‘I think of him more than any other composer; I play him more, I worship him more. If it wasn’t for him I’d probably be a chartered accountant!’
Luckily for the UK’s classical movement, Matthew didn't become an accountant and instead stuck with music. He has since become one of the leading symphonists and string quartet composers of his generation.
Heavily influenced by dramatic landscapes, wild panoramas and the natural world, Matthew’s work is revered for its pastoral qualities and adherence to the symphonic tradition.
His works have been championed by BBC Symphony Orchestra, BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Royal Ballet Sinfonia, City of London Sinfonia, Emily Beynon, Emma Johnson, James Gilchrist, Martin Roscoe, George Hurst, Richard Watkins and Raphael Wallfisch, among many others.
His symphonies, concertos for clarinet, piano, horn and double bass, string quartets, and piano trios have also been performed around the world, from Germany, Italy and Denmark to Russia and the US.
Throughout his career Matthew has been a strong advocate of British contemporary music and has conducted premieres of works by Robert Simpson, David Matthews and James Francis Brown as well as championing the likes of William Alwyn, Malcolm Arnold, John McCabe and Vagn Holmboe.
We recently spent some time with Matthew to learn more about his lasting obsession with Beethoven and his first brushes with composing, which includes his first ever piece, The Squirrel Sonata (which penned when he was around nine years old!).
My introduction to music was very unusual. When I was about three or four I went through a very mardy phase early in the mornings. I’d be played nursery rhymes to calm me down but afterwards I would blast the place down again with my screaming.
My late father, bless him, said he couldn’t handle any more of Mary had a Little Lamb, and he put on an LP of Beethoven 5th. I was absolutely transfixed by it even though I didn’t know what Beethoven was, or what a symphony was. All I was aware of were these fantastic sounds coming from this very primitive record player back in the late sixties. As I got a bit older I came to understand that Beethoven was the man who wrote this stuff and I sort of understood he wasn’t with us any more but there were eight more of these symphonies.
The next one he bought me was the Pastoral Symphony and I remember particularly liking that because I could relate it to the countryside. And so the story went on. Before I could even play music or read it, I knew the Beethoven symphonies. They were then, and still are, the thing I return to more than anything else in music. Beethoven is my life force. I think of him more than any other composer; I play him more, I worship him more. If it wasn’t for him I’d probably be a chartered accountant!
How did your early experiences with Beethoven shape your first compositions?
I remember when I was eight or nine, I’d just started having piano lessons and I started picking out tunes. I went back to Beethoven and wondered what it would be like if the tune did something different in some places. I also started hearing performances of the symphonies and noticed some of them repeated bits and others didn’t. That got me thinking about music creatively. I loved the symphonies so much I wanted to do something a bit similar.
Do you remember the first piece you composed?
Yes I do, and it’s a massive embarrassment! It was called The Squirrel Sonata. I was about nine or 10 and I remember it was five movements – god, it went on and on. It charted the lift of a squirrel in a forest!
Initially, I wasn’t encouraged or discouraged. My parents were music lovers but not musicians themselves. Playing music was definitely encouraged. But in terms of writing, it was all so primitive and I used to bash things out, so I think they thought it was probably not what the doctor ordered. They called it ‘strumming’. I thought it was a bit naughty and decided I probably shouldn’t do too much of it.
So do you think the skill of composition has its roots in nature or nurture?
That’s an interesting one. I think a lot of it has to do with your early experiences of music and how it came to you. For me, music was initially a pacifying force to stop me bawling the house down early in the morning. And then it became fun, and then it became a routine. Before breakfast every day we would sit down and listen to Beethoven.
As a parent now, you try certain things out – some of them engage with kids and others don’t. I guess it’s a bit of both.
So when did composing become a viable career option for you?
Initially I didn’t tell anyone about it because I thought it was a bit arrogant. I thought, ‘Should I be doing this? It won’t be as good as the masters. Haven’t we got enough music?’ I inadvertently questioned the whole moral position, so I didn’t really tell anyone. But I had a very lovely piano teacher who found out and was supportive. It was then that I realised composing wasn’t so subversive after all!
You’ve spoken about your admiration for Beethoven a lot – do you find that kind of perfection inspiring or daunting?
Both, actually. You get an incredible sense of the massive personality behind his music. Regardless of what we know about his struggles, you can sense his ability to get through things and be himself. In that sense I find him an incredibly important influence on my work. His life force is something I don’t see in any contemporary composers.
Usually, when a commission comes, there are some guidelines as to the duration of the piece, the instruments and the context. Some composers find this a bit bewildering but as long as the ideas aren’t too restricting it’s actually a very useful guideline.
Do you see trends coming in? Do commissioners all of a sudden jump on things?
It’s very hard to say. Some of this is dealt with by my publishers. The way I make it work is to have an idea of the piece I would like to write and then see how that might viable. I find that as long as I keep writing a lot, opportunities will come along that fit.
How do you feel about the transition of your works from written score to public performance?
It’s always exciting. I’ve been lucky enough to write for both professional and non-professional orchestras and you have to keep in mind who you’re writing for and their abilities and strengths.
You’ve been an artistic director at various festivals. How do you find that role?
Running festivals is incredibly tricky because you have to have a location that shares your vision, a committee that is happy to go with you and a budget to support it. These days it’s almost impossible to get all three. Nearly always, it can be a struggle or a fight. It’s something that’s getting harder and harder to pull off.
What are you working on at the moment?
I’m just finishing a flute concerto for Sinfonia Tamesa, one of the finest non-professional orchestras in London. They’re doing the first performance at Blackheath Hall on my 50th birthday in December. BBC Symphony Orchestra will do it late 2015, early 2016, the date is yet to be confirmed.
6 December 2014
Blackheath Halls, London, SE3
Flute Concerto (World Premiere)
Soloist: Daniel Pailthorpe
Conductor: Tom Hammond
11 January 2015
Kings Place, York Road, London, N1
String Quartet No.5
15 January 2015
St John's Smith Square, London
Variations on a Theme of Reger (London Premiere)
Conductor: George Vass