AI PROFILE: The new boy

Colin Matthews OBE, composer



To put Colin Matthews in his place in the pantheon of British composers, the critic Paul Griffiths summed him up in industrial terms: "The Isambard Kingdom Brunel of contemporary music; master of great time machines, steamy with energy derived from pulse and from massive, surging harmony, and open- ly displaying their structural engineering, all finished with a craftsman’s care”.

It’s exciting music, unexpectedly melodic for those not accustomed to enjoying contemporary work, that doesn’t conform to the norms of composition. But what Griffiths’s description ignores is that almost throughout his career he has been a leading champion both for new music and young composers, and that he has become one of the world’s most commissioned composers in spite of having been through a musicless state education.

As well as being one of our most prolific composers, Colin Matthews has run important elements of contempo- rary music in this country. He is the administrator of the Holst Foundation, a grant-giving charity set up 35 years ago by Gustav Holst’s daughter, Imogen, to support living composers. He is a trustee and music director of the Britten- Pears Foundation which, among other things, commissions new music, and he chairs the Britten Estate. He’s been a council member of the Royal Philharmonic Society since 2005 and sits on its executive committee. And alongside a sheaf of other fellowships and honorary roles that testify to the high regard he is held in, he is the Prince Consort Pro- fessor of Music at the Royal College of Art. He was made an OBE in 2011.

Reading that you’d think that our subject was the prod- uct of a childhood and education that was steeped in clas- sical music. In fact, he and his brother David, the older by two years and also a successful composer, effectively taught each other from the age of ten until they began to get formal teaching while at university (not studying music).

He celebrates his 70th birthday this year with yet an- other new work at the BBC Proms, while his current task is at the other end of the scale, a choral piece to celebrate a lo- cal amateur choir’s own 40th birthday. But that is not what is on the music stand on the piano in his Clapham home: it’s the 70th Birthday Sonata, composed by David Matthews. Born in Walthamstow their childhood home was not a musical one - “Mother liked music but that’s as far as it went” – and the family had graduated from Brick Lane and Bow. His father had six brothers all of whom could vamp a piano but none could read music. Both boys won scholar- ships to Bancroft School in Woodford, “ a reasonably good school, though musically useless”.

But somehow, though they knew no-one in the music world, the musical gene asserted itself in both boys and they would scour Leytonstone Public Library’s music col- lection obsessively.

The catalyst, however, was the 1960 centenary of the birth of Mahler, a composer still little regarded then but who was accorded broadcasts of all his symphonies by the BBC Third Programme, as Radio 3 still was. At the end of the year came the 10th, the unfinished symphony which had been completed by the musicologist Deryck Cooke – the performance of which was forbidden by Mahler’s wid- ow until she relented after she’d listened to it, and Cooke’s work was not then broadcast. Enchanted and intrigued by the music, the 14-year-old wrote to the BBC requesting a copy of the score, which he was sent; with even greater temerity, having examined the music, he wrote to Cooke himself to say he’d found some mistakes. “Instead of say- ing ‘go away’ he was very welcoming and extremely open with me” he recalls, and they became friends and collabo- rators. Mahler’s completed 10th was first performed in the 1964 Proms at the Royal Albert Hall, with Matthews the only acknowledged aide.

He studied classics at Nottingham Uni- versity, began to study composition privately while he was there and later was invited to Sussex University to do a music doctorate; he began to teach at Sussex.

n 1975 Matthews won the Scot- tish National Orchestra’s Ian Whyte Award for his Fourth Sonata which brought with it not only five live per- formances of the piece but publica- tion by Novello, “so I had a published piece which made it easier to take me on – being published was really al- most the only way through then”.

By then he had begun working at the Aldburgh Festival where he met Imogen Holst with whom he helped set up the Holst Foundation, and also got involved with what was to be the Britten-Pears Foundation, vital life- lines which meant that he was paid while having the freedom to com- pose. He worked with Britten and though he admired the great man, he was not at first an influence on his own work. “I was only beginning to find my own voice, but to work with Mahler and Britten was extraordi- nary, watching two great composers actually at work” he says.

The work was flowing: his or- chestral Night Music, the Sonata No. 5 called Landscape, and then his BBC- commissioned First Cello Concerto. A series of London Symphony Orches- tra commissions began with Quatrain, conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas (another champion of new music), and he became the LSO’s resident composer. He wrote string quartets, oboe quartets, ballet music, film mu- sic and a huge choral-orchestral piece, Renewal, commissioned by the BBC to mark its 50th anniversary in 1996. He wrote Hidden Variables for the Royal Ballet and the opening of the Royal Opera House in 1999, and his output has not flagged. From 2001 to 2010 he was associate composer for the Hallé. His major First World War choral piece, No Man’s Land – inspired by a trip to the Somme with his mother to find the grave of her father who was killed there 1914 - won him the 2012 British Composer Award.

He also spotted a gap in recording for new music so, 27 years ago, set up NMC Recordings to conserve performances of British composers’ work that might only get a single live performance. It was created as charity with some funding from the Holst Foundation, and now is prospering, counter-intuitively in an era of downloads and streaming. “The demand for CDs is still high, we don’t rely on dealers, we sell direct form the website so we get twice the money. The whole digital revolution has been quite good for us”.

This almost cursory resumé of his output does not do it credit, but along- side he has been as tireless on behalf of young composers and their work. Now, few composers are published, computer technology makes it less vital, but there are more opportunities for young writers to get their music played in conservatoires than before, partly thanks to the championing of Matthews and his friend Oliver Knus- sen, the composer/conductor. It was with Knussen that he set up the com- position course at Aldeburgh which takes composers at the beginning of their careers and allows them to work with players. “There’s a whole new generation of young performers now for whom new music is a natural language” he says. “We’ve been very concerned with the gap when you leave the conservatoire into the real world, and the course Olly and I set 

up in 1992 was very much aimed at that”. In their first year they had Tho- mas Ades and Julian Anderson, two of the biggest names in classical com- position today.

With the LSO he also created the Panufnik Composers’ Scheme which allows young talents to work with an orchestra, based at St Luke’s and sponsored by Helen Hamlyn Trust. Not all of them make it. “If you were looking statistically at the list of com- posers I’ve worked with over the last 25 years it might be as many as 200, and to be brutally honest not much more than a dozen made in terms of getting through. It’s not surprising re- ally – there wouldn’t be room if they were all successful, nobody would be playing them. But half of them are making a decent go of it”.

But his own work continues to de- light. Between now and next March there will no fewer than 18 public performances of his music Berceuse for Dresden. His birthday is being marked in this year’s Proms by the National Youth Orchestra playing his Pluto the Renewer, Matthews’s 2000 com- missioned addition to Holst’s Planet Suite, and his Berceuse for Dresden (to be played in August by the Hallé un- der Mark Elder), inspired by the Vic- tor Klemperer diaries. They record a Jew’s survival in the city through the Nazi years, and the piece was com- missioned to mark the restoration of Dresden’s Frauenckirche in 2005.

The world premiere of that piece by Lorin Maazel’s New York Philharmonic in the Frauenkirche is one of two career highlights that come to Colin Matthews’s mind, but the other is characteristically about an innova- tive young ensemble.

“It’s Spira Mirabili, an Italian chamber orchestra that works entirely without a conductor, and sometimes even without music in a completely dark hall. They commissioned a piece from me (a tongue-in-cheek “miss- ing” slow movement for Beethoven’s 8th Symphony, which Spiru Mirabilis duly played as part of the whole sym- phony at the Leipzig Gewandhaus) and we must have had 40 hours’ rehearsal, extraordinarily intensive. Amazing and totally uplifting.”



1946 Born in London

1958 Bancroft School, Woodford, Essex

1965 Nottingham University

1968 Sussex University

1971-84 Working with imogen Holst

1972-76 Assistant to Benjamin Britten

1975 Wins ian Whyte award for Fourth Sonata

1984 Commissioned for BBC Proms

1989 Founds NFC Recordings

1989 First commission from LSO

1992 Co-founder with Oliver Knussen of Contemporary Composition andBerformance Course at Aldeburgh

1992-95 Board director, Performing Right Society

1998-09 Visiting composer, Tanglewood

2000 Pluto addition to Holst’s Planets, commissioned by Hallé

2011 OBE

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