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An Autobiographical Sketch

Childhood and a desire to compose

I am a Londoner, born on 9 March 1943 in Walthamstow and brought up in nearby Leytonstone. The proximity of Epping Forest, however, gave me as a child the sense of access to the Essex countryside, which became more important when as a teenager I became intensely interested in natural history.

My parents were both from lower middle/working class backgrounds. Not having had higher education themselves, they were anxious that my brother Colin and I should - and they succeeded, as after attending the local primary school we both won scholarships at the age of eleven to a minor public school, Bancroft's School in Woodford. My mother also arranged for us to have piano lessons; I learned from the age of seven and was thought of as a promising pianist, though when I was thirteen I gave up and spent the next few years listening only to the new rock and roll music, much to my parents' horror.


With his mother and father

But when I was sixteen, I rediscovered classical music and particularly orchestral music which I heard on the radio: this so excited me that I decided I must compose, and when at Christmas 1959 I bought a recording of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, I started to write a symphony of my own. It took me a year to complete, and then I began another. Colin had also started composing and as there was no music master at our school we were each other's only teachers for a number of years. People often ask me what it is like to have a brother who is a composer and the obvious reply is that I can't imagine what it's like not to have one.

Higher education, early work in music, and finding a voice

Since there was no music taught at school, I could not consider reading music at university, and settled for Classics, which I wasn't terribly good at, but at least it gave me a three-year space in which to try to find out how I might become a professional composer, which at the time seemed rather unlikely. I went to Nottingham University (who later awarded me an honorary Doctor of Music) and after leaving I asked Deryck Cooke, with whom Colin and I had got in touch because of our interest in his performing version of Mahler's Tenth Symphony (we later collaborated with him on orchestrating the final version of his score), to help me find work in music.

One person he introduced me to was Donald Mitchell, who had just started Faber Music, primarily to publish the music of Britten. I did some copying and editorial work for Faber's, and in the spring of 1966 was asked to complete the 'rehearsal score' of Britten's The Burning Fiery Furnace when Martin Penny who was preparing it fell ill. Later that year Britten asked me if I would like to do more work for him, so for the next three years I became a part-time assistant to his regular music assistant Rosamund Strode, and spent extended periods in Aldeburgh working at The Red House.


David's biography of
Benjamin Britten

Britten was the first composer I had met, and as an apprentice in his studio, watching how he worked, I learned how a composer functioned; I didn't quite realise at the time that I could not have had a better example, and that this was an invaluable training for a composer. I knew that Britten did not teach, and I was both shy and rather wary of him as a composer at that time, so I did not show him my music. I would have liked to study with Tippett, who was then my real hero among living composers - I eventually wrote a short book on him which was published in 1980 - but Tippett did not teach either. He recommended a younger composer, Anthony Milner, and so I decided to study privately with him. Both Anthony Milner and Nicholas Maw - whom I met a year or so later when I was asked to make the vocal score of his opera The Rising of the Moon, and whose music I greatly admired - helped me gain the confidence to write as I wanted instead of feeling that I should try to compose like Boulez or Stockhausen, who dominated the musical scene in the 1960s.

I knew that I was not destined to follow the current avant-garde, but to continue along a path similar to that which Britten and Tippett were following, and also one rooted in the Viennese Classics - Beethoven above all - and also in Mahler and the early 20th-century modernists - Stravinsky, Schoenberg (not the twelve-note Schoenberg), Berg and Bartók. I had always known that I must not forsake tonality, but try to reconcile the present with the past, and to pursue the rich traditional forms. I retain a firm commitment to a music that is grounded in song and dance, and is connected to the vernacular.

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Early works and performances

I had no professional performances until in 1967 a string quartet that I had sent to the BBC Reading Panel (which sadly no longer exists) was passed and broadcast by the Dartington Quartet. In 1969 I sent two orchestral songs to the Society for the Promotion of New Music. They were accepted and performed in an orchestral workshop in May 1970 at the Royal Festival Hall by Jane Manning with the London Philharmonic conducted by Norman Del Mar. It was an exciting moment to know that my orchestral music (by this time I had written three symphonies, all now discarded) did actually work.

That year I also had pieces played at the Queen Elizabeth Hall and the Purcell Room, but then came several years with no performances at all and very little completed to my satisfaction. I had moved out of my basement flat in Ladbroke Grove and was now living in Burwash in Sussex, renting a cottage which belonged to my then girlfriend and her sister. The three years I spent there were an English idyll in a beautiful and unspoilt landscape, but I did rather lose contact with the London musical world, and spent much of the time writing a huge choral and orchestral piece which failed to satisfy me.

Collaboration with Peter Sculthorpe


With Peter Sculthorpe

In 1972, however, I met the Australian composer Peter Sculthorpe, who was at the time a visiting professor at Sussex University, and who lived nearby and needed someone to help him with his music theatre piece Rites of Passage for the opening of the Sydney Opera House. We became friends and found we agreed on many things and fruitfully disagreed on others. Peter was my best teacher: he gave me a different perspective on music, being himself suspicious of the dominance of European music and more interested in Asia.

In 1974 I made the first of many visits to Sydney, staying in his house and as well as continuing to work on the unfinished Rites of Passage, collaborating on music for a television film - the first of three film music projects we undertook together. While I was in Sydney I also wrote a piece of my own, an Elegy (it became the last movement of my Second String Quartet) in memory of a friend who had been killed in a plane crash just before I left England - it was my best piece so far.

Establishing a career


At home in Clapham

For the next two years I was living in Oxford and beginning at last to get a few pieces played again. I wrote my real Symphony No.1 which was played at the Stroud Festival under Norman Del Mar, but it displeased me and I had to rewrite it a few years later. One small piece attracted the attention of Anthony Burton, then a young producer for Radio 3, and he obtained for me a BBC commission for a Third String Quartet, my real entry into the BBC, which has supported me ever since.

I moved back to London and spent the next 25 years living beside Clapham Common, near to where my brother and his wife lived. In 1980 I was able to buy a flat on Clapham Common North Side with money I had earned from the orchestration of Carl Davis's score for Abel Gance's film Napoleon. Orchestrating for Carl's silent film projects became my chief means of earning my living for the next ten years. I have always managed to stay a freelance, as I had intended from the start, and have avoided full-time teaching, again from choice.


With Maggie Hemingway

In 1982 my Second Symphony was performed by the Philharmonia Orchestra under Simon Rattle, and as a result of this I was offered a full publishing contract by Faber Music. I also met Maggie Hemingway, who became my partner until her untimely death in 1993. Maggie wrote and published four novels while I was with her, and also the words for my dramatic scena, Cantiga, for soprano and orchestra, which was premiered at the 1988 BBC Proms by Jill Gomez.

During the ten years I spent with Maggie I composed two more symphonies and four symphonic poems; I became Music Advisor to the English Chamber Orchestra and have written seven pieces for them; I developed special relationships with the BBC Philharmonic - who premiered three of my pieces - and the Nash Ensemble, for whom I have composed six pieces so far and made a number of arrangements. I very much enjoy arranging, whether reducing orchestral music for chamber ensemble or scoring piano music for instruments.


Early morning, Deal beach, David Matthews

In 1985 Maggie bought a house in Deal in Kent, and living by the sea became an essential part of my life. From 1989 to 2003 I was Artistic Director of the Deal Festival, something I found rewarding, trying to bring the best musicians I could afford to this small town, which has always reminded me a little of Aldeburgh, and I tried to model the Festival on Aldeburgh Festival in its early days before the building of the Maltings.

Between 1993 and 1996 I composed - and after its first performance by the Huddersfield Choral Society extensively revised - my largest piece so far, Vespers for soloists, chorus and orchestra, setting some of the traditional Latin texts but also some poems by Rilke in English. This has now been recorded on Dutton Epoch by the Bach Choir and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, conducted by David Hill. From 1997 to 1999 I was Composer in Residence with the Britten Sinfonia, and wrote three pieces for them including my Fifth Symphony which was premiered at the 1999 Proms. In 2000 I began a cello concerto, Concerto in Azzurro, for Steven Isserlis, one of a number of friends whose playing style I know well. It is always best to be able to write for friends.

I have a particularly close relationship with the violinist Peter Sheppard Skaerved, for whom I have written many solo pieces, including 15 Fugues, and the Kreutzer Quartet which he leads are in process of recording all my string quartets for Toccata Classics. After completing the cello concerto in 2002 I took six months off to write a biography of Britten. I like writing words, and have always written articles and programme notes throughout my working life, though I find it harder than composing music.

Present and future


With wife Jenifer

I now divide by time between Hampstead Garden Suburb, a pleasant part of London with a wood at the top of my road, and the village of Kingsdown near Deal, with my wife Jenifer. My recent music has become more diatonic, and I have been using folksong in some pieces, and incorporating birdsong into others. Landscape and the natural world have always been important stimuli for my music. In 2007 my Sixth Symphony, the biggest I have written, and based on Vaughan Williams's hymn Down Ampney, was premiered at the BBC Proms by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales conducted by Jac van Steen; it was well received by both audience and critics, and later recorded for Dutton. My Seventh and Eighth Symphonies were both composed for the BBC Philharmonic, together with a new symphonic poem, A Vision of the Sea. All three works have now been recorded; the last two by the BBC Philharmonic under Jan van Steen for a CD which will be released on Signum Classics in early 2019.

In 2010 I finished my Twelfth String Quartet, which lasts almost 45 minutes, and since then I have written five more quartets. The most recent, my Seventeenth, was premiered at the 2023 Aldeburgh Festival. String quartets and symphonies continue to obsess me: my Tenth Symphony, subtitled ‘Regeneration’, was premiered by the BBC Philharmonic under Jac van Steen in 2022, and I have just finished my Eleventh. The major event of my 80th birthday year has been the concert premiere of my opera Anna, with a libretto but the late Sir Roger Scruton, with a cast of young singers and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra conducted once again by Jac van Steen.

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David Matthews
July 2023