Thursday, 20 March 2008

William Mathias: Serenade for Small Orchestra

William Mathias is one of the great Welsh composers who include Grace Williams, Alun Hoddinott and David Wynne. He combined composition with teaching – he held a post at the University of Bangor for many years. Mathias was keen to promote Welsh music and instituted the St. Asaph Festival.
He has written a wide variety of music – from symphonies and concertos to organ music and choral pieces. Virtually the whole nation (over the age of 27) heard his anthem Let the people praise Thee, O God which was sung at the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer in 1981. In spite of writing in different styles aimed at a variety of audiences, most of his music is approachable and enjoyable. In particular he produced works for young musicians to play. Mathias wrote his Sinfonietta – initially called Dance Suite – for the Leicestershire Schools Symphony Orchestra in late 1966. But three years earlier he received a commission from the Carmarthenshire Education Authority for a piece to be premiered by the County Youth Orchestra.
The Serenade was composed in 1963 and has three contrasting movements. It is written for a small, almost Haydn-esque orchestra.
The first movement is an ‘allegretto’ which immediately announces the composer’s fondness of woodwind. He has a particular liking for the clear cut rhythmical sound of these instruments however this is balanced by a brassy swing. There are particularly attractive harp figurations that counteract the angularity of the clarinets and oboes. The general mood of this opening movement is of lightness – yet there are a few reflective moments.
The ‘lento’ is based on a tune that sounds a bit like ‘Scarborough Fair’ but surely this is coincidental rather than deliberate. Laugharne would be the holiday resort in Carmarthenshire – not the North Riding town! Yet this is wistful, sometimes dark music that retains a slight Mathias-ian swing. The scoring is typical – contrasting woodwind and strings. The movement never quite reaches a climax – it is really more “ebbing and flowing.” It is really quite lovely.
The last movement is dance music - an allegro con slancio. Slancio means with ‘dash and impetus.’ It is an interesting movement that owes little to any recognizable folk tune or country dance. However the instrumentation is varied and the style certainly sounds typical of the composer.

The work has been criticized as being derivative: he was understood to be still defining (somewhat disingenuously, I feel) his unique voice. Mathias was influenced by the ‘greats’ of his day – Bartok, Stravinsky and Tippett. Yet another influence was the music of George Gershwin. It was the latter who lent the jazzy style that pervades much of the composer’s later music. Taken in the round this work is a fine introduction to the music of William Mathias: it epitomises the joie de vivre and the other side of the coin – the composer’s introspective mood.
The work was released by Marco Polo on 8.225048.
Welsh Classical Favourites on Marco Polo

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