Colin Matthews

Colin Matthews


• Born 1946


The British composer Colin Matthews is making it his mission to “break through the wall blocking contemporary music” in any way he can – not only through a prolific output of compositions, but through his wide-ranging work as a teacher, arts administrator and record producer. Matthews was the Associate Composer for theLondon Symphony Orchestra from 1992-9 and for the Hallé from 2001-10, where he currently holds the position of Composer Emeritus. His works are varied in style, and demonstrate an ability to marry technical craftsmanship with an individualistic imagination. This has helped to build a repertoire of eclectic works that continue to surprise the composer as well as the audience.

Colin Matthews was born into a self professed non-musical family, in Leytonstone, East London. Both he and his elder brother David were initially self-taught, learning to play the piano and later throwing themselves into composition as teenagers.  For some this would be a recipe for rivalry, but the brothers have remained supportive and encouraging of each other, as their musical careers have developed along parallel lines. 

At the age of fourteen, Matthews heard a radio programme of Deryck Cooke’s elaborated version ofMahler’s unfinished tenth symphony. The young enthusiast proceeded to contact Cooke and detail his opinions on the realisation, and the ‘errors’ the older scholar had made. Happily this bold move resulted in a correspondence and ultimately a collaboration lasting ten years.

Both Matthews brothers worked with Cooke on a full elaboration of Mahler’s tenth symphony in F# minor, and this eventually formed the basis for Colin Matthew’s doctorate at the University of Sussex in 1978, where had spent a number of years teaching during that decade. He later went on to publishMahler at Work: Aspects of the Creative Process (Garland Publishing) and the chapter ‘The Tenth Symphony’ inThe Mahler Companion (Oxford University Press).

Meanwhile, Matthews had studied classics at the University of Nottingham, as well as music under the tutelage of Arnold Whitehall and Nicholas Maw. He spent 1972-6 working as an assistant toBenjamin Britten, and has since become the chairman of Britten’s estate. From 1983-4 Matthews was the musical director for the Britten-Pears Foundation and has served on the council for the Aldeburgh Festival. In 1992, he founded and co-directed the ‘Contemporary Composition and Performance’ course with Oliver Knussen. The influence of Britten was also made plain when Matthews orchestrated a number of his works, including theTemporal Variations and Overture to Paul Bunyan.

When arranging music, Matthews is able to fully immerse himself in the original composer’s style without it becoming a pastiche. This is reflected in his own works, for example in his ballet score Hidden Variables (1998-9); this weaves together expressionism and minimalism, genres often seen as polar opposites. He has arranged works by composers as diverse as Thomas Morley and Debussy, Purcell and Berg, Mussorgsky and Bach. He arranged Mahler's  Piano Quartet in A minor which was recorded by the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra.

Matthews’ work with Benjamin Britten led to a position as an assistant to Imogen Holst, as she was in the process of editing her father’s works. In 2000, he underlined his relationship with the family with his compositionPluto, the renewer standing as a new chapter in Holst’s The Planets. He went on to become the administrator of the Holst Foundation. Throughout the years, Matthews has expanded his influence in administrative roles as a member for the Council of the Society for the Promotion of New Music, the Performing Rights Society, the Radcliffe Trust and the Royal Philharmonic Society.  

His fixed positions at these estates enabled Matthews to compose freely, and to invest in other ventures. In 1989, he used funding from the Holst Foundation to found NMC recordings, a record label specialising in representing living composers from the British Isles. He has also been active as a producer for a number of other labels, including Collins Classics, Deutsche Grammophon, Nonesuch Classics and Virgin Records.

Amongst these various roles, Matthews has found the time to produce a considerable amount of orchestral, chamber, instrumental and choral works, mostly represented by Faber Publishing. His choral/orchestral workRenewal earned him the Royal Philharmonic Society award in 1997, and he has gained critical acclaim with works such asBroken Symmetry (1992), Continuum (1997-2000) and his 2001Horn Concerto. His works have been performed all over the world:Turning Point was commissioned by the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra , Reflected Images for the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, and Berceuse for Dresden for the New York Philharmonic. Future commissions are in process for the BCMG and for Tanglewood, where he also taught in 1991.

Matthew’s style, morphing according to the occasion, can be characterised by its spontaneity, its precision and its vibrancy. The composer has spoken of his past, “not going through the normal academic mill”, resulting in a need to architecturally construct each phrase, rather than just letting it flow out. Indeed,Turning Point gets its name from the moment the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra presented him with an ultimatum as his commissioned score was late – the piece eventually emerged over a discontinuous period of three years.

In later years, the composer has been interested in pitting possibilities against one another, setting up variables as one would set up a chemistry experiment, and allowing oneself the be surprised at the results. He speaks of his contempt for self-consciously ‘accessible’ music, and by allowing the music to realise its own potential, a deep and complex composition is arrived at that  can nevertheless communicate its meaning through its sincerity.

Aside from international success, Matthews’ achievements have been widely recognised in the British contemporary music field. In 1998, Matthews was awarded an Honorary Doctorate from the University of Nottingham. He is Prince Consort professor of music at the Royal College of Music, governor at the Royal Northern College of Music, and was made an Honorary Member of the Royal Academy of Music in 2010. Matthews continues to champion British contemporary music and write his highly individual works, each very different from the last. In 2011, was awarded an OBE for his services to music.