A QUESTION often put to female composers is how they cope with being a woman in a man's world. For Thea Musgrave, this has never really been regarded as a problem and, in fact, she believes there's a far more important question facing women - to what extent they're willing to follow their man.

Thea Musgrave is still regarded by many as a Scottish composer but for the past 25 years she lived in Norfolk, Virginia, with her husband, violist-turned-opera-director Peter Mark. She never intended to live in the US, but where Peter went, Thea chose to follow and she now holds dual-citizenship and the unique title of the leading Scottish-American composer.

It's one of the virtues of a composer's life that they can practise their craft almost anywhere, given a desk and a

bit of peace and quiet. Consequently, despite near-constant travel, Musgrave, who celebrates her 70th birthday on Wednesday, has produced a most impressive and somewhat overlooked catalogue of works.

Born in Barnton, Midlothian, on May 27, 1928, her musical studies began at the University of Edinburgh. Following graduation, she took up a scholarship to study at the Paris Conservatoire with the gentle tyrant Nadia Boulanger, one of the century's most influential teachers of composition. Musgrave talks fondly of her time in Paris and the lessons learned from Boulanger, but after four years in the French capital her music had begun to make noises in her native Scotland and so, in 1954, she returned home to Edinburgh.

The early works that were to catch the imagination of the Scots tended towards a folk influence such as the 1953 Suite O' Bairnsangs, commissioned by the Scottish festival in Braemar - a collection of songs for voice and piano set to the words of Maurice Lindsay, a poet to whom she returned once again for the Cantata for a Summer's Day which served as her Edinburgh International Festival debut in 1955, sung by the Saltire Singers. Early orchestral works, too, such as Obliques (1958) and the Scottish Dance Suite (1959) were to receive premieres by the then BBC Scottish Orchestra.

Like many of her contemporaries such as Boulez, Stockhausen, and Nono, Musgrave emerged through the rite of passage in the 1950s when composers rejected the traditional concept of tonality and began to compose in the international lingua franca of atonality. It was then that Musgrave began her quest to promote what she calls the

dramatic-abstract in music.

In short, her theory is based on the premise that no music can ever be entirely abstract and that there must always exist, in every piece, a dramatic component. What Musgrave has sought to do is to find new and individual ways of presenting this drama inherent in both the structure and the artistic message lying beneath each work.

And nowhere in her output is this theory more truly represented than in her concertos for clarinet and horn, composed in 1968 and 1971 respectively. In the once-notorious clarinet concerto, the soloist moves through the different sections of the orchestra, cribbing their part from the music stands of various rank-and-file musicians. On the surface, this may appear to be a theatrical gimmick but the musical significance lies in the formation of different concertante groups as led by the soloist which, in turn, dictate the orchestral texture of the piece at any one time.

A horn concerto followed three years later and Musgrave once again employed the technique of spacial displacement. Here, however, it's the orchestral horn-players and not the soloist who take up unconventional stances in the performance space. Both acoustic and dramatic potential is explored to great effect and the premiere given by dedicatee Barry Tuckwell and the SNO was a huge success.

It was around that time, in the early 1970s, that Musgrave was to receive

the first of two very significant phone calls. She was invited to take up a

guest professorship at the University of California in Santa Barbara. Little did she know that the US was soon to become her home.

The university asked Musgrave to compose a piece of music to mark one of the important dates in the academic calendar, so she asked who their most impressive musicians were. The reply came that she should compose a piece for cellist Geoffrey Rutkowski and violist Peter Mark. The Elegy was to be the first of many collaborations between Musgrave and Mark, the most important being their marriage on October 2, 1971.

Together they returned to Britain to pursue their respective musical careers in London, Musgrave continuing to compose and Mark jobbing in the viola section of the London Sinfonietta. When the chance came for Mark to play a role in the amalgamation of the Royal Manchester College of Music and the Northern School to

create the Royal Northern College of Music, the couple moved north and it was there that they would receive the second significant phone call.

Musgrave recalls the phone ringing in the middle of the night. Peter answered somewhat surprised and the voice at the other end apologised for having misinterpreted the time difference between the US and the UK. Virginia is five hours behind Manchester and the call brought an invitation for Peter to

contribute to the formation of a new opera company in Norfolk, Virginia. Musgrave insisted he bought a ticket and he returned immediately to his native America.

Mark had always been interested in opera, his boy soprano winning praise and admiration in many New York Met productions, and Musgrave knew he longed to return to the theatre. Virginia turned out to be the perfect training ground and today Peter Mark presides over a leading provincial opera company.

Musgrave's own contribution to opera is perhaps her greatest achievement, some suggesting that she stands a close second to Benjamin Britten as this century's finest British operatic composer.

After early scores including the Abbot of Drimock (1995) and The Decision (1965), it was her 1977 Edinburgh Festival premiere of Mary, Queen of Scots, a Scottish Opera commission, that was to shoot her to international repute. A vivid account of a period in the life of the leading lady in Scottish history, the opera later served as Musgrave's Virginia debut.

Following this, Musgrave composed a number of operas for the Virginia Opera Association. A Christmas Carol (1979) was based on the Dickens original while the more recent Harriet, The Woman Called Moses (1984) and Simon Bolivar (1992) brought to prominence the libertarian cause of two pan-American revolutionaries - Harriet Tubman who assisted fleeing slaves on the American underground railway, and nationalist liberator Simon Bolivar, who triumphed in his campaign against Spanish colonial rule.

While residing in Norfolk and summering in California, Musgrave has always tried to journey home a couple of times a year, often for first performances of UK-generated commissions. She recalls one trip home accompanied by her husband. While Musgrave sauntered through the UK passports arrivals desk, Mark was stopped and grilled by a jobsworth immigration officer who demanded to know who he had married. On hearing the name Thea Musgrave, the officer closed his desk and demanded to meet the woman who had composed a brilliant clarinet concerto.

Airports are a frequent sight for Musgrave, who commutes each week between Norfolk and New York where she lectures at the City University,

not just teaching her students the necessary technical skills for composing, but also offering valuable lessons on the role of a composer in modern society. Each student must have an answer to why a symphony should be commissioned when there's a need for another hospital ward.

America's lamentably poor arts funding has been a great eye-opener to Musgrave and she recognises both the immense commercial pressures on US artists and the situation whereby the need for financial success is actually stifling genuine creativity.

It's not surprising, then, that in recent years Musgrave's commissions have demonstrated a British bias. The Seasons (1988) was for the Academy of St Martin's-in-the-Field, while Rainbow opened the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall in 1990, the year the city relished the title of European City of Culture. Songs for a Winter's Evening was commissioned in 1995 by the 17th Dumfries and Galloway Arts Festival and the inaugural Burns International Festival, a sensitive tribute for the bi-centenary of the death of the Bard.

Concerti, too, have returned but, typically, not in the traditional sense and not for conventional instruments. Autumn Sonata (1993) is for bass clarinet and orchestra, while A Journey Through a Japanese Landscape (1994) is for marimba and wind orchestra, premiered by Evelyn Glennie. Perhaps the most striking is Helios (1995), her oboe concerto commissioned by Orkney's St Magnus Festival and given a memorable premiere by Nicholas Daniel and the SCO, conducted by Nicholas Kraemer.

There's a thread running through these recent works, not just in the titles but also in the musical language of

the pieces. Musgrave is passionately concerned with nature and, in part-

icular, the cycles of the seasons which demand renewal in art as well as in

life. No doubt, her own constantly evolving cycle through various landscapes has played its part in shaping these recent works.

The cycle brought Musgrave to Scotland for a commercial recording of Helios with the SCO and Nicholas Daniel. She'll be back again next week for her 70th birthday party and once again in August for the Proms when the BBC SSO and soprano Lisa Milne will give the London premiere of her Songs for a Winter's Evening.

n Thea Musgrave is Composer of the Week, Monday-Friday, at noon on BBC Radio 3. Produced by Elizabeth Clark.