William Mathias’s ebullient, joyful choral writing, drawing on a variety of musical traditions, is immediately accessible and likeable whilst demonstrating an architectural sophistication that brings it into the top rank of twentieth-century liturgical music. He had a particular flair for brilliance, drama and display, which made his music highly suited to ceremonial and festive occasions; present too in his music is a sense of Celtic mysticism and deep spirituality which enhances such works as ‘All wisdom is from the Lord’ and ‘O nata lux’.
This disc includes a comprehensive selection of his works for choir and organ, spanning his wide-ranging musical career and manifold influences. It is performed by Wells Cathedral Choir—recently described in Gramophone magazine as ‘probably the finest English Cathedral choir at the moment’—whose delightfully full-throated, vibrant sound is the perfect vehicle for this repertoire.
Other recommended albums
Victoria: Ave regina caelorum & other sacred music
William Mathias’s death at the age of fifty-seven on 29 July 1992—he was still composing just two days before—is one of those artistic losses the musical world still grieves over. One could compare the loss of Stephen Oliver (1950–1992), who with Donizettian productivity had completed some fifty operas before his death at just forty-two; and, more recently, the untimely death of Richard Hickox, a mere sixty and still in his conducting prime. Like both of these, Mathias was phenomenally productive. Born in Carmarthenshire (now Dyfed) on 1 November 1934—the musical annus horribilis/mirabilis that witnessed the deaths of Elgar, Holst and Delius and the birth of Mathias, Maxwell Davies and Birtwistle—Mathias, like his friend, mentor and immediate senior Alun Hoddinott (1929–2008), remained fiercely proud of his Welsh and Celtic roots.
Both inherited the mantle of formidable Welsh predecessors: Grace Williams; conductor Arwel Hughes, BBC Wales’s encouraging head of music in the 1960s; the conductor and song composer Mansel Thomas; or the fervently Beethovenian Daniel Jones. Like them, this younger pair had the cosmopolitan awareness to branch out, without any disloyalty, beyond a world of the Eisteddfods, local music competitions and male-voice choirs. Each was fired by the wider twentieth-century European tradition epitomized by Stravinsky and Bartók, Berg and Hindemith; and already—thanks to his genius and the inspired tutelage of Frank Bridge—by Benjamin Britten.
Another of William Mathias’s great loves was America, which he visited often and many of whose composers he knew well. Add to the mix Mozart, who remained Mathias’s predominant musical passion, an early fondness for jazz, and a very strong, complex and multi-faceted faith, and you emerge with a potent musical, religious and philosophical blend. Arguably no British composer of that 1920s–’30s generation, apart from John Joubert, has displayed Mathias’s degree of intellect, flair, flexibility and unfettered talent to draw on Britten’s example not just in an imitative way, but so as to evolve—in rhythm, structure, natural melody and harmony—an exciting post-Britten voice of his own. Mathias and Joubert shared another feature: in the 1950s and 1960s, this pair of non-English composers emerged as two of the most important penners of music for the English church and cathedral choir tradition. Works like Joubert’s Torches and Mathias’s Sir Christèmas (from his galvanizing Yuletide sequence Ave Rex, recorded on) helped set a new and urgent pace for English church musicians of the day.
Certain characteristics distinguish Mathias’s writing especially. They include an almost instinctive affinity with the medieval, as we also find in, say, Peter Warlock, or in Patrick Hadley’s spare, meltingly beautiful I sing of a maiden, and differently in Maxwell Davies’s 1960s cycle O magnum mysterium. Striking in this respect was one of Mathias’s most glorious achievements, This Worlde’s Joie, first performed at the Fishguard Festival in 1974 and later taken up by Roy Massey and Geraint Bowen at the Hereford Three Choirs Festival. (One of the original soloists was Mathias’s close friend, the tenor Kenneth Bowen, Geraint’s father, to whom Mathias dedicated several vocal works.) Moreover, like the Impressionists, Mathias was fond of utilizing the interval of the fourth, a related detail in that this sometimes gives his music the feel of medieval organum (paralleling at the fourth or fifth).
Just about everything Mathias produced in the areas of vocal and organ music is, in its own way, tinged with genius. Yet we should not forget he was also a master of the string quartet and of symphonic writing (he composed three symphonies, and was planning a fourth at the time of his death), and the composer of both a grand opera (to a libretto by Iris Murdoch based on her 1973 play The Servants and the Snow) and a musical masque (Jonah) for male soloists, children’s choir and chorus to a text by Charles Causley, enlivened by an element of dance (although Jonah can equally effectively be performed unstaged as a cantata). There were also two other masques based on Welsh themes. And while Mathias’s blazing oratorio Lux aeterna, an exploration of the philosophical notion of darkness into light (an element common to several of Mathias’s works), written for Hereford in 1982, is relatively well known, the 55-minute World’s Fire—composed in 1989 for soprano and baritone soloists, chorus and orchestra, after a text by Gerard Manley Hopkins, a poet with whom Mathias felt a special affinity—cries out for a recording. It was one of many of his works heard over the years at the North Wales Music Festival at St Asaph, of which Mathias was Artistic Director from 1971, and for whose sociable and intimate atmosphere of music-making he retained a special fondness; just as he never lost his affection for the metaphysical poets such as Henry Vaughan, for the poetry of Dylan Thomas, and (above all) for the plays of Shakespeare.
A mixture of French influences—Vierne, Langlais, Alain, Messiaen—is another striking ‘Continental’ element in Mathias’s powerfully individual choral style. This affirms itself in Let the people praise thee, O God, an ebullient anthem composed as the Principality’s main musical contribution to the wedding of Prince Charles to Lady Diana Spencer at St Paul’s Cathedral in 1981. Even from student days, the young Mathias betrayed an unnervingly natural and instinctive rhythmic fluency and verve which one might justifiably compare to Britten’s. This exciting royal offering also illustrates to perfection the vital, often independent organ parts that uplift many of Mathias’s sacred and secular choral compositions. The tender passage for unbroken voices (with rocking accompaniment) midway through Let the people praise thee, O God exemplifies both Mathias’s experience and his melodic gift for fashioning sustained passages from almost plainsong-like bare fragments; the simple beauty of his solo writing evident in numerous works (the Harp Concerto, for instance, or the Passacaglia of the Organ Concerto) emerges clearly here also.
Note, too, how another berceuse pattern beautifully decorates the words ‘For he hath regarded the lowliness of his handmaiden’ in the set of Evening Canticles, given their first performance at Jesus College, Cambridge, on 6 March 1971 (Mathias wrote another set, the St David’s Service, for Kenneth Bowen’s London choir, in 1991). What is also interesting as the Magnificat moves towards its close is that it assumes a modal character akin to that of Peter Maxwell Davies. Such a similarity may be passing and coincidental, or salient and fundamental. Here it reflects how Mathias, veering towards French-tinged whole-tone scales, and Maxwell Davies, constantly drawn to ‘taming’ the once-outlawed diminished fifth (or augmented fourth), find themselves generating patterns of a not dissimilar modal quality. The effect here is superb.
There is sprightly urgency and bright colouring in much of Mathias’s music: patently so in the anguishedly repeating ‘for ever’ at the Magnificat’s close. Yet such is Mathias’s musical dexterity and imagination that he is always able to spring a surprise, to tease out (à la Haydn) an unexpected twist, or evolve something unanticipated and magical out of an essentially simple idea. This is perfectly illustrated by the unforeseen breadth of the doxology, ‘Glory be to the Father’: an impressive final envoi whose nobilmente quality recalls the Evening Canticles by the English composer Edmund Rubbra. By contrast, the organum-like hushed opening of the Nunc dimittis veers between Orthodox-like simplicity and the shrewd inventiveness of Britten: someone who knew all too well how to write for boys’ (or indeed girls’) voices.
Britten (in his Five Flower Songs, or A Ceremony of Carols) also informs Mathias’s spirited carol A Babe is Born Op 55 (1971). However, the ‘thrown’ rhythms are neither Britten nor Tippett, but unmistakably Mathias; they come closer to the Continent—to Flor Peeters, or Frank Martin, contemporary composers with an allegiance to their respective medieval traditions, while maintaining largely traditional tonality. In In excelsis gloria, a very early carol written for the University of Aberystwyth’s madrigal choir in 1954, Mathias’s evocative parallelling, akin to thirteenth-century medieval organum, once more shares affinities with the solo and carol writing for choirs of Edmund Rubbra.
Allan Wicks, Noel Rawsthorne, Robert Joyce and John Scott were among the leading exponents who premiered Mathias’s considerable output for organ. Processional—from OUP’s Modern Organ Music, volume 1 (1964) and dedicated to Mathias’s friend, publisher and editor Christopher Morris—is an effervescent, outrageously flamboyant piece. At just three minutes, it contrasts strikingly with the longer Carillon, and while it has a comparable rhythmic fire, Processional is more intricate, at times meditative, and almost obtusely cross-rhythmed (to wonderful brusque effect, more like a Scandinavian toccata). Then half way through it seems to combine French influence, vibrant Britten and even florid Hindemith into an extraordinarily effective melee. The ingenious and teasing Carillon was commmissioned by the Allen Organ Company for the 1990 Conference on Music and Worship in Montreal, North Carolina, and given its premiere there by Todd Wilson in June that year.
The Missa brevis was written in 1973 for the eightieth Patronal Festival of St Matthew’s Northampton, the church renowned for the musical initiatives of the Reverend Walter Hussey (later clerical midwife to Bernstein’s ground-breaking Chichester Psalms). The Kyrie is broad and reflective, with effective use of sinuous major and minor seconds which squeeze and embrace one another in the upper voices. The Gloria brings the men’s voices splendidly to the fore. Mathias’s fondness for repeating key phrases (‘We praise thee …’), a practice in sacred choral music harking back to the Renaissance and earlier, comes over impressively here; but the imprecations—mysterious and deliberately pitched low—furnish evidence of a darker element in Mathias’s writing, as well as an ability, like Britten, to stretch and challenge boys’ voices especially. This excitingly built movement also confirms Mathias’s unerring skill at design and shaping.
You could mistake the bracing and pithy Sanctus, with its insistent, lovely chordings, for fired-up Fauré; the semi-staccatoed organ in the Benedictus beautifully sustains the alla breve unfolding of the voices; while the Agnus Dei could be seen as the masterpiece of the whole Mass: Mathias, like his contemporary John Sanders (one-time organist of Gloucester Cathedral), had a knack of making tonality—offset by intervening silences—work wonders.
The mystery, enhanced by soft organ woods and diapasons, of Ave verum corpus (published posthumously in 1996) rivals Poulenc or Duruflé, and becomes moving and impassioned (subtle organ registrations here have the last word). The mysterious All wisdom is from the Lord, composed for the Southern Cathedrals Festival in Salisbury in July 1982, reveals the wonders Mathias could achieve with even a unison line. Obscure, impenetrable, the direct antithesis of the illumination of O nata lux, it is as if here some Middle Earth were being probed into, Lord of the Rings-style, in search of an elusive quality that is properly the property of deity. It feels like a remarkably brave attempt by Mathias to penetrate the very human mind and soul.
Lift up your heads, O ye gates (from Psalm 24, commissioned for OUP’s 1973 collection Anthems for Choirs I, edited by Francis Jackson) not surprisingly elicits a diametrically opposite approach: it is perky, confident, wickedly militaristic and full of Welsh dragons. The anthem O nata lux is the third section of Rex gloriae, a sequence of four motets composed in 1980 and first heard in Stuttgart, Germany, the following year. It reveals yet another facet of Mathias, with clusterings that feel both English (Kenneth Leighton or Tony Hewitt-Jones) and yet part-way to Polish or Scandinavian choral writing.
Mathias’s resplendent Festival Te Deum Op 28 (first performed in 1965 by the Manchester Cathedral choir under Derrick Cantrill) and O be joyful in the Lord (Jubilate Deo) Op 90 No 2 (written in 1983 for the University of Texas choir) are not strictly related, yet—as the keys blend perfectly—how brilliantly they complement each other. There is again a Brittenesque ease, assurance and skill at varying textures. In the Te Deum, the men’s voice-led canon at ‘O Lord, in thee have I trusted’ is especially masterly, while Jonathan Vaughn’s playing of the organ part of the Jubilate shows us Mathias in display vein, at his most brilliant.
Roderic Dunnett © 2009