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Symphonies 1, 2, 3

William Mathias: Canzonetta for Organ (1977)
by John France

William Mathias (1934-1992) wrote a number of highly successful organ pieces. Many have entered the standard repertoire although requiring considerable virtuosity from the performer. They range from recital pieces such as the Partita op.19 (1962) and the Variations on a Hymn Tune (Briant) op.20 (1962) to pot-boilers like the ever-popular Processional (1964). There are only two works that are technically straightforward: the present Canzonetta and the Chorale which was published in Easy Modern Organ Music Volume 1 (1967).

The Canzonetta shares an opus number with the composer’s Fantasy op.78 for organ which was written as a commission for ‘The 1978 Manchester International Organ Festival’, in association with the Welsh Arts Council. This latter work was dedicated to Geraint Jones.

At the time of the composition of the Canzonetta William Mathias was professor of music and head of department at the University of Wales, Bangor. Furthermore, from 1961 he was a ‘house composer’ for Oxford University Press. The Canzonetta was written to fulfil a commission for a short piece to be included in A Second Album of Preludes and Interludes: Six Pieces by Contemporary British Composers which was published by OUP in 1979. Other works in this album comprise: John Gardner: Interlude op.143; Bryan Kelly: Passacaglia; Edward Harper: Interlude: Ave Maria Stella; Alan Ridout: Dance and Kenneth Leighton: Ode.

Canzonetta was sketched out in the late autumn of 1977 with the sketches and holograph of the score dated 27/12/77. It is not possible to assign a first public performance of the work, however it was no doubt played widely in parish churches after the publication of the Album.

William Mathias’ major ‘work in progress’ towards the end of the 1970s was his opera The Servants which had been commenced in 1975 and was duly given its first performance in Cardiff on 15 September 1980. Two other important compositions dating from this time are the orchestral Helios op.76 (1977) and the Dance Variations op.72 (1976).

The Canzonetta is written in a fairly straightforward ternary form. There is no key signature. The music is indicated to be played ‘Lento e tranquillo’ for most of the piece with only a couple of ‘ritardandos’. The majority of the work is composed in triple time, however there are number of time-signature changes in the middle section between 3/4 and 2/4. The score suggests that the piece is played on the ‘great’ or the ‘choir’ organ. It is largely pianissimo (p or mp) throughout.

The outer sections of the work use a ‘shepherd’s pipe’ modal melody which is largely stepwise and supported by parallel fifths acting as a ‘pastoral’ drone. It is answered by a consequent phrase of parallel fourths. This opening melody is played three times, each time raised by a tone. The final statement utilises an extension of the antecedent phrase presented canonically.

The middle section is more chromatic. It initially presents a ‘wedge like’ harmonic structure expanding from a unison to a major fifth by way of a major second and third. This is followed by a reworking of the opening material in inversion and in canon. The reprise begins an octave higher, supported by a pedal point. The melody here is given twice. The coda is made up of cluster chords derived from the eight note (octatonic) scale that Mathias has used to derive his melodic material. The final chord contains notes Ab (G#), B, F, G, D, E, Bb (A#) & C# presenting a beautiful soft dissonance. The pedal part throughout is largely straightforward – there are a number of pedal points rising or falling by step.

The overall impression of the Canzonetta is moody, reflective and rustically na´ve — deliberately so.

It is hardly surprising that little critical comment has been written about Mathias’ Canzonetta, bearing in mind the work’s status as an interlude rather than a recital piece. I doubt that it will be included in many organ recitals. The literature is equally sparse. Geraint Jones, who wrote the programme notes for the Nimbus recordings, has suggested that it is ‘… a hieratic introductory voluntary to the music of a liturgical service.’ Presumably he is using the word ‘hieratic’ in its ‘priestly’ as opposed to ‘sacred’ sense. Yet, I wonder if this is an appropriate description of a short piece that smacks more Strephon (in contemplative mood) and his pipe than the vicar’s benediction.

The most important contribution to an analysis and understanding of this work is Samuel Louis Porter’s dissertation The Solo Organ Works of William Mathias which was submitted in 1991. I have relied heavily on this work in my analytical notes. Porter’s main contention is that ‘it [Canzonetta] shares the pathos and suspended animation of the Chorale’ is helpful to those who know the latter work. He makes clear that this is not typical of William Mathias’s organ music: it lacks any dance and rhythmic element. This may be a bit unfair, as much of Mathias music is based on blocks of sound such as used in Litanies as well as exploiting more meditative and reflective material.

I understand that the Canzonetta has been recorded by three organists: Jane Watts, Simon Lawford and Richard Lea (see Discography below for details). It has probably been ignored by recitalists because of the relatively straightforward nature of the piece and its dissimilarity from much of Mathias’s musical canon.

The Canzonetta is an attractive miniature, that is well-written and presenting a mood of repose and introspection. It is well within the gift of most church organists in that it does not require a virtuosic technique.


1. Mathias, William: Church Choral and Organ Works Christ Church Cathedral Choir, Oxford, Stephen Darlington (director) and Simon Lawford (organ) Nimbus NI5243. (1990)

2. Great European Organs: Rochester Cathedral, Jane Watts (organ) Priory PRCD 389 (with works by Popplewell, Hoddinott, Preston and Willcocks). (1993)

3. Mathias, William: Complete Organ Works Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral Richard Lea (organ) Priory PRCD870 (2006)

John France
December 2014