David Matthews (composer)
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Matthews was born in London into a family that was musical, though not formally trained; the desire to compose did not manifest itself until he was sixteen, and for a time he and his younger brother Colin Matthews, also a composer, were each other's only teachers. The start of the 'Mahler boom' in the early 1960s, when the works of Gustav Mahler began to enter the regular British repertoire for the first time, provided a tremendous creative impetus for both of them; but although they have sometimes since collaborated as arrangers (in orchestrating seven early Mahler songs, for instance) and as editors (in the published version of Deryck Cooke's 'performing version' of the draft of Mahler's Tenth Symphony), as composers they have very much gone their separate ways.
David Matthews read Classics at Nottingham University and afterwards, feeling himself still too much self-taught, studied composition with Anthony Milner; he was also much helped by the advice and encouragement of fellow British composer Nicholas Maw. Then, for three years, he was associated with Benjamin Britten and the Aldeburgh Festival. Not until he was 25 did he produce a work that satisfied him sufficiently to be pronounced his 'Opus 1'. He has largely avoided teaching, but to support his composing career has been employed in much editorial work and orchestration of film music. He has also written occasional articles and reviews for various music journals - the culmination of which activity being his 1980 book about Michael Tippett, a composer he admires enormously.
Tippett is indeed one of the strongest palpable influences on Matthews's own music, which could be characterised as a potent distillation and development of certain qualities that distinguish the Tippett, Britten and Maw generations of English composers - notably their ecstatic melodic writing and vibrantly expanded tonal harmony. But underlying this deceptively 'English' surface, and coming increasingly to the fore in recent works, is a concern for large-scale structure that connects rather to the central European tradition, back through Mahler and ultimately to Beethoven. Since the 1990s he has become increasingly interested in the tango as a dance-form capable of bearing complex structures, and in some of his symphonies and string quartets a tango takes the place traditionally reserved for the scherzo.
Although he has written a fair amount of vocal music, notably a song-cycle, The Golden Kingdom, on poems of Kathleen Raine and Cantiga, a dramatic cantata on the tragic story of Inez de Castro, to a text by the novelist Maggie Hemingway (who was Matthews's partner for the last ten years of her life), Matthews's output as a whole is centred on the classical instrumental and orchestral forms. His series of (to date) thirteen string quartets is one of the most distinguished that any composer has essayed in recent years; he currently has written eight symphonies. They, and an accompanying cluster of works such as September Music, the Serenade, two violin concertos, concertos for cello, for piano, and for oboe, the symphonic poems In the Dark Time, The Music of Dawn, A Vision and a Journey and the monumental orchestral Chaconne (inspired by a poem of Geoffrey Hill), show that he can handle large and small orchestras with skill.
Matthews celebrated his 70th birthday in 2013. The occasion was marked by: a Nash Ensemble portrait concert at the Wigmore Hall – which included the premiere of A Blackbird Sang, a quartet for flute and strings; a major new symphonic poem, A Vision of the Sea, premiered at the Proms by the BBC Philharmonic; a new concerto for violin, viola and strings co-commissioned by the Presteigne and Cheltenham Festivals; two piano pieces for William Howard performed at the Spitalfields Festival; and the release of two recordings – a disc of piano music for Toccata Classics featuring pianist Laura Mikkola, and a Dutton disc of Matthews’ Symphony No. 7 (Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra/John Carewe) and Vespers for Choir and Orchestra (BSO/The Bach Choir/David Hill)
- Michael Tippett, An Introductory Study, Faber & Faber, 1980.
- Landscape into Sound (the 1st Peter Fuller Memorial Lecture), Claridge Press, 1992
- Britten, Haus Publishing, 2003
- David Matthews: Essays, Tributes and Criticism, Plumbago Books and Arts, 2014