Unfortunately there appears to be little biographical and analytical
information about William Mathias. There is an expensive but
out-of-date bio-bibliography, a short book by Malcolm Boyd that
is now out of print and a four page article by Ian Parrott in
the hard to find Anglo-Welsh Review. Apart from this everything
would appear to be reviews or short studies in various journals
about the organ music, the choral works and the vocal pieces.
This is a pity, as most critics would regard Mathias as one
of the top five Welsh composers of the twentieth century. For
the record the other four are (probably) Alun Hoddinott, Grace
Williams, Daniel Jones and the fifth is almost certainly a matter
Barnett points out in his review of these Sonatas, that
William Mathias has been ‘well treated’ on CD. The
Arkiv website currently notes some 77 discs devoted to or containing
his music. These span the entire range of his catalogue including
the three symphonies, the great choral pieces This Worlde’s
Joie and Lux Aeterna and a goodly selection of the
fine organ works.
It is not necessary to provide a lengthy biography of William
Mathias in this review, but a few biographical details may be
of interest and remind the reader of the importance of this
William Mathias was born in Whitland in Carmarthenshire on 1
November 1934. He studied at Aberystwyth University and later
at the Royal Academy of Music. His teachers there were Sir Lennox
Berkeley and Peter Katin. Much of his musical career was concerned
with the academic world: he was a lecturer and then Professor
of Music at Bangor University. Much time was spent organising
the North Wales International Musical Festival, which was (and
is) based at St Asaph. He was involved in such august bodies
as the Welsh Arts Council and the BBC’s Central Music
Advisory Panel. Mathias regularly played and conducted music
at concerts. However he only really became ‘famous’
and a household name in 1981, when a specially commissioned
was heard in St Paul’s Cathedral at the wedding of HRH
The Prince of Wales to the late Lady Diana Spencer on 29 July
1981. Mathias died at Menai Bridge on Anglesey on 29 July 1992.
The CD cover suggests that the Violin Sonata (1952) is a first
performance. I have found a reference to the Op.15: it was released
in 1976 on a record of chamber music by Argo (ZRG771). However,
I have been unable to track down where the Op.94 was recorded.
I have certainly never heard any of these works before.
The early Violin Sonata (1952) is a real treasure. To be sure,
it is to a certain extent a ‘retro’ work with the
composer writing in a highly charged romantic style that would
have been largely anathema in the early ’fifties. Geraint
Lewis suggest that this piece, written when the composer was
eighteen years old. ‘represents a culmination of what
he [Mathias] always referred to as his ‘juvenile’
phase.’ The work was first performed on 16 May 1953 with
the violinist Edward Bor and the composer at the piano. However
the performance history has not been straightforward. Mathias
withdrew some two dozen ‘student’ works and these
were not performed again. This included the Violin Sonata.
Towards the end of his life the composer did review his entire
‘compositional archive’ before it was prepared for
presentation to the National Library of Wales. Some of the discarded
works were singled out as possibilities for performance. However,
Lewis assures us that the Violin Sonata was not amongst them.
In 2008 representations were made to the composer’s estate
and the present work was given a ‘trial run’ at
the Wigmore Hall. All were agreed that the sonata is not representative
of the composer’s work but it was felt that it was of
‘such astonishing power and originality as a self-taught
pre-student work that it should be heard in that light’.
It was duly ‘premiered’ at Galeri, Caernarfon on
2 July 2010.
The Sonata is in three well-balanced movements that are typically
romantic in their outlook. Rob Barnett has noted that this sonata
is in a trajectory from Howells, Ireland and Bax. I also agree
with him that the sound-worlds of Cyril Scott and John Ireland
permeate this work, however it never becomes pastiche.
I accept that this is not ‘typical’ Mathias - any
more than most composers’ ‘early horrors’
are typical of their mature work. Yet this Sonata is excellent
and enjoyable. Its parts are well balanced and the mood, whilst
largely romantic is never kitsch. It is a work worthy of the
composer and ought to be in the repertoire of many violinists.
The Violin Sonata No. 1 was the composer’s first commission
for the Cheltenham Festival. It was given its first performance
there on 12 July 1962. The violinist was Tessa Robbins and the
pianist was Robin Wood. The work was well received by the critics;
however there was a suggestion that the last movement, the Lento-Allegro
Ritmico, did not fulfil the promise of the first two.
There is certainly urgency about this music which is clear from
the very first downward phrase from the piano. This opening
movement contrasts an angular theme with one that is considerably
more ‘melodic and flowing’. This is reflective and
moving music: however, it is cast away by the ‘spiky’
tune before coming to an aggressive and finally enigmatic conclusion.
The Lento has been described as a ‘long and lyrical
berceuse’. This is music that is approachable and satisfying.
On the other hand the final ‘dance’ movement is
another story. This is in ‘typical’ Mathias style
as seen in a number of his organ works. However it does seem
to lack consistency with the preceding two movements.
Interestingly, a quotation from Vaughan Williams’ Sixth
Symphony has been detected in the finale - somewhat ‘irrelevant’
one reviewer thought. It would be interesting to understand
the reason for this gesture.
The Second Violin Sonata was commissioned by the Guild for the
Promotion of Welsh Music. It was to celebrate the composer’s
fiftieth birthday in 1984. The work was duly performed at the
Swansea Festival on 16 October that year with Erich Gruenberg
and John McCabe.
Mathias has made use of ‘blocks’ of musical material
in this Sonata which he had derived from the works of Tippett
and Stravinsky. This is used to create a ‘sonata’-like
framework which allows for dialogue and self-reference throughout.
The sound-world of this piece has moved on from ‘melody’
as such and depends to a large extent on the manipulation of
motifs. It has been suggested that Mathias has used a transposed
version of Shostakovich’s DSCH motive ‘presumably
as an act of homage’. The second movement corresponds
to a ‘scherzo’ but in reality this is more of a
toccata with its rapid figuration testing the violinist’s
technique. The slow movement is intense and is reminiscent of
a funeral march. The finale is imposing, economical and is in
the form of a ‘rondo’. I have not studied the score,
but one feels that material used earlier in the work is being
revisited. The slow episodes are introverted and quite beautiful.
The conclusion of the movement and of the work is a riot of
sound: there may even be a little hint of Iberia in these
I believe that this Sonata may not impress the listener on a
first hearing. But stick with it. There is much striking music
in these pages that is worthy of the composer at his best.
The CD liner-notes by Geraint Lewis are excellent. He has contributed
a great deal to the periodical literature about Mathias and
has written the Grove entry. I would have liked a little more
analysis of the 1952 Sonata - most of the notes deal with the
compositional and performance history. My only gripe is that
for a Naxos CD 53 minutes is a wee bitty short. Was there nothing
else they could have included? Perhaps the Musette and Dance
for two violins?
Finally the performances of these three Sonatas are excellent.
There is a commitment from Sara Trickey and Iwan Llewelyn-Jones
that understands and presents Mathias’s music in the best
possible manner. This recording is likely to become definitive
for many years to come.
see also review by Rob