About this Recording
8.573523 - MATHIAS, W.: Choral Music (St Albans Abbey Girls Choir, St Albans Cathedral Choir, Lay Clerks, Winpenny)

William Mathias (1934–1992)
Choral Music


William Mathias was one of only two Welsh composers of his generation to establish an international reputation, the other being his slightly older colleague Alun Hoddinott. Born in Whitland, on the border between Carmarthenshire and Pembrokeshire in West Wales on November 1st, 1934, Mathias was self-taught as a composer, having started to play the piano and to compose small pieces at the age of four or five. He went on to study at Aberystwyth University with Ian Parrott and then at the Royal Academy of Music in London with Sir Lennox Berkeley. He returned to Wales in 1959 as a lecturer in music at Bangor University and apart from a year teaching composition in Edinburgh University, he was back in North Wales as Professor of Music at Bangor from 1970 until his retirement in 1987. In 1972 he established the North Wales Music Festival at St Asaph Cathedral, which he directed until his untimely death in Menai Bridge on July 29th, 1992.

Mathias was an unusually prolific composer and he contributed works to every musical genre. At the very outset he deliberately sought to establish an unimpeachable technique in instrumental and orchestral writing, given that his perceived background was in the field of amateur choral music and song. His first great success was the Divertimento for strings which was premièred in London in 1958. This was soon broadcast and performed abroad and won its composer a ‘house’ contract with Oxford University Press which he retained for the rest of his life. During the early 1960s he developed a pattern whereby most of his works were written in direct response to commissions—but which managed at the same time to preserve a judicious balance between chamber and orchestral music, together with an increasing number of church and choral works. Three symphonies, three string quartets and major concertos for piano, harp, organ, flute, oboe, clarinet, horn and violin were thus to rub shoulders with the cantatas Saint Teilo, This Worlde’s Joie, Lux Aeterna, World’s Fire and Jonah, together with a single full-scale opera The Servants to a libretto by Dame Iris Murdoch, premièred by WNO in 1980. In 1981 he was invited to write an anthem for the wedding in St Paul’s Cathedral of TRH The Prince and Princess of Wales, which became celebrated worldwide as the Royal Wedding Anthem and which is still widely performed today.

This recording from St Albans Cathedral includes both Mathias’s very first piece of church music and also one of his last. The first was the anthem All thy works shall praise thee (Dy holl weithredoedd a’th glodforant) [11] which was commissioned by the Bishop of Llandaff in 1961 after he had heard Mathias’s Piano Concerto No. 2 first performed at that year’s Llandaff Festival (an event launched in 1958 and based in the ancient Cathedral city which sits of the river Taff just north of Cardiff). He wanted a work which could be performed in both Welsh and English languages (though not simultaneously!) and the result, setting part of Psalm 145, was first heard in Welsh at Llandaff Cathedral on February 28th, 1962, sung by the Cathedral Choir directed by Robert Joyce and then published by OUP with the English words as well. Also a distinguished organist, Joyce would première Mathias’s well-known Variations on a Hymn-Tune Braint’ at Llandaff Cathedral later in 1962, and then conduct his large-scale masque Saint Teilo at the 1963 and ’64 Festivals. Nonconformist chapel music in Wales tended to be restricted to the congregational hymn-singing for which it was justly famed, and Mathias was brought up within the Welsh-speaking Baptist community. But there wasn’t a particularly vibrant tradition at the time in the Anglican branch of the disestablished Church in Wales, so Mathias was thus ideally placed to respond to this challenge with a fresh perspective, and immediately found a lively and engaging individual language which would soon appeal to choirs and congregations and lead swiftly to a stream of further commissions, mostly from establishments outside Wales. One of these was the joyful Wassail Carol [6] commissioned by King’s College, Cambridge for the celebrated Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, where it was first given on Christmas Eve in 1964 and when the organ scholar was the young Andrew Davis. The Director of Music at King’s at that time was the late Sir David Willcocks, and it was for him that Mathias composed his frequently played Toccata Giocosa [10]. The piece was commissioned by the Royal College of Organists for Willcocks to perform at the inauguration of the new organ at the College on October 7th, 1967. It joined a small but already popular body of organ pieces—Processional, Chorale, Partita and Postlude—which demonstrated its composer’s natural feel for an instrument he never played himself.

A notable group of works on this recording was composed in 1969—a time when the composer had left Bangor the previous autumn for a new post in Edinburgh. This was, however, a short-lived episode in Scotland—following the death of Mathias’s father early in the year the composer took the major step of returning to his family home in Whitland in order to devote himself exclusively to composition. The abandonment of academia was itself however to prove but a brief interlude when he was appointed to the Chair of Music at Bangor later in 1970. Nevertheless he always looked back with affection at his ‘year in clover’, as he put it, when he composed some of his happiest works, including the Harp Concerto for Osian Ellis, which suitably hymns the radiant land and seascapes of Pembrokeshire. Just about the first music written back in Wales was the carol-sequence Ave Rex, which seems to celebrate this sense of homecoming as also a return to Llandaff Cathedral where it was first performed on December 6th, 1969 by the Cardiff Polyphonic Choir under Roy Bohana and the organist Richard Elfyn Jones. Just before leaving Edinburgh, however, Mathias had written two church pieces which have enjoyed, so far, very different histories. The largescale anthem An Admonition to Rulers [13] was composed for the Southern Cathedrals Festival held at Salisbury in 1969, and also involving the Cathedral Choirs of Chichester and Winchester. The première was then issued in a recording by the BBC but for some peculiar reason the music was not published by OUP. For this reason, possibly itself a reaction to the uncharacteristic difficulty and darkness of the piece, it languished unperformed for decades until rescued by publisher Stainer and Bell. The more familiar side of Mathias’s church voice was evident in Lift up your heads, O ye gates [1], ironically commissioned by OUP specifically for publication in Anthems for Choirs, a volume edited by the organist and composer Francis Jackson of York Minster. Though finished by Mathias on May 31st, 1969, it did not emerge in print until 1973 and so waited until June 7th that year for its première at St George’s, Hanover Square—Handel’s famous church in London—when the conductor was Denys Darlow and the organist Margaret Phillips. The music was later to be transformed as the movement called Jubilate in the brass-band suite Vivat Regina written to mark the Queen’s Silver Jubilee in 1977.

By then the carols of Ave Rex [2][5], both in sequence and individually, had become staples of the choral repertoire and especially so the infectious Sir Christèmas [5], which was regularly featured in the Christmas Eve service at King’s. Another Cambridge college, Jesus, commissioned a setting of the Evening Canticles—Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis [8]–[9]—to mark the dedication of a new organ in the College Chapel. The Jesus Service, as it has become universally known, was the first music Mathias composed as Professor at Bangor, and the première was given in Jesus College on March 6th, 1971. Significantly, perhaps, the doxology which concludes both canticles quotes a memorable theme from the Harp Concerto, which Mathias said was inextricably linked in his mind to the concept of ‘Praise’ in its widest Celtic sense. He saw no separation in spirit between the sacred and the secular and such a feeling permeates the second carol sequence—Salvator Mundi [14]–[20]—which was composed in 1982 to mark the centenary of Cheltenham Ladies College, where it was first given on December 10th that year. A combination of the joyful, tender and downright rumbustious, it features an instrumental ensemble of strings, piano duet and percussion, and the première was conducted by the late John Sanders, then Organist of Gloucester Cathedral. From the Royal Wedding of 1981 Mathias enjoyed a close connection with St Paul’s Cathedral and had already known its organist-to-be, John Scott, from 1978 when he won the Manchester International Organ Festival Competition, playing Mathias’s specially composed Fantasy. Scott commissioned a new anthem from Mathias, As truly as God is our Father [7], on behalf of the Friends of St Paul’s Cathedral, to be sung in the presence of the Friends’ Patron, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother on June 30th, 1987, and the composer suitably set words by Mother Julian of Norwich which stand as the motto of the Friends. This recording at St Albans was made just a few weeks before the tragic and untimely death of John Scott in New York on August 12th, 2015. The recording comes full circle with The Lord’s Prayer (Gweddi’r Arglwydd) [12] which Mathias wrote for the Male Choir of his native Whitland just four months before his death, and which was performed there posthumously four months later on November 27th, 1992. The music’s fervent simplicity speaks volumes and this recording is the first to use the arrangement Mathias made for mixed choir with the words in English.

Geraint Lewis

Close the window