I have many fond memories of my old professor and composition teacher William Mathias.
I lived just down the road from him in Beaumaris on Anglesey and he often picked me up as I was hitching into lectures having missed the early bus. ‘Late again Michael, jump in’. He drove the largest Volvo I’d ever seen, in the winter wore a huge Russian black fur hat and as often as not had a fat Churchillian cigar notched in his right hand. There was always a fog of cigar smoke in the Volvo, but at least it was warm. As a nervous, overawed undergrad I rarely ventured conversation, but on the rare occasions when I did summon up the nerve, I got views and opinions on Tippett, Walton, Britten, Berkeley et al. He had met them, knew them, conducted them, and so I treasured this third-hand touch with greatness. Later on, as an over-confident and rather self-opinionated postgrad, I sometimes sought his views on my then heroes; Ligeti, Xenakis and Stockhausen. Sadly, at this later stage my professor did not share many of my enthusiasms.
I found myself at UCNW Bangor because as a pre-university student at Huddersfield School of Music I’d chanced upon two early pieces by Mathias; Celtic Dances and the Harp Concerto. After this, there was only one place for me to study, and when the professor burst into my first composition class, sat down at the piano and rattled off a Clementi sonatina at twice the metronome speed, followed by a critical demolition that took less time than he had taken him to play the exposition, I knew that the next 3 years would at least be colourful and entertaining.
Although not a tall man, everything about him was slightly larger than life, exaggerated, enlarged. Always in a hurry, he bounded along the corridors of Top College like a Welsh hill farmer in search of a flock, greeting students with a ubiquitous ‘Any problems?’ It was never a real question, just rhetorical. There was a rumour that one student had tested this by responding that his wife and child had died that week in a car accident, and he’d just returned from hospital with a diagnosis of terminal cancer. Turning around to gauge the response, he saw the professor disappearing through a door at the far end of the corridor.
Composition classes were always entertaining, often colourful, and sometimes downright surprising. After presenting him with a truly awful setting of Blake’s ‘The Tyger’, I discovered later that he had scribbled on my score above a particularly crass chord, YE TIGER!!! His ear never failed him. And yet, one Christmas vacation I set a chunk of Ted Hughes ‘Crow’ in aleatoric and graphic notation, just to confound him. He praised it; ‘one of the most imaginative pieces you’ve written so far Michael’.
I wish I could have mastered his trick of using two (sometimes three!) separate themes and then combining them in an exuberant, dexterous coda. He showed us how, but I’ve always failed miserably to juggle even just two balls, let alone three. Advice on getting stuck; ‘keep reading up to the blank bar at twice the tempo, over and over again. Eventually it will give’. He’s right, it does!
As a composer he was a man rooted in his time, place and culture. Place was important to him. By a strange twist of fate I now live just down the road from his childhood home in Whitland (or Hendy Gwyn as he would have known it as a Welsh speaker). Carmarthenshire, rural West Wales, steeped in chapel and choral singing - as bible black as nearby Laugharne. Only lately have I begun to understand the Marquez line ‘I came to map the island, but the island mapped me’. Bill would have understood this implicitly, it was after all, in his DNA.
If I were to take just one piece of his to that mythical dessert island, it would be his Violin Concerto, a late work that explores the Bardic tradition of Penillion (improvisation sparked between voice and harp). It sounds like home for me.
Sun Dance from Santa Fe Suite for Harp – William Mathias
Inspired by the composer’s trip to the New Mexican city in 1987, this three- movement suite is suffused with the culture and rhythms of Spain. The final movement, Sun Dance, depicts the American Indian ritual in sparkling Latin guitar rhythms, often reminiscent of flamenco.
The suite was commissioned and premiered by the Welsh harpist Caryl Thomas at the Wigmore Hall in 1988.