Sunday, 7 June 2015

William Mathias: Sinfonietta, op.34 (1967)

This is the first piece of William Mathias’ orchestral music that I can recall consciously hearing. In the early nineteen-seventies I bought a copy of the Leicestershire Schools Symphony Orchestra (LSSO) recording which had been released in 1967. I have already published a post about Alan Ridout’s Concertante Music and will later write about Malcolm Arnold’s Divertimento. The other work on this LP was Michael Tippett’s Suite for the Birthday of Prince Charles.
William Mathias’ Sinfonietta, op.34, which was originally called Dance Suite, was commissioned by R&W.H. Symington & Co. Ltd (a corset manufacturer! who I believe is no longer extant) for the LSSO for inclusion in the 1967 Leicestershire County Music Festival.  The work was completed on 1 January 1967 and was duly premiered at the De Montfort Hall, Leicester on 1 May 1967. The Sinfonietta was dedicated to Eric Pinkett, the then Music Adviser for Leicestershire and for the Leicestershire Schools Symphony Orchestra.
The composer’s daughter, Rhiannon Mathias, writing in the liner notes for the Lyrita recording of this work explains that ‘the fluency of her father’s musical gift enabled him to shape certain works for specific performers…’ such as the concertos for Gervase de Peyer (clarinet), Gillian Weir (organ) and Gyorgy Pauk (violin).  Yet composing ‘good music for …young performers is…a different but no less demanding task.’

The Sinfonietta is written in three ‘dance-movements’  and is scored for a normal orchestra with the addition of percussion instruments, piano, celeste and two harps.
1. Allegro non troppo-Vivace
2. Lento con molto and
3. Allegro con slancio (enthusiasm)
It has a duration of approximately 12 minutes. 

The original sleeve notes define the work as being ‘direct in expression’ and using ‘popular rhythms of our time.’ The opening movement is written in two discrete sections with the introduction presenting the work’s ‘basic material’ which is subsequently developed. The Lento is ‘elegiac’ and uses a sultry blues mood to heighten the effect.  The finale presents two main themes which are played separately and then then in counterpoint.  This is the most spirited part of the entire work.

The Leicester Mercury (May 1967) gives a long review of the Sinfonietta: ‘The composer himself [in the programme notes] draws attention to the strong dance element in Mathias's "Sinfonietta." This… has an exciting climax, the starting point being the trills and tremolandi that announce the last movement’s mighty summing up of ideas. Instrumental colouring is an individual characteristic of the work and particularly attractive was the slow movement's nebulous and diffuse colouring - stemming, it seemed from the peculiarly ambiguous tone-quality of the vibraphone which was part of a large percussive array’.

Andrew Porter, writing in the Musical Times (June 1967) was less enthusiastic:  he noted the ‘popular rhythms of our time’ but felt that the composer made use of them ‘without much conviction in a piece of ‘light symphonic’ music that aimed low, made too many concessions, and faded quickly from the mind.’
The reviewer in the Audio and Record Review, March 1968 was unconvinced about the contemporary nature of the Sinfonietta. He refers to Mathias’ statement on the sleeve notes that the work ‘make[s] use of popular rhythms of our time, though I see but little direct evidence of that, or else the note writer does not mean by popular rhythms what I mean by it, and if the slow movement has the character of a 'blues’, then again the connection escapes me. But that says nothing against the music itself, which is, like the rest, attractive to listen to and I've no doubt interesting to play’.
Musical Opinion November 1972 (cited in Stewart R. Craggs William Mathias: A Bio-bibliography, Westport, Greenwood Press, 1995)  reviewing a performance of this work at that year’s Royal National Eisteddfod in Ammanford Carmarthenshire suggested that ‘... in this direct and tuneful work  a strong dance element is reflected in the use of popular contemporary rhythms.’ 

Looking back over nearly fifty years I feel that this work owes more to ‘jazz’ than to ‘pop’ culture. There is nothing here that would have been seen as ‘with-it’ to the emerging Beatles generation. However the composer’s skill at creating a vibrant, highly coloured and always musically satisfying work is never in doubt.

Mathias, William: Sinfonietta, op. 34 with works by Tippett, Arnold and Ridout Leicestershire Schools Symphony Orchestra/William Mathias Pye Golden Guinea GGC 4103 mono, GSGC 14103 stereo (1967)
Mathias, William: Sinfonietta, op. 34 with works by Hoddinott, National Youth Orchestra of Wales/Arthur Davison BBC Records REC222. (1969)
Mathias, William: Sinfonietta, op. 34 with Dance Overture, op.16, Divertimento, op.7, Invocation and Dance, op.25, Prelude, Aria and Finale for orchestra, op/25 Laudi, op.62 and Vistas, op.69. These works are played by a variety of Orchestras/conductors. Lyrita SRCD.328 (1996)
Mathias, William: Sinfonietta, op.34 with works by Liszt, Morfydd Owen and Yfat Soul Zisso, Cardiff University Symphony Orchestra/Mark Eager, Primie Facie PFCD001 (2014)

The LSSO version is currently available on YouTube: Part 1 & Part 2

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