Musgrave Narcissus for Solo Flute with Digital Delay


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Musgrave Narcissus for Solo Flute with Digital Delay

Musgrave Narcissus for Solo Flute with Digital Delay

Flute (with digital delay system)
Commissioned by the National Endowment for the Arts for Wendy Rolfe, Harvey Sollberger, Patricia Spencer and Robert Willoughby


This work was written in 1986-87 for four American flautists, in response to a commission from the National Endowment for the Arts. The composer subsequently arranged the work for solo clarinet, especially for F. Gerald Errante.

It is intended as a concert work but it can also be performed as a ballet for two dancers (Narcissus and his reflection).

The work follows the myth of Narcissus closely: the “live” flute taking the part of Narcissus and the echo effects produced by the digital delay system evoking Narcissus’ reflection.

Perhaps the story is best summed up in the quotation from Hermann Melville’s Moby Dick: “And still deeper the meaning of that story of Narcissus, who because he could not grasp the tormenting mild image he saw in the fountain, plunged into it and was drowned. But that same image, we ourselves see in all rivers and oceans. It is the image of the ungraspable phantom of life….”


Narcissus wanders through the forest, observing, enjoying…unselfconscious but self-absorbed. He sees a pool of water and then as he approaches, notices his reflection in the water. He is intrigued and then jumps back in fright. Once more he approaches… it is still there. Narcissus steps away from the pool to consider this phenomenon. Several times he approaches, the figure is always there watching him.

In the shimmering sunlight Narcissus seems to see this glorious and attractive being move in the rippling water. He is dazzled and slowly holds out his arms. To his amazement the figure responds. In awe and wonder Narcissus approaches closer and closer.

With a sudden change of mood, Narcissus dances happily and playfully…the figure echoing him. But then Narcissus begins to question anxiously the lack of any independent response… Is he being mocked? He gets more and more agitated and finally in a fury he rushes headlong into the water to grapple with the figure. The waves surge up and Narcissus is drowned. There is a distant shimmering vision of Narcissus and his reflection. Then in the setting sun, the vision disappears. The forest is empty and the pool lies undisturbed.

Thea Musgrave

Thea Musgrave (b. 1928) holds a prominent position as a respected Scottish-American composer renowned for her expressive and powerful musical language. Her compositions receive global acclaim, finding a place in major concert halls and festivals. Musgrave’s music embodies inventive clarity, masterful orchestrations, and captivating communication, continually pushing the boundaries of instrumental performance.

Her diverse works range from abstract concertos like the Clarinet Concerto and Horn Concerto to programmatic pieces inspired by paintings, poems, and Greek legends. Some of her compositions even incorporate spatial acoustics, creating a unique and immersive experience for the audience.

Over the past four decades, Musgrave has also contributed several operas, displaying her remarkable versatility and creativity. Her significant contributions to contemporary music have earned her numerous awards and honours, including two Guggenheim Fellowships, the Ivors Classical Music Award 2018, and The Queen’s Medal for Music. She was appointed a CBE in 2002.

Recent retrospectives, such as the BBC’s Total Immersion Weekend and the Stockholm International Composer Festival, have provided a platform to showcase the immense diversity of her music. Musgrave’s compositions continue to captivate audiences worldwide, establishing her as an influential and celebrated composer.

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