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Born in Barnton, Edinburgh, Musgrave was educated at Moreton Hall School, a boarding independent school for girls near the market town of Oswestry in Shropshire, followed by the University of Edinburgh, and in Paris as a pupil of Nadia Boulanger 1950-54. In 1958 she attended the Tanglewood Festival and studied with Aaron Copland. In 1970 she became Guest Professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, a position which confirmed her increasing involvement with the musical life of the United States. She married American violist and opera conductor Peter Mark in 1971. From 1987 to 2002 she was Distinguished Professor at Queens College, City University of New York.
Among Musgrave's earlier orchestral works, the Concerto for Orchestra of 1967 and the Concerto for Horn of 1971 display the composer's ongoing fascination with ‘dramatic-abstract’ musical ideas. More recent works continue the idea though sometimes in a more programmatic way: such as the oboe concerto Helios of 1994, in which the soloist represents the Sun God. Another frequent source of inspiration is the visual arts – The Seasons took its initial inspiration from a visit to New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, while Turbulent Landscapes (commissioned by the Boston Symphony Orchestra and premiered by them in 2003) depicts a series of paintings by J. M. W. Turner.
She has written more than a dozen operas and other music theatre works, many taking a historical figure as their central character, among them Mary Queen of Scots (1977), Harriet Tubman (Harriet, the Woman called Moses, 1984), Simón Bolívar (1993; premiere 1995 at the Virginia Opera) and Pontalba (2003). In 2008, her 80th birthday was marked by premieres of Points of View, Green, Cantilena, Taking Turns and other performances.
Honours and awards
- Musgrave has received the Koussevitzky Award (1974) as well as two Guggenheim Fellowships (1974/5 and 1982/3).
- She holds honorary degrees from Old Dominion University (Virginia), Glasgow University, Smith College and the New England Conservatory in Boston.
- In 2002 she was appointed a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in the Queen's New Year Honours List.
- Chamber Concerto No 2 (1966; chamber ensemble)
- Night Music (1968; for chamber orchestra – J.W. Chester/Edition Wilhelm Hansen London Ltd.)
- Concerto for Orchestra (1967)
- Clarinet Concerto (1969)
- Concerto for Horn (1971)
- Viola Concerto (1973)
- Rorate Coeli (1973; choir)
- Orfeo (1975; solo flute & tape or strings)
- Pierrot (1985; cl/vn/pf)
- Song of the Enchanter (1990; orchestra) (commissioned to honour the 125th anniversary of the birth of Jean Sibelius) 
- Helios (1994; oboe concerto)
- Journey through a Japanese landscape (1994; for marimba and wind)
- Songs for a Winter’s Evening (1995; soprano, orchestra)
- Phoenix Rising (1997, orchestra)
- Aurora (1999; string orchestra)
- Turbulent Landscapes (2003; orchestra)
- Two's Company (2005; concerto for oboe and percussion)
- Cantilena (2008; oboe quartet)
- Green (2008; string orchestra)
- The Abbot of Drimock (1955)
- Marko the Miser (1962)
- The Decision (1965)
- The Voice of Ariadne (1973)
- Mary, Queen of Scots (1977)
- A Christmas Carol (1979)
- An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge (1981)
- Harriet, the Woman Called Moses (1985)
- Simón Bolívar (1995)
- Pontalba (2003)
- "The composer's quest. Thea Musgrave profile". HeraldScotland. Retrieved 2017-03-29.
- "Interview: Thea Musgrave". Financial Times. Retrieved 2017-03-29.
- "Biography". Thea Musgrave. Retrieved 2017-03-29.
- Kennan, Kent, Grantham, Donald The Technique of Orchestration, 3rd. ed. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1983 pg.340
- "Clarinet Concerto – Thea Musgrave, Composer". Thea Musgrave web site. Retrieved 2007-01-31.
- Song of the Enchanter – Thea Musgrave, composer