Bicentenary in 2024
    • Anton Bruckner Bicentenary in 2024
    • Anton Bruckner celebrates his 200th birthday in 2024. The Austrian composer, organist and teacher is one of the great mavericks of the music world. We have highlighted works that can be combined well with Bruckner's symphonies or with his vocal works for your next concert programmes.