Friday, 1 July 2011, 6:00PM
Barnard's Inn Hall

Birdsong and Music

David Matthews

Many composers have been influenced by birdsong. Mozart treasured the songs of his pet starling, even giving the bird a ceremonial funeral. David Matthews, one of Britain's leading composers, has always been interested in the incorporation of the natural world into his music, recently even including birdsong in some recent compositions. This lecture offers an opportunity for reflection on the relations between music and the natural world and how a composer can be brought closer to one through the other and vice versa.

This is a part of the 2011 City of London Festival. The other lectures in this series are:
      Culture and Resistance by Michael Walling
      Emerging Markets and Climate Change by Dr Cameron Hepburn
      Percy Grainger: Australia's Greatest Composer by Malcolm Gillies
      Voices of the Land: Nga reo o te Whenua by Richard Nunns 

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David Matthews is an English composer of mainly orchestral, chamber, vocal and piano works. Born in London in 1943, David Matthew's 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 emergence of Gustav Mahler's music as regular pieces performed in the British repertoire in the early 1960s was a tremendous creative impetus for both of them; but though they have sometimes collaborated as arrangers (for instance in orchestrating seven early Mahler songs) and 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 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 done much editorial work and orchestration of film music. He has also written occasional articles and reviews for various music journals - the culmination of that activity being his book on Sir 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) ten string quartets is one of the most distinguished that any composer has essayed in recent years; he currently has written seven symphonies. They, and an accompanying cluster of works such as September Music, the Serenade, two Violin Concertos, the symphonic poem In the Dark Time, and the monumental orchestral Chaconne (inspired by a poem of Geoffrey Hill), show that he can handle large and small orchestras with a skill rivalled by few others of his generation.

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1 July 2011

Birdsong and Music
David Matthews

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