Obituary: Professor William Mathias
Friday 31 July 1992
WILLIAM MATHIAS was once aptly described as 'one of the most versatile musical minds of his generation'. He was one of the most communicative of contemporary composers and his warmly gregarious personality was somehow embodied in his celebratory style. Never one to believe in the arcane ivory tower of modern music he sought clarity of expression above all else and wanted his work to be useful and meaningful.
Born in Whitland, Dyfed, in 1934, Mathias showed very early musical inclinations. By the age of three he was playing the piano and at five was composing small pieces. He was blessed with a sympathetic piano teacher and his immediate family was musical but in all essentials he was compositionally self-taught. He studied at the University College of Wales, Aberystwyth (originally French, English and Philosophy and not Music), where he composed a great deal of music some of which he happily acknowledged at the end of his life when he rediscovered it. The essentials of his musical idiom were already virtually in place at this early period and can be heard in the Flute and Clarinet Sonatina (1957). He then went to the Royal Academy of Music in London where he studied with Lennox Berkeley. His contemporaries included Cornelius Cardew (who performed one of his works) and Harrison Birtwistle, and for a time Mathias experimented with a complex brand of serialism. He soon recognised that this was a blind alley and it reinforced his own feeling of stylistic identity - crisp, dancing rhythms, neo-classical structural parameters and a tonally based if modally inflected harmony.
These dualities are enshrined in the Divertimento for Strings, written in London in 1958, which enjoyed wide and immediate success. In 1959 Mathias returned to Wales to lecture in music at the University College of North Wales (UCNW), Bangor. His compositional career was now developing quickly and in the next decade he received commissions from most leading British festivals, including Cheltenham, Aldeburgh and the Three Choirs. He established a reputation as one of the brightest musical voices of his generation even though the general tenor of his idiom was unfashionable. He also drew firmly on the Welsh side of his background and wrote works like St Teilo (1970) and Culhwch and Olwen (1971) which brought vitality to the musical life of Wales. Aware of the vocal and choral background of Welsh music, as well as of an inherent amateur tradition, he was determined to bring the highest professional standards to bear and devoted his life to this cause.
In 1968 Mathias left Wales to take an appointment as Senior Lecturer in Edinburgh University, but returned when his father died in 1970. He now composed some of his most characterful music, including the Harp Concerto, in his native surroundings in South Wales, but returned to academic life in the same year when he was appointed Professor and Head of the Department of Music at UCNW, Bangor. He remained in this position until 1988 when he retired at an early age to concentrate on composition.
Mathias was a man of enormous energy and he ordered his professional life with extraordinary discipline. His compositional output was prodigious throughout his mature life and he was renowned for his ability to meet deadlines. He was also happy and able to meet all kinds of requirements with great practicality. He was a firm believer in Britten's philosophy that 'composers should be useful, and to the living'. But this should not lead to the assumption, commonly made, that Mathias was merely a facile composer of occasional music. He was an artist of singular vision which was happily all-embracing.
The main thrust of his abstract music in the period 1970-92 was towards a richness of expression, as embodied in Laudi (1973), Vistas (1975), Helios (1975) and Requiescat (1978), a series of orchestral scores he described as 'landscapes of the mind'. These culminated in the Second and Third Symphonies of 1983 and 1991 and two concertos on a large scale: for organ, in 1984, and violin (1991). His last major orchestral work, In Arcadia (first performed in Aberystwyth four months ago), is curiously a form of summing-up, but, although poignant and valedictory in parts, it is also bracing and forward looking. Over the 30-odd years of his musical maturity his language remained consistent while developing subtly in terms of richness and clarity.
One aspect of his output which brought him immediate worldwide acclaim was his church and choral music. This was deeply rooted in his feeling of contributing usefully to a particular musical community, but also reflected his concern that music should 'praise'. His first anthems were written in the early 1960s for friends connected with Welsh cathedrals but his infectious and vibrant vocal writing was soon sung all over the English-speaking world. A high point was the anthem to mark the wedding of the Prince and Princess of Wales in July 1981 but this, at the express wish of the Prince, was written in a manner which would not be beyond the reach of most good church choirs and it has indeed gone on to be an extremely popular addition to the repertoire.
Mathias's largest-scale works involve a meshing of the sacred and secular, the contemplative and the dramatic. This Worldes Joie (1974), Lux Aeterna (1982), and World's Fire (1989) are brilliantly effective choral-orchestral canvases which perhaps show Mathias's individuality at its widest - immediately communicative and arresting but also intimate and affecting. In the theatre, his collaboration with Iris Murdoch on The Servants for Welsh National Opera in 1980 divided critical opinion but was enthusiastically received by audiences and is overdue for revival in a sympathetic production. The masque Jonah, written with Charles Causley in 1988, was an immediate success both in Britain and in the United States.
It would be difficult to exaggerate the popularity of Mathias's music in choral circles in the United States during the last decade. He was awarded an honorary doctorate by Westminster Choir College, Princeton, in 1988, and has been a regular visitor to many major American cities where his works were increasingly commissioned and performed. Up to two days before his death he was working on a new symphony for the Santa Fe Symphony Orchestra.
Central to Mathias's working life and close to his heart was the North Wales Music Festival held annually in St Asaph's Cathedral which he founded in 1972 and which will be held for the 21st time in September. An all-embracing musician who was also a gifted pianist, conductor and galvaniser, William Mathias leaves a gap in many areas of the musical world which can in no real sense be filled.
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