David Matthews: Symphony No. 7

Symphony No. 7

Duration: 20'
Publisher: Faber Music
KSO played: 2010

KSO is very pleased to give David Matthews' new symphony its first outing in London, not only because the orchestra has a history with his music (he was one of six composers who wrote “birthday presents” in the form of concert openers for KSO's 50th season) but also because it will be the first opportunity the composer has to hear it live.  The grounding of all air traffic by Icelandic volcanic ash left Matthews stranded in Australia and unable to attend the première in Manchester earlier this year.

In an interview he gave to Radio 3 on the occasion of the broadcast of that performance, he speculated on whether this would prove to be his final symphony, concluding “I don’t know… but if it is, it would be a good place to stop.”  It is to be hoped that he does continue: the reception given to this piece reflects an awareness that has grown in recent years that, quietly working away without fuss, Matthews has produced one of the most significant bodies of British orchestral music since the war.

The Seventh was commissioned by the BBC as part of a series of works to accompany its celebration of the centenary of Gustav Mahler.  Mahler has a significant role in Matthews’s own career: he has drawn inspiration from Mahler throughout his symphonies, but he has also had an influence on the standing of Mahler's music.  It could also be said that Matthews has had an influence on Mahler in return.  Along with his brother Colin he collaborated with Deryk Cooke to produce a performable version of Mahler's unfinished 10th Symphony. This initially controversial project contributed in no small way to the astonishing increase in popularity that composer has enjoyed since the 1970s.

By coincidence, it was Mahler’s own Seventh symphony that Matthews’s work was paired with.   Matthews took advantage of Mahler’s use of a tenor horn in his symphony to employ the instrument in his own piece, but otherwise the influence of Mahler is less obvious than two more of Matthews’s compositional touchstones, Sibelius and Tippett.  There is an obvious parallel with Sibelius’s Seventh Symphony, also cast in a single movement.  Tippett’s influence can be heard in Matthews’s style, but also perhaps more significantly in his tone: this is by no means simple music, but it has a directness of utterance and an optimism that the elder composer would certainly have appreciated. 

The beguiling melody that opens the symphony contains the seeds of everything that follows.  The symphony is not long, but it manages to pack a lot of incident into its 20-minute span.  Matthews often speaks of his music in terms of a journey, and that feeling is to the fore here: the gentle opening is only the start of a far-ranging exploration that finishes a world away with an irresistible, energetic and confident conclusion.

Note © 2011 by Peter Nagle

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