With a singular body of work spanning almost 60 years, David Matthews has established an international reputation as one of the leading symphonists of our time. Born in London in 1943, he began composing at the age of sixteen. He read Classics at the University of Nottingham – where he has more recently been made an Honorary Doctor of Music – and afterwards studied composition privately with Anthony Milner. He was also helped by the advice and encouragement of Nicholas Maw and spent three years as an assistant to Benjamin Britten in the late 1960s. In the 1970s a friendship with the Australian composer Peter Sculthorpe (leading to collaboration and numerous trips to Sydney) helped Matthews find his own distinctive voice.
The natural world provides Matthews with a constant source of inspiration, and his scores often evoke strong feelings of place and are filled with birdsong. As well as growing out of his English background, his musical language is also strongly connected to the central European tradition – back through Mahler to Beethoven. He has been preoccupied with working in the great inherited forms of the past – symphony, string quartet, and oratorio – and the task of finding new ways to renew them. Matthews’s music unashamedly embraces his own brand of tonality and he retains a firm commitment to a music that is grounded in song and dance, and is connected to the vernacular.
Matthews has been the recipient of numerous BBC Proms commissions, including Cantiga, his dramatic 1988 scena for soprano and orchestra, and the Concerto in Azzurro for cellist Steven Isserlis, which was nominated for a 2003 BBC Radio 3 Listeners’ Award. Matthews has written prodigiously for string quartet and in his vocal music has set poets from E.E. Cummings and Rilke to Housman and D.H. Lawrence, Hill, Eliot and Auden to Sappho (in the original Greek). Choral music is equally important. Matthews composed his most ambitious work to date, Vespers for soloists, chorus and orchestra, for the Huddersfield Choral Society in 1994, and his 2014 anthem To what God shall we chant our songs of battle? was broadcast live on BBC Television as part of a vigil at Westminster Abbey commemorating the outbreak of the First World War.
Since 1985 Matthews has split his time between London and Deal, where from 1989 to 2003 he was Artistic Director of the Deal Festival. Matthews has largely avoided teaching, but has undertaken editorial work to support his composing career, collaborating with Deryck Cooke on the performing version of Mahler’s Tenth Symphony, editing the music of Vaughan Williams, and orchestrating film music (most notably for Carl Davis). He has written books on the music of Tippett and Britten, and penned numerous reviews for music journals. A collection of writings by and about Matthews was published by Plumbago Books to mark his 70th birthday in 2014.
For a long time the Music Advisor to the English Chamber Orchestra, Matthews also enjoys particularly close relationships with the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra, the Nash Ensemble and the Britten Sinfonia (with whom he was Composer in Residence from 1997-1999). His music has been recorded extensively, with his symphonic output attracting particularly appreciative reviews: ‘one of our leading composers’ wrote Calum MacDonald in BBC Music Magazine, ‘a leading 21st-century exponent of the form’ wrote Arnold Whittall in Gramophone. In 2011, the Dutton recording of his Second and Sixth Symphonies with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales was awarded a prestigious BBC Music Magazine Award.