Previewing David Matthews’s Symphony No.6

Written by: Colin Anderson

Colin Anderson talks to composer David Matthews about his latest symphony, No.6, which receives its world premiere at the BBC Proms on 2 August…

David Matthews

A new symphony is announced for this year’s season of BBC Proms. It’s the Sixth that David Matthews (born in London in 1943) has composed to date. But it’s not a BBC commission. “My neighbour David Cohen runs the John S. Cohen Foundation – very fortunately for me, being his neighbour. When I moved there, I didn’t try to get to know him because he might have thought that I was angling for a commission! We did become friends though and he asked me in a quite natural way if I would like to write a big piece. I said I’d like to finish this symphony, which I had already started. Then we thought it would be nice to place it in a prestigious place and the Proms seemed a good idea – and that was arranged by my publisher.”

The word ‘symphony’ is a time-honoured musical title. What does it mean to David Matthews? “I do make a distinction between symphony and symphonic poem, and I’ve written both. A symphony has no external connection: it’s a piece of music. I do have the classical symphonic archetypal at the back of my mind and I continue to use those movement-types … there seems to be no reason to forsake them; I build on them, I hope, and make innovations.” The distinction made between symphony and symphonic poem immediately brings to mind Sibelius: he wrote both and his symphonies, whatever might have inspired them, however masterly they may be and however they may move us, are nonetheless abstract and rigorous musical statements. “Sibelius has been very important to me because of the idea of the one-movement symphony, his Seventh, and the gradual changes that Sibelius made.”

Not that Matthews’s Sixth is in one movement. It’s in three. “I haven’t done a three-movement symphony before. I have been obsessed with Bruckner and his Ninth Symphony, the form that he adopted in that, the adaptation of sonata form, which is, broadly speaking, an exposition, then an expanded counter-exposition and a coda rather than development and return; I find that a useful form to use.” Yet, Matthews No.6 began with a Scherzo that had (and has) an independent life. “It was written as a part of a set of Variations on Vaughan Williams’s Down Ampney; the idea was suggested by John McCabe who was co-ordinating this multi-composer project for the Three Choirs Festival. I wanted to write a short symphonic scherzo and I also had thoughts of a symphony that would have two big movements either side of it.” Thus this Scherzo was both a launching pad and is a “pivot” for the symphony. The first movement is “a long journey leading up to it and the last movement is a kind of resolution.”

The finale of Matthews’s new symphony is slow; that suggests the influence of Mahler 9, which, as it turns out, is not consciously related to the new work. “There are though some parallels with Mahler 6, quite deliberately. I’ve introduced an interlude into the first movement that is similar to the centre of Mahler’s first movement. I bought a cowbell, one cowbell; I use it to introduce the interlude, one stroke of the bell. It’s in E flat so I’m having to lend the percussionist the bell because he won’t find one in E flat!”

The symmetry of Matthews 6 is immediately appealing: the outer movements are roughly 15 minutes each, while the scherzo, which is “positive, optimistic and joyful,” is very short. Matthews has scored his Sixth Symphony for a “standard big orchestra including a contrabass clarinet and a bass flute: knowing this was a BBC orchestra I thought I could indulge myself a bit.” The orchestra is the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. The conductor is Jac van Steen. Has there been any contact between composer and conductor? (David and I met up on Friday 20 July.) “He rang me up this morning and said he wants a long discussion on Monday. He says the symphony is very difficult – I don’t think it is! – but he also says that he and the orchestra can do it well; there’s plenty of rehearsal. I write what I want to write, but I take my example from Britten who was very practical and ensured everything was playable. In the symphony’s case there are quite a lot of things that are exposed and need to be played well.” Matthews’s No.6 follows two shorter symphonies that are composed for smaller orchestras; indeed “I haven’t written a symphony for large orchestra for 25 years.”

With the relationship to Vaughan Williams, specifically Down Ampney (“it’s a lovely tune, but can you end a symphony with a hymn?”), and with a knowledge of some of David Matthews’s other music, I make a comment about the English-ness of the new work. “I’m not ashamed to be thought English. I’m very close to Britten and Tippett, both of whom I knew well and have learnt from; neither thought themselves particularly English, but they were – you shouldn’t try and deliberately avoid it, as some people do. I have the greatest respect for Vaughan Williams and his symphonies.”

But the new work is not parochial. An Australian Dawn Chorus is cued in the finale. “Australia has been important to me. I have been there many times and it started by getting to know Peter Sculthorpe in England and then going to stay with him – over 30 years ago. I have been there many times and once thought of moving there. I am very intrigued by the sounds of Australia. The birds there have a completely different sound to English birds – often very melodious in a simple way: the Australian magpie comes up with extraordinary little tunes. Last year I was in Fremantle and every morning I woke up with these sounds and I wrote some of them down. It seemed a nice way to introduce the coda of the last movement.”

The symphony suggests a journey? “It’s about life really; there’s a lot of struggle and it ends with a temporary resolution; the end is peaceful but there’s been a lot of turmoil, especially in the first movement, a lot of different sorts of energy. I think it will sound good!”

At the Proms concert, whatever peace and resolution Matthews’s new symphony lends itself to, it will be brushed aside by the eventual cataclysm of Ravel’s La valse. Earlier in the concert Janine Jansen play’s Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No.2 and, maybe, a rare outing for Debussy’s Printemps will be in aural harmony, and avian kinship, with Matthews’s work.

Earlier still, David Matthews is the subject of a “Composer Portrait” (beginning at 5 o’clock in the Royal Albert Hall, the Prom itself starts at 7). “I was asked to choose a couple of my pieces. Marina is a setting of a poem by T. S. Eliot that I wrote for the Nash Ensemble about 20 years ago. I haven’t heard it for ages and I thought this a nice opportunity to revive it: it’s for baritone, viola, basset horn and piano. An interesting combination! Dionysus Dithyramb is a short, explosive piece for piano based on Nietzsche. ‘Dionysus Dithyramb’ is included in his last poem, written before he went mad. He was struggling against illness in his last year and used to play ‘Tristan’ on the piano. My piece represents a struggle to stay sane; he didn’t, but the piece does; it’s an assertion of sanity – that’s the idea anyway! And there are three clarinet pieces as well, little tone poems on themes from classical literature.”

To complete the David Matthews portrait – for the moment – Dutton Epoch has just issued a CD of his music (CDLX 7189; 74 minutes). From Sea to Sky and Goodnight Song are both enjoyable orchestral miniatures; the first piece is a scherzo (which maybe anticipates that in the new symphony) and the second includes touching use of a traditional song of evening greeting. Those works frame the CD’s contents. A Congress of Passions is an intense work for mezzo-soprano, oboe and strings; Movement of Autumn (for soprano and chamber orchestra) enjoys nostalgic reflection; and a trio of vocal works is completed by The Sleeping Lord (for soprano and septet) and is about sleeping leading to waking (from a poem by David Jones). This varied and wide-ranging collection, conducted by George Vass, of exquisitely composed music also includes Aubade (for chamber orchestra and with Australian birdsong to the fore) and Total Tango, which is all that need be said! Except, writing as someone not generally enamoured by the tango, this one is easy to be smitten by!

David Matthews has the Proms to himself this year; in other words, there is no music from his brother Colin. The two are now utterly distinctive composers. “When we started we were very close as brothers and had the same enthusiasms – and composing was one of them. We didn’t know anybody else who was interested in the music we liked – which was anything from Bach to Boulez. We listened to huge amounts of music – through the radio, borrowing records through the library and reading scores that the librarian used to buy for us – that wouldn’t happen today! We taught each other and played things in piano duet to learn them. In our early ‘twenties we went our separate ways and have retained great respect for each other and also a healthy rivalry: when I hear one of his pieces I think I must write something better than he has, and he probably thinks the same!”

For this year’s Proms, David takes centre stage!

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