David Matthews-Composition, transcription, transgression!
Peter Sheppard Sk?rved (October 21st 2015)
Any musician lucky enough to collaborate with composers over an extended period of time will know, that the recurring topic in discussion and ‘musicking’, is the work of other composers. This is not, on the surface, surprising. In conversation, particularly conversation which we desire to continue, all of us tend to seek out confluences of ideas, shared interests, points of agreement, and of course, flashpoints, the ‘third rail’ if you like, where all the danger, and all the power, is.
The common element, in my experience, of the colloquy with many composers, and particularly with David Matthews, is the subject of Beethoven. The tenor of our mutual relationship(s), with Beethoven, often defines much of the expressive field under exploration. Each composer’s love of Beethoven reveals different fascinations, even obsession. Talking with the late George Rochberg, it was clear that the Beethoven most important to him was the late work, offering a ‘gold standard’ of expression, towards which he reached, as a composer, and which he expected that his performers should also yearn for. Not all of the composers with whom one enjoys this discussion are alive; but the Beethoven question is very much in the air. Whether we are working on Brahms’s first two quartets, or Tippett’s last three, or Bartok 3, it is to a variety of aspects of Beethoven, that the discussion defaults. I find that discussions with the living composers, such as Matthews, offers insight into how we might view the earlier creators as they explored their respective dialogues with their great forebear.
In working with David Matthews for an extended period of time, and talking about Beethoven (amongst other composers) with him, over and over again, I have found an additional enlightenment, simpler perhaps, but extraordinarily exciting. Put simply, collaboration with a living great composer offers windows into the creative worlds of composers of the past, and personally, when dealing with Beethoven, this is window I need.
Around about the time that first began to work with David Matthews in the mid-1990s, I became aware of the work of a quartet founded in 1852 by the Parisian virtuose Jean-Pierre Maurin (1822-1894). This was at the moment that the institution of the string quartet, was established as the chamber ensemble par excellence, a ne plus ultra of musical expression. Maurin was aware that as ‘just’ a violinist, there might be aspects of composition, of interpretation, in which he and his colleagues might be wanting. Accordingly, from 1853, they sought out the help of Richard Wagner, when studying the late quartets of Beethoven (It was clear that they felt needed assistance at such a level). Wagner wrote excitedly to Liszt about the experience of coaching the Op 127 and 131 quartets. Since I discovered this, their wisdom has been proved to me; in the study of Beethoven quartets, I, a ‘poor player’, need help, and David Matthews has been an invaluable guide. Of course, much of this help has been in discussion, over coffee, after performances, on walks, in correspondence. In 1997 onwards, it took another turn. I had fallen in love with the Op 101 Piano Sonata, and being a lamentable pianist, was frustrated by my inability to play it, on any instrument, and also the sense that this was, maybe, more than just keyboard writing. I felt that it should be a quartet. After a performing Matthews’s 4th and Beethoven’s Op 131 Quartets at the Wigmore Hall, I mentioned this to David, in passing, in the Green Room. To my surprise he said that he had already made a version, years before, and that he thought that it was in his mother’s house.
Well, he could not find the transcription, so, ever practical, he just made a new one, which proved to be a delight. This has been a growing facet of the Kreutzer Quartet’s repertoire ever since, and initiated a new strand in our collaboration. Since then, as well as all of David’s quartets, it has been a joy to perform his transcriptions of Bach, Schumann, Scriabin, Schubert, and more Beethoven, and of course, this led to more revelations helping with aspects of interpretation and understanding. This work has been a vital part in my passionate interest in Beethoven’s output, indeed, it was developing while I dove into Beethoven’s piano chamber music and piano violin sonatas a decade and a half ago, resulting in the ‘Beethoven Explored’ recording and concert series at St John’s Smith Square. David was a constant at those concerts, and his reactions to the works and their interpretations continue to shape my approach.
I have learnt, that the perceived boundaries between composition, arrangement, recomposition, and even ownership of music fascinate Matthews far too much to respect them by steering clear of them. A careful listen to his spectacular traversal of Beethoven’s Op 119 Bagatelles reveals a playful reworking; bass lines re-emerge three octaves higher than they were written, and, as so often the case in great arranging-he takes the opportunity with four players, not one, to thin out harmony, to allow overtones and harmonics to fill in the gaps. There is something of the 19th century virtuoso/improviser in this way of hearing, writing, reminding me that it was virtuoso improvisers, transcribers like Franz Liszt, who were responsible for anchoring the great Beethoven piano works in the popular ear and imagination.
This creative freedom is taken a step further, in Matthews’s ‘Diabelli Variation’. This sliver of a piece is a small miracle. It is so much more than his imagining of what he would write, had he been invited to write a variation for the eponymous publishers set in [date]. Matthews has written something which is almost a ‘back to the future’ variation (I find myself writing this on 21st October 2015-the date to which Marty Macfly travels in Doc’s DeLorean!). The simplest way that I can describe this is that Matthews has imagined what he might write if he found himself, as Beethoven, writing at the beginning of the 21st Century, with a knowledge of everything that had transpired between 1827 and now, but still Beethoven. How, the music asks, can we be Beethoven, but Beethoven now?
A sense of dangerous liberty lurks in every moment of the Matthews’s 11th quartet. This was, as David has noted, suggested to him, by the fine composer Matthew Taylor, also a Beethoven enthusiast. David and Matthew share a fascination with of Robert Simpson (1921-1997). When Taylor suggested that David might write a quartet which would be a set of variations, they both, most, likely had Simpson’s Haydn-inspired 9th Quartet in mind; it is a giant set of variations-each one a palindrome.
This is not the place to analyse what David has achieved with this extraordinary quartet. However- there is a trajectory to be observed; that the piece finds its way from the deceptively simple minuet of taken, in toto, from Op119 and finds its way to a ‘rumpus-pastorale’ fugue ending, by way, at its heart of a slow movement which enfolds the theme of Beethoven’s Cavatina, from the Op 130 quartet-the movement which reduced the composer himself to tears. Along the way, the variations, as might be expected, use techniques, which are themselves ‘Beethovenian’. Variation one, for instance, makes explicit reference, flying across the whole quartet, to the ‘spinning’ violin part of the ‘alla Tedesca’ movement, also from the Op 130. But, perhaps inevitably, there’s a sense of time travel, from Beethoven’s time, to David Matthews’s, own, and into the future. Each listener and each player, will experience that sense of journeying differently, as all of our memories and associations are different. So I hear Bartok, and Haydn, even a Wieniawski ‘mazurka’; but that’s just me. David has achieved something amazing; it is as if, in this quartet, he offered his response to Beethoven’s theme as a ‘memory of the future’. And in this case, this is a future which offers triumphant, joyful homecoming, as the 2nd violin and viola keep the fugue material going while Cello and Violin one play a blazing choral around them.
And it’s with this sense, of the future in the past, where I must end. David Matthews’ transcription of Beethoven’s Sonata Op 22 slow movement is nothing short of a miracle, not only for its beauty ( the music itself, is sublime); much more is revealed. To me, it is as if, what has been revealed, is that in this piano music, is found, not only the germ, but the very essence of what has come to be seen as Beethoven’s ‘late style’, the intimate grandeur of humanity, just waiting, to take flight on string instruments. It was there all the time, and Matthews has opened the door, to simply let it free.
David Matthews-Beethoven Transcriptions
Over many years working with David Matthews, one of the most fascinating parts of our collaboration has been working with him on his transcriptions. In the Mid 19th Century, it was very common practice, for quartets to invite composers to work with them on earlier musics; Richard Wagner, for instance, worked with the Maurin Quartet on Beethoven Op 131. This is just one of the reasons why working with a living composer is so fascinating, as a lightning rod to the past. Put simply, a composer like Matthews has a unique insight into, Beethoven , which really raises our work as a quartet. One of the first works which we worked on with him, was the Op 101 A Major Piano Sonata. We have played his lovely transcription for many years. Yesterday we recorded it. I am sure you will be able to see why we love it!
Kreutzer Quartet-Peter Sheppard Skaerved, Mihailo Trandafilovski, Morgan Goff, Neil Heyde
Recorded-29 7 14 Aldbury Parish Church- Engineer-Jonathan Haskell
Musical supervision-David Matthews
Beethoven-A Major Piano Sonata Op 101 (Outtakes-unedited)
Etwas lebhaft und mit der innigsten Empfindung.
Langsam und sehnsuchtsvoll-Geschwind, doch nicht zu sehr und mit Entschlossenheit.
Wednesday July 30th-Recording Op 119, and Op 22
Today, we recorded David Matthews’ new transcription, of the Op 119 Bagatelles, along with the Adagio from the Op 22 Piano Sonata, which he arranged in 1980. These masterful pieces of work reveal almost beyond dispute, the close relationship between Beethoven’s ‘late’ quartet style and the his earlier approach to the piano. The rapture of the Op 22 adagio is a direct precursor of how he would write for strings two decades later.
Beethoven-Adagio con molto espressione ( from Sonata Op 22 1800) UNEDITED OUTTAKE
Beethoven-Elf neuen Bagatellen Op 119 UNEDITED OUTTAKES
G minor. Allegretto
C major. Andante con moto
D major. A l’Allemande
A major. Andante cantabile
C minor. Risoluto
G major. Andante — Allegretto
C major. Allegro, ma non troppo
C major. Moderato cantabile
A minor. Vivace moderato
A major. Allegramente
B flat major. Andante, ma non troppo