David Matthews composer

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A Distant Fury of Battle: a composer's response to Geoffrey Hill's 'Funeral Music'

Published in Agenda, 1992

New pieces begin for me in various ways, but often the initial stimulus will come from outside music, sometimes from literature or painting, sometimes directly from life. In the case of my Chaconne for orchestra, the extra-musical background was unusually important. When I started to make sketches for a piece for the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra in May 1986, I conceived it as a single movement of about twenty minutes' duration, predominantly slow-moving and restrained in dynamics, with long passages of meditative counterpoint and several episodes of a fantastic or dreamlike nature. I had been thinking about the pastoral tradition in British music and how it might still be sustained, no longer of course in the unsullied innocence of Vaughan Williams's The Lark Ascending or Butterworth's The Banks of Green Willow but in a way, perhaps, that developed on from the more complex vision of innocence and experience that one finds in Vaughan Williams's Pastoral and Fifth Symphonies and Tippett's Corelli Fantasia, though avoiding the extreme harshness of Harrison Birtwistle's solution to the same problem.

Around this time, I happened to read Geoffrey Hill's sonnet sequence 'Funeral Music' and its accompanying essay. Hill's poetry had already made a deep impression on me by its sense of absolute rightness, the way every word falls perfectly into place like finely cut stones in a wall, and by its being steeped in tradition but not imprisoned by it, its possession of the historical sense as Eliot had defined it. In 'Funeral Music', a meditation on the Wars of the Roses and specifically on the Battle of Towton, the bloodiest battle of those wars, I found a way of dealing with history, uncompromisingly truthful and at the same time reconciliatory - "a commination and an alleluia", as Hill described it, which gave me a key to how my own piece might stand in relation to that pastoral tradition I have mentioned. A medieval battlefield such as Towton has long since mellowed into a peaceable English landscape celebrated by our greatest painters and composers. Perhaps there could be a music of our time that reconciled our romanticised sense of a picturesque past with the brutal facts of history.

I read other books on the Wars of the Roses, but decided against visiting Towton, fearing that reality might injure the mental picture I was building up. From A.H. Burne's The Battlefields of England (which Hill had mentioned in his essay), I learned that the battle had begun at 9 a.m. on Palm Sunday, 1461. My piece, then, would begin with stylized bell sounds - twice nine, in six groups of three. I was sitting in my garden one morning thinking about this opening when a carrion crow flew overhead and cawed three times: it seemed such a clear omen (I hoped not a baleful one) that I decided to preface the bells with this sound, which I represented by a weird combination of high solo double bass and guiro (a South American rasping instrument), the first of several exotic sounds I introduced (another was the hard, bright click of aboriginal music sticks) as a response to the "mutterings, blasphemies and cries for help" of Hill's poetic language in 'Funeral Music'.

In his essay, Hill further describes the character of the sequence as "a florid grim music broken by grunts and shrieks". This irresistible line came to suggest the general character of my piece. "There is a distant fury of battle", Hill adds, alluding to his earlier poem from For the Unfallen. The next music I wrote, after the opening, was just such an evocation of a battle seen and heard from a distance: not the flashing swords and brilliant banners of Liszt's Hunnenschlacht or Walton's Henry V, but a conflict dimly glimpsed, as if through the snow that, we are told, fell at Towton while the battle raged. There is a brief climax, a sudden focusing into the midst of the fury, but it is immediately cut off, like a film edit. What follows is a passage that, in my mind, is most directly related to some specific lines in 'Funeral Music': Hill's evocation of a field after battle which

utters its own sound
Which is like nothing on earth, but is earth.

In my piece, the return of the opening in skeletal form (literally, the rhythms of the bell sounds being tapped out by percussion with the strings playing sub ponticello - behind the bridge) is followed by a lamenting viola solo, heard over a sustained string chord and a pulsating repeated dissonance on muted trombones and alto flute.

I do not remember if I was influenced by Hill's use of sonnet form to cast my piece as a chaconne, a form with a similarly long tradition. In any case, the chaconne form - variations over a repeated ground bass - seemed ideal for my purposes. I also wanted to introduce into the piece a transcription of a song of mine for voice and piano, a setting of words from Blake's The Book of Ahania, which was in the form of a chaconne. It appears as the second of two chaconnes in my piece, and is introduced in counterpoint with the first. I did not intend Blake's words (a lament for lost love) to have any relevance here, but the tone of the song was right for the piece, and the music called out for orchestration. The full statement of this second chaconne immediately precedes the 'battle' interlude, and follows a 'dream' interlude which makes reference to the pastoral music of lost innocence (I was particularly thinking of Elgar's Falstaff).

One artistic medium cannot literally be translated into another. But poetry, like painting, can be full of suggestive power for a composer, especially when the poet has, like Geoffrey Hill, a particularly musical approach to language, an exceptional sensitivity to the sound of his words. Because Hill himself had used the word 'music' in connection with 'Funeral Music', I felt less inhibited than I might have been in making my own response. My Chaconne is not programme music; it does not attempt literal description in the manner of Richard Strauss. I was tempted not to reveal anything of the background to its composition, but to let it be heard simply as music, without the possible distractions of its extra-musical side. But I should like to think that knowledge of the poem that had moved me and helped me write the piece will also add to the quality of the listener's experience. I hope so.

A postscript. Last September [1991] I visited, for the first time, Llandaff Cathedral and discovered there the tomb of Edward IV's standard-bearer at Towton, who was killed in the battle. His name was Sir David Mathew. I don't suppose he was an ancestor, but the coincidence of the name has given the elegiac quality of the piece a new poignancy for me.