David Matthews-Solo Works-an Introduction

Posted on December 1st, 2009 by

David Matthews’ extraordinary cycle of 4, 3 and 2 part Fugues, began life in 1999, in response to Peter Sheppard Skærved’s performance of Bach and Telemann contrapuntal works. The initial E minor 4 part fugue was so successful that it precipitated the composition of the first large scale fugal cycle for solo violin. In order to render the musical lines clearly, the Fugues are nearly all written on two staves, with a rule that no line can cross from one stave to another, notwithstanding its tessitura. The eventual set of 15 Fugues is dedicated to a wide range of musicians and thinkers, ranging from Roger Scruton to Judith Bingham. Despite their enormous structural rigour and complexity, they reference everything from English bird song to Liszt.The complete cycle was premiered in 2004 at the Glyptothek in Munich and received its London premiere at St Jude’s on the Hill later that year. Since then, Peter Sheppard Skærved has performed the fugues globally, and they have led to a number of other composers embarking on cyclic works for solo violin.

David Matthews-Fugue 15 Live at Wiltons Music Hall


In the winter of 1993, I was preparing a series of Bach concerts for Taiwan and Japan. The rehearsals took place in a dark and cold church in North London. My friend Arajit Chakravarty, who was playing in the group, came up to me at some point during the rehearsal week. He pushed a large envelope into my hands: “Peter, these pieces are for you. Some publisher sent them to me, and I just can’t bring myself to play them. They’re both pretty strange, so I am sure that you will like them.” Little did I realize that the two pieces in the package would change my musical outlook for good. The two pieces in the package were Winter Journey by David Matthews, and Peter Sculthorpe’s Alone. I knew neither work, but they both showed me new and unsuspected musical vistas.

David Matthews visiting Janacek’s house. Brno 2004 (Photo PSS)

 I decided to begin with David Matthews’s piece. What I saw filled me with horror; I was too scared to play this stuff.  I knew that I was not technically or musically up to this music. I took another look at the two scores and put them away, lost in the enormous pile of un-learnt, un-played repertoire, the sins of omission that is the bad conscience of every musician.  Gradually, however, Winter Journey began to niggle me. This was just as much to do with its title and my egocentric, monomaniacal obsession with Schubert’s wandering anti-hero, his alter ego, than initially anything to do with the music. There is a picture taken of me, just before Arajit gave me those two fateful pieces. I am standing in the middle of a snow covered field, somewhere in Bavaria. I am nothing but Lowry-esque ‘stick-person’, lost in the snow; setting out on a walk to nowhere, noticed by no one. It seemed to me to be a powerful image of the solo violinist, and chimed in beautifully with both David’s Winter Journey, and naturally enough, the whole Winterreise narrative. I had to play David’s piece. Perhaps I was drawn to the vanity of being Schubert, or at least identified with his state of mind in 1827. Schubert’s friend Josef von Spaun recalled:  “For a time, Schubert’s mood became gloomier and he seemed upset. When I asked him what the matter was, he merely said to me, ‘Come to Schober’s today. I will sing you a cycle of awe-inspiring songs.’ We were quite dumbfounded by the gloomy mood of these songs, and Schober said that he only liked one song, Der Lindenbaum. Schubert replied: ‘I like these songs more than all the others, and you will come to like them too.’

Winter Journey (Outtakes-Peter Sheppard Skaerved-Joachim Stradivari 1698-Engineer-Jonathan Haskell)

When I recently asked David about ‘Winter Journey, I think that he was a little shocked. After all, so much has happened in our musical friendship since I first fell in love with this piece. I think that we were suddenly taken back to our first working session. This took place at the London Headquarters of Faber Music, on Queen Square in Holborn. I was doubly excited; I was going to work for the first time with a composer whose music I adored, and secondly, I was playing a Stradivarius, the 1708 ‘Prince Regent’ instrument, for the first time. I was very embarrassed that I was lacking any real technical command of ‘Winter Journey’ and probably talked more than I should, probably to avoid David becoming too aware of the damage that I was visiting on his beautiful piece.


Even before I had learnt David’s own ‘Winterreise’, the impulse to build a concert around it was irresistible. I wanted to avoid the traditional way of programming solo violin works, as islands of isolation in the middle of ‘accompanied’ recitals. I had to face up to two uncomfortable realities. Firstly, I barely knew the solo violin repertoire. Secondly, I did not have the technique or the stamina to play such a concert. I decided on a project. Ringing the promotion departments of every music publishers in Europe, every ‘Music Information Centre’(M.I.C.), every composer that I could think of, I told them that I was assembling a programme of solo violin music, and please, could they send me everything in their catalogues, and, … I had no money to pay them; ‘Not a brass farthin’’ . Then I waited. Music began to pour through my letterbox, by composers famous and unknown, young and old. Over three hundred scores rained onto my door mat: my postman started to complain. I astonished at the variety, scale and range of the material that I was seeing, for the first time. It was like stumbling into a cave full of diamonds. I decided that the only way that I could deal with this huge pile of music was through organization. I bought a stack of really cheap blank audio tapes, rigged up a rudimentary studio in my bedroom overlooking the water in Limehouse, and went to work. Each day, for almost, 2 months, I would study, say five or six works, and then make extremely rough recordings of them. Two things became clear to me, that I had discovered a lifetime’s worth of new repertoire, in a genre that I had never before taken seriously, and that Winter Journey was a masterpiece, one of the most ambitious and successful single-span works ever conceived for the violin. Winter Journey curiously continues to fascinate, and I come back to it, again and again, in the way that I return to Bach’s Chaconne.

David Matthews’s output for violin alone, is larged, comparatively rare for a composer who is not a string player. Admittedly pianist – composers such as John Cage and George Rochberg, both pianists, produced large scale cycles for the instrument, but very few have achieved the variety of approaches that Matthews essays and achieves. To clarify: there are, put simply, two ways of approaching the issue of writing solo works for an essentially melodic instrument. The simplest way of imagining these two approaches would be to bring to mind the language of Debussy’s Syrinx on the on hand and Béla Bartók Sonata for Solo Violin on the other. Bartok’s epochal work treats the violin as complete unto itself, constantly providing a structure of virtuosic harmonic support and counterpoint. By contrast, Debussy offers the instrumentalist ‘unsupported’, placed in an imaginary landscape, which the listener, the player, or maybe, even the acoustic needs must offer, which must supply the ‘missing material’. All solo works since Debussy have chosen either route, or a melange of both approaches.

David Matthews chooses to work with the violin, from all angles, as is made explicit in the works recorded here. Winter Journey sets the protagonist in a web of interlaced environments, almost a ‘multiverse’. It is apparent, even before a note is played, that the performer is ‘standing’ in a Mitteleurop-ean’ winter landscape. For some, this landscape is already humming with Schubert, for others, the poetry of Wilhelm Müller. There is really no way of knowing which. This situation is complicated, or enriched, with the first gesture that the audience hears/sees, a flurry of harmonics on the notes D and E, to which the piece will return to close. These function like a Shakespearean ‘alarum’, a reveille. However, bearing in mind the title, and the implicit landscape, mimesis is inescapable – I can only hear/see ice – falling from the brush of Caspar David Friedrich, perhaps. For me, the Friedrich comparison is useful. Like Schubert, Friedrich had a complex, ambivalent relationship with the winter landscape, talking of ‘…the great white cloth, the embodiment of Nature prepared for new life.’ In Schöne Müllerin, the poem Trockne Blumen enshrines a similarly frozen optimism: ‘Und Lenz wird kommen, /Und Winter wird gehn, /Und Blümlein werden /Im Grase stehn’. It has always seemed to me that David’s own ‘reading’ of Winterreise, is filled with similar hopefulness; this offers a frame within which his tale of travel can be told. He wrote me:

“ … I was talking with Judith Bingham. We agreed that all our pieces were connected with incidents in our lives, though sometimes we didn’t realize this at the time. In the case of Winter Journey however, I did realize the connection, as I had done with my previous piece, which was the First Violin Concerto. That piece was derived from a Dostoyevsky story about a man who meets a woman who has been abandoned by her lover; he consoles are befriends her, and inevitably falls in love with her; whereupon her old lover returns and she goes back to him. The man is left alone, but he is strengthened by the experience and we are to understand, turns it into art. In the Robert Bresson film based on the Dostoyevsky, which I saw and which sparked off the piece, the artist is a painter and the last shots as I remember, are of him painting furiously. Well, the events of the story happened to me as I was composing this piece, more or less exactly like that, which was uncanny. My next piece was for solo violin; as winter was approaching, I felt rather like the hero of Schubert’s Winterreise. So I decided to base the piece on this. The two quotations from Winterreise which stand at the head of the score are from the first poem, Gute Nacht, and the seventeenth poem Im Dorfe. This poem is all about the falseness of dreaming, which the poet spurns. /Winter Journey is in the tonality of D. Most of it is in a sort of D minor, but a pure D major emerges towards the end, corresponding to the magical change from D minor to D major in Gute Nacht. The piece is a single movement in eleven sections. The first, marked ‘Freely, con Fantasia’ is introductory, and presents much of the material of the piece in fragmentary form. In some of the middle sections I had the sound of another D major/D minor masterpiece in mind, Bach’s Chaconne for solo violin. The last D major section is written almost entirely in harmonics, and borrowed very closely from a phrase from ‘Gute Nacht’. The ending vacillates between major and minor, finally choosing the ambiguity of a major second chord on D and F, thus ending just as it began.”


Matthews’s fugues are made of stern stuff. Even when they are descriptive, evoking bird song or church bells, there is no slackening of the ‘contrapuntal imperative’. A few of the movements do  toy with freedom, no more, in their codas: Fugue 14 ends with a few seconds of glittering ‘bag-piping’ that whisks me away to the world of Judith Weir’s  Bagpiper’s String Trio, and Fugue 12 permits a moment of repetition, highlighting the harmonics which illuminate the close. But such moments are rare. These are works of phenomenal discipline, and most importantly, ‘closed systems’. Like Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s last bridge over the Tamar, they ‘tension’ themselves, requiring no context or external support. Like all great counterpoint, these works can be appreciated, on the page, in silent reading. Like the 3 Bach fugues which inspired them, they build an entire world in the four-strung limits of a violin and bow. The clearest manifestation of this is the total integrity on which Matthews insists on for these works. To illustrate this point: The 2-part fugues never have more than 2 notes per chord, the three-parts 3, and the four-parts, 4. This might seem obvious, but remember, Bach’s violin fugues are in 3 parts, with fourth lines offering material derived from the convention of the ‘redundant entry’, where the countersubject of the last entry is given a final statement of the fugue them to play with. David’s approach to fugue is not more ‘pure’ than Bach’s, but he sets himself extraordinary standards, especially as, unlike Bach’s violin fugues, Matthews allows himself no discursive material. Bach separates his contrapuntal Stoff with fantasia-like explorations of the secondary melodic material.

The origin of the 15 Fugues is, not surprisingly, Bach. In 1999, the composer and I talked in the dressing room at the Purcell Room, after I had given a concert of Bach and Henze solo works.  David muttered something about Bach only writing three-voiced fugues for violin, which I did not register properly in my post-concert euphoria. However, all came into sharp focus back at my apartment later the same night: The fax machine began to whirr, and a piece of music scrolled out. It was the beginning of a 4-part fugue in E minor, with “-this is as far as I have got, is it playable?” scrawled under it. Never one to take a challenge lying down, I picked up the phone, put my violin under my chin, rang David’s number, and roughly played it into his answering machine, adding, a little glibly, “Now you’ll have to write the rest of it”. The result was an extraordinary fugue, written on two staves, which looked far more like piano music than solo violin music, but which is actually very playable, a return to the violinistic values of the middle baroque. I loved performing that ‘first’ fugue so much, that I begged for more. The result was this first true cycle of fugues for my instrument.

David Matthews’s 15 Fugues is not only unique in being the only major set of fugues for solo violin, but in that he also succeeds, triumphantly, in balancing this with portraiture. One of his ‘subjects’, Judith Bingham, observes her delight in this extraordinary balancing act:

“….in all the fugues I like the way he has made the most formal structures deeply personal.”

This intersect with the world of portraiture is fascinating. For we violinists this begins with the Brno-born violinist, Heinrich Wilhelm Ernst, who dedicated his equally complex Etudes Polyphoniques to the violinists Laub, Bazzini, Vieuxtemps, Joachim, Sainton, and Hellmesberger. Earlier, the mysterious Michel Woldemar had composed a set of Sonates Fantômagiques for the ghosts of Tartini, Lolli, Pugnani and Mestrino, but these works have remained shrouded in obscurity. In the 20th century Eugène Ysaÿe, whose ghost lurks behind some of David’s solo writing, continued the tradition. He dedicated his Six Sonates to his violinist friends Szigeti, Thibaud, Enesco, Kreisler, Crickboom and Quiroga. What these two cycles share with David’s 15 Fugues, difficulty aside, is that each of the pieces is a portrait. David’s portraiture is subtly varied, ranging from the deeply affectionate (the gorgeous finale dedicated to his wife, Jenifer) through to the abstract: I have the impression that Fugue 10, the first to be written, is a hopeful portrait, of how David wishes that I might play, in contrast to the less civilised actuality. I may be wrong.

 This is, of course, a cycle of fugues without preludes, something which I have never discussed with the composer. I think that there is a sense in which the integrity and tightness of the set would be in some way compromised were non-contrapuntal material permitted. However, Fugue 1 stands to one side, an heraldic opening, fanfare, perhaps even prelude for the whole set, climaxing in the triumphant stretto of the last line. This style of writing, of an ‘alarum-virtuosick’ if you will, returns only once, in the mountainous 5th Fugue.

Fugue 1Fugue 2-  for Mark Doran

Fugue 2 also dialogues powerfully with the whole sequence of movements. Its craggy theme serves a double purpose; providing material for the movement itself, but also spelling out in its first ten pitches the keys of all fifteen fugues. The dedicatee, the musicologist Mark Doran, writes:

 “David is a very instinctive composer, and suspicious of constructivism. But he does occasionally allow himself to use systematic or abstract devices. I think the constructivist aspect of ‘my’ fugue is a reflection of the many friendly arguments we have had about Schoenbergian serialism!”

 At an early stage in performing 15 Fugues, I repeatedly found myself unable to play Fugues 7 8 in the correct order. The composer pointed out that I could only do this if I reordered all the notes in this theme, retroactively, as well as all the answering material where appropriate…I play the fugues in the correct order now.

Fugue 3-for James Francis BrownFugue 3 is dedicated to the young composer James Francis Brown. This, like Fugue 10, which began all the trouble (!), is a four part fugue, the first in the set on 2 staves. It is written to be played with smooth slurred phrasing. I don’t mind saying that this is a particular challenge in David’s solo writing, and calls to mind the slow contrapuntal passages in Berg’s Violin Concerto. I have treasured memories of my teacher, Louis Krasner, who commissioned and premiered Berg’s masterpiece, demonstrating how such material should and could be played, elegantly and smoothly, the bow ‘wrapping’ around the strings, with no bumps or lunges. He could not understand the aggressive style of Bach that was dominating modern-instrument performance at the time. And this fugue doffs the cap to Bach, or rather to ‘maybe-Bach’, the D minor Toccata & Fugue, now widely agreed to be a transcription of a solo violin piece.

Fugue 4-for Roger ScrutonFugue 4 is dedicated to the philosopher Roger Scruton, with whom David Matthews has had a fascinating dialogue going back years. It is, appropriately enough, The Thinker of the set, and highly chromatic, the complete inverse of the open language of the previous movements. Funnily enough, this is the first dedication where I find myself thinking about how Scruton would himself like it played. He has been outspoken in the past as to his predilections in baroque performance, so I am careful to fill it with the expressive warmth and sincerity that values in performances of Bach.Fugue 5-for Roxanna Panufnik

Fugue 5 is, frankly, insane. The Danish composer Poul Ruders, whose Winter’s Fugue for solo violin was written after seeing the new technical possibilities that Matthews has opened up, told me that he likes to stand the performer “on the edge of a precipice-and push him off!” This fugue certainly does that! The leaping subject, and the tonality, D major, always brings me back to Anton Reicha, who wrote a piano fugue, one of his epochal Op 38 set,  based on the opening of Mozart’s Haffner Symphony. There are moments in this movement which seem physically impossible. But David is like Arnold Schoenberg, who when told that his Violin Concerto would need a player with 12 fingers, famously answered, “I can wait”. He didn’t have to wait long; Louis Krasner also cracked that technical nut, with aplomb. David clearly ‘can wait’, and in rehearsals of his (always) technically challenging solo and chamber music, sits smiling, while the players find their way!

Fugue 6-for IsabelleFugue 6 is entirely played pizzicato. Now, of course, there is plenty of chordal music for ‘plucked’ violin; the imitation of guitars has seen to that (who can forget the strummed G major chords Britten’s Simple Symphony?) However, pizzicato counterpoint is comparatively rare on the violin. The most well-known exception is the opening of the 2nd movement of the 4th Solo Sonata which the Eugène Ysaÿe (dedicated to Fritz Kreisler). However, this eschews the complex voice-leading that David’s innocent-sounding fugue demands; this Fugue needs to sound utterly easeful. It begins with bells in the countryside, evoked by the simplest of harmonics, which, of course, add another level of complexity, especially when woven into counterpoint played with a couple of fingers on only four strings.
Fugue 7-for Rosamund StrodeFugue 7 has perhaps, one of the most intricate subjects every attempted. This is a rare example of the transcription of a birdsong as a fugue subject. The Blackbird, which provides the material, was used a number of times by composers in the 20th century, most famously Olivier Messiaen (His Merle Noire for flute and piano proved the practicality of sourcing material in this way for the composers of our time). However, in the last 100 years, birdsong has been used comparatively infrequently for violin music. There is one notable exception, Priaulx Rainier’s Wildlife Celebration, in which the solo violin part is almost entirely constructed from bird-song. Appropriately enough, this little known piece was commissioned by Gerald Durrell.
Fugue 8-for Carl DavisFugue 8 is dedicated to the composer and conductor Carl Davis. This is most definitely, a portrait, but points up the fact that any act of portraiture is an act of reduction, of selection. David has clearly determined to focus on the forceful energy of Davis’s character, the vigour of his conducting, his decisiveness. Interestingly, this is the only one of David’s 15 Fugues which relates to the muscular quality of the Fuga from Béla Bartók’s epochalSonata, which, in the popular consciousness, re-established the solo violin work as an accepted concert form. The recording session provided evidence of how the presence of the composer liberates the interpretative process. David was keen to encourage the gruff, almost irascible side of my playing, to a degree which I would not have permitted myself, had he not been in the room.
Fugue 9-for Judith BinghamFugue 9 is dedicated to the composer Judith Bingham. To me, it seems to evoke something of her expressive brand of lyrical rhetoric. I am fascinated by the transformation my perception of the fugue theme undergoes as it is ‘worked’. The initial statements might be seen as being posato or even poco esitando. However, by the end, this ‘gestural pausing’ has metamorphosed, into an almost- lullaby/barcarolle, an original, but natural rocking motion, which loses itself in bells and birdsong over the water. Judith writes:

“I was very touched to be included in the dedicatees of these fugues. Listening to mine is like seeing yourself in one of those fragmented cubist paintings, and imagining what each change of colour and mood means. I like to think that David has referred to birdsong in mine, a shared passion. Of course, my idea of how he was imagining me, and his may be poles apart, but in all the fugues I like the way he has made the most formal structures deeply personal.”

Fugue 10-for Peter Sheppard SkaervedFugue 10 was the first of the set to be written, and is, the one most closely linked to my own lifelong obsession with Bach Sei Solo, his title for the Sonatas & Partitas. It was interesting that David wrote a fugue of such stately nature, immediately upon hearing my performance of the G minor Fugue, BWV 1001, which is the sprightliest of Bach’s set. His fax to me that night begins:

“Inspired by Bach, I began writing a 4-part fugue for violin: …”

David’s E minor/E major fugue seems, to me, related to the sunrise-like Adagio that begins Bach’s C Major Sonata BWV 1005.  I also suspect that, yet again, Eugène Ysaÿe’s own E minor Sonata No.4 may have more than a little to do with the elegant lyricism of David’s fugue (This is the only one of the Ysaÿe Sonatas which Matthews has heard me play). Here the web of references gets more complex: Ysaÿe himself, wittingly or not, quoted a study by the first great Bach violinist of the modern age, Joseph Joachim. This CD was recorded on Joachim’s 1698 Stradivari.

Fugue 11-for William HowardFugue 11, dedicated to the pianist William Howard, is a complex weave of references. It is best to leave the composer to disentangle them:

“In April 2002, William Howard invited me to stay with him at Ninfa, 40 miles SE of Rome, where a fabulous garden was created by three women, the last members of the illustrious Caetani family which had once owned all the surrounding land. The second of these women was married to the composer Don Roffredo Caetani (1871-1961); the third to William’s uncle. The garden was created on the ruins of the medieval town of Ninfa which had been abandoned in the 17th century because of malaria in the nearby Pontine marshes. One of the two surviving medieval buildings housed a Bechstein grand piano which was given to Roffredo Caetani by Liszt, who was his godfather. It was on this piano that I composed the E flat fugue for William, based on the theme of Liszt’s Sonetto 123 del Petrarca. Meanwhile the garden day and night was full of the song of nightingales.”

The restored Gardens of Ninfa

Fugue 12– for Jaroslav Stastny-PokornyFugue 12 is dedicated to the Brno-based composer, Jaroslav Š?astný, aka ‘Peter Graham’. David has had a long relationship with the community of composers in the Czech Republic, and I am very proud of having playedWinter Journey in Leoš Janácek’s house there some years back, a concert which ‘Jarek’ organised. The dedicatee was very moved by the dedication:

“…to be one of the dedicatees of the David’s Fugues is a great honour for me. David Matthews is surely one of my very closest friends-composers. In his Fugue in F-sharp minor he made so good musical portrait of my personality, that I identified myself with it so much that I used (unconsciously) its first 8 tones in my song Riveting.”

The third cyclic performance of 15 Fugues was given in Brno.Jan Stasny writes:

To be one of the dedicatees of the David’s Fugues is great honour for me. David Matthews is surely one of my very closest friends-composers. In his Fugue F-sharp minor he made so good musical portrait of my personality,  that I identified myself with it so much that I used (unconsciously) its first 8 tones in my song “Riveting”.

Fugue 13– for Colin MatthewsFugue 13 is the only 2-part fugue in the cycle, and the only one that uses of tremolo. This technical device became a bone of contention between musicians in the 20th Century. Many asserted that its use was inappropriate in all but orchestral writing; indeed, Hans Keller waxed lyrical on the subject! However, its use here, in a work dedicated to David’s brother, the composer Colin Matthews, points back to their collaborative work with Benjamin Britten at the end of his life. If any work in the cycle evokes Britten’s sound-world, it is this one. There is a fantastic, ‘unison-fugue’ in Britten’s Frank Bridge Variations– David’s fugue explores a related musical landscape. From a technical point of view, this is one of the hardest fugues to perform, as most of the answering material is in contrary motion, inverting the subject material, and surprisingly difficult to bring off on the violin. The dedicatee writes:

“I’m staggered by the virtuosity and invention of this cycle, not untypical of the things that my brother gets up to, but on such a scale. Mine is just the kind of shadowy elusive piece that I like, and might have written myself: except that I would have scored it for two violins!”

Fugue 14– for Anthony & Helen PowersFugue 14 utilises scordatura, or re-tuning – the lowest string, the G–string, is tuned down as semitone, to F Sharp. From a technical point of view, this offers the composer the opportunity to have F Sharp as the lowest ‘open string’. However, the technique, which subtly alters the stresses within the instrument, also effects changes to the available palette of a violin. This particular tuning seems to increase the delay time of ‘closed’ chords, as well as imparting a silvery, bell-like quality to the highest tessiture. The scordatura technique utilised here is not so distant from that used by Kodaly in his Solo Cello Sonata, in which the lowest string is also tuned down, to B Natural. The technique of ‘selective’ scordatura has been used comparatively infrequently in the last century, and appears rarely in solo works of this nature. One of the reason, is that the notational problems it poses are considerable, whether a ‘tablature’ solution is used, as by Heinrich Biber or Gustav Mahler (4th Symphony) or by writing out the actual notes, leaving the player to solve the concomitant reading problem. The fugue is written on two staves, this offers a unique set of technical challenges.

Fugue 15-for Jenifer WakelynFugue 15 is unique. It is dedicated to David’s wife, Jenifer Wakelyn. The first performance was given, in my living room, shortly before the couple married. Jenifer writes:

“In December 2001, when Peter and Malene [my wife] invited us for tea, David presented Peter with the B flat Major Fugue. Peter played it for us, dazzlingly, on his beautiful Stradivarius – a memory that will always be associated for me with Malene’s exquisite Danish Christmas cookies. In 2003, the whole set came together unforgettably when   Peter played the 15 fugues in St Jude on the Hill on David’s 60th birthday.”

I know of no other musical cycle that ends with such an open-hearted declaration of affection, and can think of no other fugue whose theme is Love itself. That David Matthews has achieved this is testament to the human universality of his output. He is an artist who, unfailingly, sees the stars. But, in them, he sees the human condition, asserting his life-enhancing faith in the collective experience.

Three Studies

Composers David Matthews, Sadie Harrison, Pavel Novak. Barfrestone Church, Deal Festival 2004.

Composers David Matthews, Sadie Harrison, Pavel Novak. Barfrestone Church, Deal Festival 2004.

Three Studies was written as a test piece for the Carl Flesch Competition. It is, technically, the most straightforward work recorded here. I have spoken with a number of composers about writing test pieces for such competitions. With almost no exception, they talk about the problem of trying to construct a work that will fit all varieties of hands, and most importantly, writing a work which will not need much explanation, as there is no opportunity for the composer to work with the performers. That is not to say that Three Studies is unsophisticated, indeed, I feel that its riches are unlikely to be discovered by a violinist studying it in the short term. Having performed the piece for a decade and a half, I can say that it continues to reveal unsuspected possibilities, new vistas, the harder that I look at it, the deeper it beds itself into my musical consciousness.

From the listener’s point of view, it might seem a little strange that this work is named Three Studies. All the movements are marked to be played attacca, which means that it is difficult to demarcate between the actual movement breaks, thus marked, and the Luftpause between the Britten-esque first section of the 3rd movement, and its concluding Presto. Naturally, this doesn’t really matter, but it does point up that listening to, being part of a musical landscape such as this one, is very different from how it appears, on the page.

It is in this work, that I feel most surrounded by the nature that David loves. He grew up, as I did, on the edge of Epping Forest. The sense of being right on the edge of nature, just able to escape from ‘The Wen’, which I recall, inhabits, indeed, possesses much of his instrumental music. He has the East Londoner’s love of water, of the sharp stench of the Thames at low tide, and the city-dweller’s passion for birds, especially rare ones.  The third study begins with what seems to me, to be a ‘song’ at dawn, a very human rhapsody framed by Curlews and Sandpipers, before the Sun, indeed, Turner’s Sun, bursts over the horizon (with more than a hint of Britten’s Young Apollo)  and we are blinded in rapture with Regulus.

The times of the day and night dominate these works. The opening movement is typical of David’s ‘midday’ music- high unsupported ‘solar’ lines such as this are to be found the first of his  Four Australian Birds or his response to Giovanni Battista Viotti, Monte Maggio. The second movement is clearly a nocturne, but a nocturne of tiptoe-ing, of swiftly closed doors, CapriccioIl Matrimonio Segreto,  all, for the first half anyways, in the dark, ‘under the covers’, the violin muted, everything undiscovered. Suddenly, with the most dramatic ­mute removal that I know-it comes off on a tremendous crescendo-all is revealed, and the peccadilli continue, all the lights on in the house, with joyous and reckless abandon!