David Matthews-Paganini Fantasia

Posted on January 10th, 2017 by

David Matthews writing Paganini’s dog-Genova 2007. (with Susan and Tony Sheppard, Jenifer Wakelyn, Aaron Shorr, Malene and Marius Skaerved-the night of the premiere of Paganini Fantasia Photo-Richard Bram

David Matthews-Paganini Fantasia
Peter Sheppard Skaerved-Violin (G Amati 1629)

OK. Violinists-you need to play this piece. I can’t think of any reason why you wouldn’t-it’s one of the most enjoyable challenges that I know!! David Matthews-Paganini Fantasia-the gentle 2nd page-just a four part fugato and a little bit of Dies Irae.


David Matthews-Solo Violin Works

A performer’s reflections-15 1 17

I am always searching for more music to play, in libraries, secreted in codices, online, and in second hand book shops. I am usually looking for works from the distant past, so it was a surprise, when a few years ago, I discover a work by a living composer, and by a composer who is a friend and collaborator.  I was especially surprised that he had not told me about this piece, as he knows that I take a ‘completist’ approach to the composers that I love (I want to study, and perform everything). I found David Matthews’s ‘Sonatina’ in Travis & Emery, the much-loved treasure-trove on Cecil Court, around, the corner from the National Portrait Gallery. The piece was folded into of a cache of music which had come to the shop from the estate of the violinist Yfrah Neaman (1923-2003) well known for his devotion to new music. The copy was clean when it came into my hands, so it is clear that Neaman had not played it.

Looking at this work, I was immediately, struck by David’s early command of the violin (he is not a string player), and that so many of the technical tropes his violin writing (so central to my work for the past two decades) were already in place. But there was an extra fascination attendant to working with this piece with the composer. From the moment that I first sat and worked with David on one of his solo works (Winter Journey, in 1994), our collaborative process allowed me to get an insight into his compositional process. There are always adjustments, and the take-up and rejection of possibilities has enabled me to build a rudimentary understanding of how he writes.

Sometimes, adjustments are do with stagecraft, and can come at the very last minute. The 2007 premiere of the Paganini Fantasia took place in the elegant hall of the historic‘Palazzo Tursi’, Genova, on Paganini’s fantastic Guarnerius del Gesu ‘Il Cannone’. It was a great rehearsal full of friends, not only David and his wife Jenifer, and the photographer Richard Bram, but also the composer Judith Bingham. So there were lots of ideas flying around (and a lot of laughter). We hit upon the way of making the ‘reveal’ moment, 1/3rd of the way into the piece, more exciting, which was that I should play with my back to the audience and turn round abruptly as the music explodes, fortissimo. It worked, and so it stuck.

In the case of the Sonatina, this process was all the more interesting, as it had not happened with the dedicatee of the work, which, although it was played to the composer, was never performed. The chance to spend time under the scrutiny of the microphone offered an opportunity to delve into this collaborative aspect of the ‘composer’s workshop’. Changes were made, which the repetitive nature of the recording process, married to the opportunity of spending time with the piece in the exquisite acoustic of St John the Baptist Aldbury, seemed to offer.

A word about that: the ‘landscape’ of violin performance has changed out of all recognition in the past three decades. This is due in equal measure, to the broad impact of the baroque revival and the work of living composers. If I was to characterise what might have been expected, in the past, of a solo violin concert ‘back then’ it was ‘virtuosity and risk’, which meant that, invariably, solo concerts relied on Bach and Paganini as their staples (I certainly was guilty of this, starting out). The work of musicians such as Jordi Savall, encouraging us to be as attentive to silence as sound and the explosion of new works for solo string instruments in my lifetime responding to the broadest set of artistic parameters, has change the expectations. Today (exceptingh the international  competition circuit) there is no requirement of danger when a string player walks on stage by themselves. We  have to thank wind players for this; or, if I am honest, Claude Debussy. Often, talking to composers and performers about solo repertoire I refer to ‘before Syrinx’ and ‘after Syrinx’. This astonishing work, written in 1913, had and impact equal or greater to Stravinsky’s contemporaneous Sacre du Printemps. Once heard, no performer or composer of solo works could/can write without taking into consideration (amongst many other things), Debussy’s profound understanding of the relationship of the lone artist to their surroundings, as he reached back to Hotteterre, to Phillidor, St Colombe, the sensitivity of the French baroque. You can observe the ripples spreading, from the Francophone music world, and away from the flute, from Honneger’s Danse de la Chèvre to Poulenc’s Un Joueur de Flute Berce les Ruines, given extra impetus by theteaching of Nadia Boulanger (Joseph Horovitz told me that she had asked him to write music that was ‘very thin’), whose American pupils, from Virgil Thomson, to Philip Glass and Elliot Carter all produced eminently non-virtuosic works for solo violin, via a moment of greatest profundity in all of Bartok’s solo writing, the Melodia  from his Solo Sonata, and so on. In our time, it means that a composer, such as David Matthews, who is a musical omnivore, can have a foot in both camps, writing something as simple, and challenging, one moment, as Not Farewell and taking on the whole Bach/Paganini challenge in one huge bite, the next, with his Paganini Fantasia, which includes both four part fugal writing and the only instance that I know of, of a passage in tenths, accompanied (!), in four parts.

But there was no question, as soon as I put Sonatina on my practice desk, that this was no juvenilia. The first thing which struck me, was its third movement. I knew this melody, well; ten years later, it had become the precipitous violin solo which begins Matthews’s  5th Quartet (1984). The first statement of this melody was much easier in the solo work, but David made up for that within a minute or so, with filigree embellishments of the theme across the whole compass of the violin. There’s a point which to be made here. Concerto players, and quartet leaders spend much time ‘heroically’,mhigh on the E- or G-Strings. Solo writing, in part relies (in part) on the body of the violin ringing freely; ‘unaccompanied’ works consequently sit for majority of the time in the middle of the instrument,allowing for a longer string length, and more resonance. Even Paganini’s 24 Capricci Op 1 are not particularly vertiginous.

Exploring this ‘new work’, I recognised more. The second movement, a high speed, gossamer, toccata, has an evanescent, ‘barely there’, shimmer which prefigures the second movement of his Three Studies (1985). But it’s the first movement where I immediately felt most at home. I think that there should be a special category reserved for artists, writers, and composers who have lived, and live, near the tidal Thames. Perhaps this is just because I’m one of them, but I feel it in Turner’s views of the river, in Dickens, and it’s there again and again in Matthews (who like me, grew up in the East End of London). It has become every more apparent in his music, as the natural world which he loves, has forced its way into the foreground of his music. Perhaps at this stage, however, it is just the bleak landscape that appears at the beginning of Dickens’s Great Expectations:

‘The marshes were just a long back horizontal line then, as I stopped to look after him; and the river was just another horizontal line, not nearly so broad nor yet so black; and the sky was just a row of long angry red lines and dense black lines intermixed.’[i]

Meanwhile David has pointed out, that ‘these days, I’m more of an English Channel composer’. [ii]Much of his composing, around the corner from the Thames Estuary, in Deal, Kent, where he has a home.

I am fascinated by the relationship which composers have to their writing. For some, it is a painful, debilitating activity. George Rochberg confessed that this was why he stopped composing fifteen years before his death. For David, it is something which, it seems, he can’t not do (he shares this with Michael Finnissy). Consequently, he offers friends birthday or anniversary greetings in the form of musical miniatures. These gems provide a glimpse of his compositional craft. When he made the birthday greeting for our mutual friend, American photographer, Richard Bram, he built it almost entirely from Richard’s surname ‘B(flat)-R(‘re’-D)-A-M(‘mi’-E). The outliers were three ‘B naturals’, which are ‘H’ in the German spelling, hence (in my reading) ‘Hip-hip-hurray’. I made a little visual analysis of this for Richard, who does not read music. It reminded me, again, of the astonishing discipline of David’s compositional process. Like Bartok, everything fits, and if something apparently does not, it is designed to stand out, to catch the eye.

David never wastes anything; I asked him to write me a birdsong ‘signal’ as a sort of Shakespearean ‘alarum’ for my residency at the wonderful Galeria Rufino Tamayo (Mexico City) in 2004. I came to identify very strongly with this obstreperous Song Thrush, so was delighted, reading the his newly completed 12th Quartet, 6 years later, to find that the ‘my’ Song Thrush was back, in one of the bird-song ‘fantasies’ that mark this piece, at the same pitch, and as I had enjoyed playing it in Mexico, repeated, ad-lib.

As with all music which I have been lucky enough to premiere, I have more personal relationships with some parts than others. Monte Maggio was actually written, in Liguria, a few days after the premier of the Paganini Fantasia. It is, in part, David’s response to my fascination with the Ranz de(s) Vaches, which was first described in detail in J J Rousseau’s 1767 Dictionnaire de Musique, and brought to perfection in a transcription (which I play), by Giovanni Battista Viotti (1792). I have great sentimental attachment to it, as it also exists in a version for two violins, which I first played with my 11-year old son, Marius, in a concert of David’s music which we gave in a log-cabin in Kussamo, Northern Ostrobothnia, Finland. There’s an elegant circularity; the Italian Viotti, exiled from France to the UK, who spent his weekends walking in Epping Forest with Germaine de Staël, near the house of his benefactors, the Chinerys, wrote his ‘cow call’ remembering time in the French Alps, inspiring a composer (David Matthews) who grew up on the edge of Epping Forest, walking in the Ligurian Alps, to write his ‘Ranz’, which would be premiered by me, who also grew up on the fringes of the same forest, with my half-Danish son, in the far north. We all went up to the top of a mountain to watch the midnight sun, after the concert. Two decades after the publication of Viotti’s Ranz des Vaches, a British kindred spirit, touring the continent, heard ‘his’ Ranz in the Swiss Alps.  It is difficult to read William Wordsworth’s On hearing the  ‘Ranz des Vaches’ on the top of the Pass of St.  Gothard, without the sensation that something of Viotti had got to him, or maybe, that, he had read Viotti’s tract, which was circulating in various forms by this point.  Wordsworth wrote:


‘I listen, but no faculty of mine

Avails those modulations to detect,

Which, head in foreign lands, the Swiss affect

With tenderest passion; leaving him to pine

(So fame reports) and die, his sweet-breathed kine

Remembering and green Alpine pastures decked

With vernal flowers.  Yet may we not reject

The tale as fabulous.  Here, while I recline

Mindful how others love this simple Strain,

Even here, upon this glorious Mountain

(Named of God himself, from dread pre-eminence)

Aspiring thoughts, by memory reclaimed,

Yield to the Music’s touching influence.

And joys of distant home my heart enchain.’[iii]


David Matthews’s sings to us in landscape that Wordsworth and Viotti would recognise. He, like they believes that human experience is worthy of celebration and memory.


[i] P.6, Great Expectations,  Charles Dickens, Chapman & Hall, London, 1891
[ii] David Matthews, E mail to PSS, 15 1 17
[iii] Page 282,  The Complete Poetical Works of William Wordsworth, Wordsworth and Morley, 1889, Macmillan, London