Sunday 15 June 2014

David Matthews – Essays, Tributes and Criticism – a new book published by Plumbago Books that brings together a selection of essays, reviews, tributes and critical commentaries on his music in a volume that will appeal to many

David Matthews is surely one of Britain’s finest living composers. He was born in 1943 in Walthamstow, London, England and brought up in nearby Leytonstone. He received piano lessons from the age of seven but didn’t attempt composition until the age of sixteen when, after hearing a recording of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, he wrote a symphony of his own.

The absence of any music tuition at school led to Matthews studying Classics at Nottingham University. After university, Deryck Cooke introduced him to Donald Mitchell of Faber Music for whom he did some copying and editorial work. In 1966 he was asked to complete the 'rehearsal score' of Britten's The Burning Fiery Furnace and, for the next three years, became a part-time assistant to Britten’s regular music assistant Rosamund Strode. It was Deryck Cooke that David Matthews, together with his brother Colin, collaborated with on orchestrating the final version of his score of the performing version of Mahler's Tenth Symphony.

Matthews had no professional performances of his own music until in 1967 when a string quartet performed by the Dartington Quartet was broadcast by the BBC. There were other performances at London venues such as the Royal Festival Hall, the Queen Elizabeth Hall and the Purcell Room.

In 1972 Matthews met the Australian composer Peter Sculthorpe, who was a visiting professor at Sussex University. This resulted in a visit to Australia to assist Sculthorpe and to collaborate on a number of film scores. Matthews continued to write pieces of his own including a movement of his Second String Quartet.

On returning to England, Matthews continued composition with works that included his Symphony No.1 and Third String Quartet (a BBC Commission). He supplemented his income by orchestrating the silent film scores of Carl Davis, thus enabling him to remain freelance.

Matthews formed a close association with the English Chamber Orchestra , later becoming its Music Advisor and, from 1989 to 2003, he was Artistic Director of the Deal Festival in Kent .

Matthews has stated that he was not destined to follow the current avant-garde, but to continue along a path similar to that which Britten and Tippett were following as well as one rooted in the Viennese Classics and the early 20th-century modernists such as Stravinsky, Bartók and the non-twelve tone works of Schoenberg and Berg, always trying to reconcile the present with the past.

David Matthews’ compositions to date include choral works and vocal works, seven symphonies, orchestral works, concertos including two for violin and one for piano, twelve string quartets, instrumental and piano works.

Last year David Matthews turned 70, an occasion to celebrate as well as to assess his career to date. Plumbago Books (distributed by Boydell Press) have just published a book that brings together a selection of Matthews’ essays, reviews, tributes and critical commentaries on his music.


Plumbago Books
ISBN: 9780956600769
Published: 19 June 2014
Hardback Pages: 320
(available in paperback)

Entitled David Matthews – Essays, Tributes and Criticism it is edited by Thomas Hyde. Divided into three sections, the first provides a wide cross section of Matthews’ writings on a variety of musical topics, the second contains tributes from people including his brother, Colin, Peter Sculthorpe, Paul McCartney, John McCabe, Judith Weir and Robin Holloway.

The third section gives critical commentaries on Matthews’ music from Malcolm McDonald, Arnold Whittal, Edward Venn, Geraint Lewis, Hugh Wood , Thomas Hyde and Frank Ward.

After a brief A Report in Progress and Personal Thoughts, Part I: David Matthews: Selected Essays gives us two of Matthews’ book reviews, Alex Ross’ The Rest is Noise and Joseph Kerman’s book on Bach’s keyboard fugues, The Art of Fugue. With the review of The Rest is Noise, Matthews looks at the main thrust of Ross’ book namely the role of the composer in Society. It is an object lesson in criticism taking one through the contents of the book with a lucid discussion of the issues posed. The Art of Fugue is equally erudite in its perception, more an essay on fugue than a pure review.

The section on Mahler’s Tenth Symphony is a fascinating insight into David and Colin Matthews’ involvement and some of the difficult decisions made in assisting in the performing version. Nicely linked to this is In Search of Mahler’s Childhood where Matthews recalls visits to Czechoslovakia especially the village of Kalištĕ, Mahler’s birthplace.

There is a short but interesting essay on Sibelius and symphonic form, relating that composer’s music to Matthews’ own approach to composition. Dark Pastoral looks at the problems of unfinished works, in particular Vaughan Williams’ Cello Concerto, a subject that arises more than once in this book.

David Matthews writes about other composers including Britten, Goldschmidt, Ives, Stravinsky and Tippett by way of book reviews or short essays. There is an extract from his book Michael Tippett: An Introductory Study (1980) which neatly links to the question of a composer in society, Tippett having had distinct views on this subject.

Of particular interest is Matthews’ insight into Benjamin Britten where he writes about Death in Venice and the Third String Quartet which quotes from that opera. Two book reviews, on Humphrey Carpenter’s Benjamin Britten: A Biography, a book that is on my shelves and John Bridcut’s Britten’s Children are equally interesting. Indeed, Matthews writing on any of these composers is equally insightful.

Pieces in our Time, a review of A Handbook to Twentieth Century Musical Sketches edited by Patricia Hall and Friedemann Sallis, again touches on the issue of unfinished works in so far as it looks at the working methods of composers and the sketches made by them.

Part II: Tributes brings tributes from Colin Matthews, Peter Sculthorpe, which is biographical in so far as it relates to Peter Sculthorpe’s work with David Matthews; Roger Scruton, who looks in more detail at David Matthews’ music; George Vass and the Presteigne Festival and Paul McCartney, who provides a short tribute and talks about Matthews’ assistance bringing his orchestral piece, Standing Stone, to completion.

Other tributes take the form of poems and short musical tributes from Maggie Hemingway, James Francis Brown, John McCabe, Pavel Zemek Novák, Judith Weir, Dmitri Smirnov, Elena and Alissa Firsova, Robin Holloway and Robin Leanse.

Part III: Criticism contains some particularly useful articles including A View into the Landscape: David Matthews at 70, a perceptive article by Malcom MacDonald; Enriching the Present on David Matthews’ 6th and 7th Symphony by Arnold Whittall, essential reading for any admirer of Matthews; Matthews and the Single-movement Symphony by Edward Venn, a pretty detailed analysis of Matthews Symphonies 1, 2, 3 and 7; Geraint Lewis on Symphonic poems and Some Concertos; Hugh Wood on Matthews’ string quartets, another insightful essay and editor, Thomas Hyde’s, Matthews’ Melody and a Sense of Place.

Finally there is Envoi: Seven Wines for Seven Symphonies by Frank Ward, a wine loving friend of Matthews and which relates each of the seven symphonies to date to a particular wine. A lovely end to a celebratory volume.

There is a chronological list of Selected Works that, nevertheless, looks pretty complete to me, a useful discography, very much up to date, a bibliography and index. This book abounds with musical examples and black and white photographs.

Any admirer of David Matthews’ music or, indeed, British music in general, will want this book, touching as it does on so many other composers and musical issues. The range of topics and composers will, I am sure, make it attractive to many people.