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Interview by Christine Tröger for the
International Festival of Chamber Music in Kempten

Published on 21 September 2011 in Kreisbote KE, Kultur section

Mr. Matthews, which position would you give British music set in context to the musical development on the European continent? Can British music be seen as independent or rather borrowed from the continent?

British music has an unusual history because, after a period of great achievement between the end of the Middle Ages and the end of the 17th century - among the many outstanding composers were Dunstable, Tallis, Byrd, Dowland and Purcell - there were no major British composers until Elgar at the end of the 19th century. We missed out entirely on Classicism and Romanticism, the period when German music was at its greatest. So Elgar turned to German models - Mendelssohn, Schumann, Brahms, Wagner - to find a starting point, but having absorbed them he went on to find an entirely personal style. The next generation of British composers, in particular Vaughan Williams and Holst, rejected Wagner and Brahms and went back both to the English Renaissance composers - Tallis and Byrd - and to folk music to create a very British - or perhaps I should say English - musical language. After them, Britten and Tippett were much influenced by Purcell, as well as by folksong, but they also drew on European composers, and in fact you can say that British composers have always been eclectic - that goes for Tallis, Byrd and Purcell who all looked to Italy, as well as composers of our own time. However, I would claim that there is always a very strong British personality to our music, as I think audiences will hear during this festival.

A persisting prejudice is: "Britain - Land without Music". Your brother and also famous composer, Colin Matthews, once said in an interview, that it is not easy to categorize British music. He believed that British music would be rather astonishing for the European audience, as it doesn't follow defined patterns. Would you agree with this?

The 'Das Land ohne Musik' comment was made when music was just beginning to revive in Britain after the long period of stagnation that I mentioned, It's rather unfair, in that there was always plenty of music going on in Britain, even if much of it was imported. And it's certainly not true of the 20th century, or today. London in fact for a long time has had claim to be considered the centre of musical life in Europe.

It's possible that German audiences may find some British music rather strange because it doesn't sound like German music! There is also the fact that, because as I said we missed out on the 18th and 19th centuries, we didn't feel in the 20th century that the traditions deriving from those periods were exhausted, as you did in Germany. It was, for instance, still possible to write symphonies - and I write them myself, something which is extremely difficult, I think, in Germany today.

Is there a certain pattern you are following in your compositions?

I have a musical language which I feel is my own and which I have gradually acquired over the 50 or so years I have been composing, but each new piece has its own set of rules, and I like to try to do something different in each piece. For instance I have written 12 string quartets, but each one has a different shape; I'm not like Haydn, in largely using the same formal model again and again (though of course he never exactly repeated himself).

The audience in Kempten will have the pleasure to experience the world premiere of your composition "Lebensregeln" op. 116, 8 Lieder nach Goethe. What did give you the impulse to compose it?

It began eight years ago with a single song, 'Immer und Überall' which I wrote for the 60th birthday of my friend the singer Jill Gomez. Jill was a great Lieder singer and I thought it would be nice to set a German text, as a kind of homage to the German Lied. I don't speak German, sadly (at school we had to choose between Latin and German and I chose Latin), but I love German poetry and have read a lot in parallel text, particularly Goethe, and Hölderlin and Hofmannsthal, both of whom I've also set in the original. I decided to set more Goethe poems and over the next eight years I added seven more. Except for one which I wrote as a Christmas present for my wife, they are all birthday presents, four of them for fellow composers, including one for my brother Colin.

What are you mostly looking forward to coming to Kempten and being part of the festival?

I am obviously looking forward to hearing my own pieces played by what I know will be first-rate musicians, but I'm also very curious to discover what audiences will make of all this British music - some of which I've never heard myself. I'm also looking forward to visiting a town and an area that I don't know, but which I can see from photographs on the internet is very beautiful. I also look forward to drinking German wine, which I don't drink enough of in England!