David Matthews composer

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Roger Scruton

February 2020

Roger and David in Venice, June 2018

With Roger Scruton's death I have lost a dear friend, and this country one of its most brilliant minds. His nearly fifty books cover almost all imaginable fields, and in every one he has invaluable things to say. Above all, for me, there are his books on music: The Aesthetics of Music, widely recognized as the most important book in its field; two books of essays; and three magisterial books on Wagner - Death Devoted Heart on Tristan und Isolde, The Ring Resounding, and his final book, on Parsifal, soon to be published. The Aesthetics of Music is a huge expansion of a series of chapters in his earlier The Aesthetic Understanding. In one section he outlined a defence of tonality which I have found more convincing than any other, and which I believe is of vital importance for the future of Western Classical music. Roger had great respect for the modernism of Schoenberg, but claimed that there is an instinctive need in us for tonality, to which music must return, however difficult that may be for us in the West. He welcomed the attempts of many composers today who are trying to reinvigorate tonality, though was critical of the more simplistic approaches, such as minimalism.

His later thoughts on musical aesthetics and on tonality can be found in his two books of essays, Understanding Music and Music as an Art. In one essay in the second book (on my own music, though it ranges much further) he ends with a wonderful passage on Das Lied von der Erde, which eloquently expresses his feelings about music today. The emphasis on beauty (the subject of a separate book) is significant: Roger was much concerned with its absence from almost all aspects of contemporary art and architecture, which he saw as part of the aesthetic and spiritual poverty of our time.

Mahler's 'Ewig' summarizes the religious feelings of an artist for whom the source of meaning is earth and her beauty, and who finds redemption not in hoping beyond this world but in being reconciled to leaving it, and leaving it for ever. In Mahler's vision redemption comes through beauty; but the awareness of beauty is not merely an aesthetic thing, existing in fleeting moments of delight. It is a stance of the whole person and informs the whole of life. It has its moral and political expression; and is best explained, to those who do not know it, as the ability to bless, and be blessed by, the things of this world. That is surely the condition to which all contemporary music should aspire.

Roger was an accomplished musician himself. From his tirades against contemporary pop in The Aesthetics of Music and An Intelligent Person's Guide to Modern Culture, It might come as a surprise to learn that he played in a rock band when he was an undergraduate, but his chief criticism of today's pop was that it disregards both melody and voice leading, both of which one finds in the music of the Beatles and other rock music of the 1960s. Roger was a good pianist and we used to play piano duets together, especially the Dvorak Slavonic Dances and, when for a time he had two grand pianos in his Wiltshire farmhouse, our favourite piece was the slow movement of the Brahms two-piano sonata (neither of us had time to practise enough to play the other movements).

If he had not decided to pursue just about everything else, Roger might have become a notable composer. While he was writing his first opera he asked me to give him some composition lessons in return for philosophy lessons - these were mostly on Descartes, and I experienced Roger's gift as a teacher for making difficult things clear. He often used to tell me that he had learned from me in particular how to keep his bass lines moving. He composed two operas, The Minister and Violet, both of which were staged, and which are musically and dramatically effective, as well as some beautiful songs to words by Lorca, which were sung at his 75th birthday party in May 2019, together with a set of variations on one of these songs that I had composed for violin and piano. He also heard this played in a concert at the British Embassy in Prague in November 2019, the last time I saw him.

During the last two years of his life we were working together on an opera, Anna, a tragic love story set in a Central European country at the time of the 1989 revolutions - probably Czechoslovakia, which we both knew well. In 1986 Roger had asked me to organize seminars in Brno for the underground university which he had co-founded (where I met Pavel Zemek Novak and Jaroslav Stastny, now close friends and leading composers in the Czech Republic). I met dissidents, and experienced at first hand the atmosphere of repression, in a country where its inhabitants were virtually prisoners, but where friendship could flourish at a vitally compensating level. Roger's libretto is superbly dramatic. I sent him the vocal score of the first Act just before Christmas and he was able to read it through. Sadly he will never hear it, but when Anna is finished it will be my tribute to his memory.

Roger was an extremely sensitive person. In terms of Jungian psychology he was an introverted feeling type. Like me he was a Piscean, and though I can't imagine how astrology can possibly work, I have always felt a special affinity for fellow Pisceans (my wife Jenifer is also one). I have never met anyone quite as extraordinary as Roger. He was much misunderstood and criticised for his political opinions and those on society in general. But he was always willing to listen to those who disagreed with him and try to find common ground. He was one of the kindest persons I have known, and I am glad that the last twenty-three years of his life were so happy with his wife Sophie and their two children Sam and Lucy. I shall miss him very much.