Mathias's String Quartet No. 1: Something to Shout About

By Jones, Nicholas | Musical Times, Autumn 2000 | Go to article overview

Mathias's String Quartet No. 1: Something to Shout About


Jones, Nicholas, Musical Times


NICHOLAS JONES analyses a volatile mix of sonata form and montage in the music of a leading Welsh composer

LISTENERS wishing to identify the principal landmarks in William Mathias's development as a composer (not least a new approach to tonality and, in particular, musical structure) will probably cite a number of works written immediately after the Symphony no.1 op.31 (1966) as significant. One could also cite his compositions prior to these post-.symphonic works - notably the Divertimento for strings op.7 (1958), the Piano Concerto no.2 op.13 (1960), the Violin Sonata no.1 op.15 (1961), the Wind Quintet op.22 (1963), and the Concerto for Orchestra op.27 (1964), for instance - as bearing the thumbprints of this early yet distinctive style: a punchy rhythmic drive, an inventive manipulation of thematic material, a liking for vivacious contrapuntal textures, a penchant for historical formal givens, and an ostensibly tonal but modally inflected harmonic language - all of which are characteristically crowned with an emphatic optimism. One can perceive too in these `first period' works that the element of contrast, particularly between adjacent musical ideas, is another highly necessary component of their construction. This is evident enough in the Divertimento for strings and the Piano Concerto no.2, but it comes to the fore, above all, in the first movements of the Concerto for Orchestra and the Symphony no. 1. In the latter, as Gerald Lewis has observed:

A 'first group' of two sharply juxtaposed declamatory ideas, characterized by a rhythmic pungency, is broken off in mid-flight and a short ostinato ushers in the 'second group' which in contrast is more lyrical and softer in rhythmic profile. Two ideas are again juxtaposed in this group, both melodically derived from the corresponding ideas in the first group, ensuring unity beneath the apparent diversity.'

The natural consequence of Mathias's proclivity for contrast was to give heightened importance to this principle. And so, in his next major orchestral work, Litanies op.37 (1967), the negation of clear structural boundaries caused by a rupture in the work's continuity brought about a crucial turning point in his compositional trajectory. Developing a technique that first emerged in the Three medieval lyrics op.33 (1966) and the organ work Invocations op.35 (1967), Litanies is constructed from a stark juxtaposition of non-developmental blocks of sound, each block possessing its own instrumentation, textural colouring, character and tempo. Thus the articulation of the work's structural continuity is deeply affected by the principle of fragmentation. Orchestrally, this technique was subsequently developed in the Piano Concerto no.3 op.40 (1968), the Harp Concerto op.50 (1970) and the four `landscapes of the mind' - Laudi op.62 (1973), Vistas op.69 (1975), Helios op.76 (1977) and Requiescat op.79 (1977); but it initially found a remarkable maturity in a chamber work that immediately followed Litanies - the String Quartet no. op.38 of 1967. IN conversation with AJ Heward Rees in 1975 Mathias stated that: '... I think I am essentially a dramatic composer. I was interested quite early in the concerto form, which presents at least the nature of a dialogue between two or more elements.'2 Mathias then goes on to affirm his fascination with different forms of contrast,

... even contrasts of media, in the sense that an organ piece when written can be followed by a string quartet, followed by a symphonic work, followed by a choral piece, and so on - a variety which I seem to need; and within those works also a great contrast, mainly of sonorities. This, perhaps, links up with what I have said [earlier in the same interview] about the plurality of the world we live in - the absence of a single obvious method of approach.3

A `great contrast' is explicitly evident in the String Quartet no. 1, particularly as a means of producing an overall dramatic effect. …

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