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William Mathias (1934-92) by his daughter, Rhiannon

By Rhiannon Mathias

Mathias (William)
My father was a man of exceptional energy. Warm and generous in character, he lived several different kinds of musical lives. First and foremost, of course, as a composer, but also conductor, pianist, public figure, Professor of Music at Bangor University (1970-88) and Artistic Director of the North Wales Music Festival (1972-92). All these different strands amounted to a phenomenal workload, and took up a great deal of time, but he felt that he couldn’t write music 24 hours a day, and that he could give something meaningful to society and move it on. It did mean that he had to be extremely well organized, but I think that he found that all the different aspects of his life helped him to produce the music he wanted to write in the end. Much of his music was composed in our family home in the town of Menai Bridge on the beautiful island of Anglesey, and our house was also ‘mission control’ when he was planning his Music Festival.

His working day usually started at 9 a.m., and he often drove me to school in the mornings in his ‘English red’ (actually, bright orange) Mercedes on his way to the University. I think he quite enjoyed his time at the University. There was not as much paperwork as there is these days, and he enjoyed the lecturing and was very popular with his students. He was affectionately known as ‘Prof’, and my mother, who was head of singing at the Department, was ‘Mrs. M’. His office took up the entire top floor of the music building. I recall a grand piano (model D, of course), bookshelves weighed down with the history of Western music, and an enormous desk bearing scores and papers.

Mathias outside

There is a story about him which dates from his time when he was a young lecturer at Bangor in the 1960s. He would begin his lecture, and after about ten minutes would reach for his pipe and light a match while still enthusing about his subject. The students would watch the match burn down, whereupon he would put it out and place it in his jacket pocket. Without breaking his speech, he would reach for another match, light it, and the process would repeat until, by the end of the lecture, he was left with one unlit pipe and a pocket of spent matches. Later, when he became a Professor, he rarely made negative comments about concerts given at the University, but if he was not, how shall I say, fully musically engaged, he would take his glasses off and wipe them with his tie. We all came to realise that this was the ultimate critical comment!

When he got home from the University, my mother would have a delicious meal ready for him. His day was far from over, however. Unless my parents were hosting a dinner party – my mother is an excellent cook – he would go to his studio after supper and compose until the early hours of the morning. These regular, ‘golden’ hours, enabled him to compose nearly 200 published works, including three symphonies, several concertos, chamber music, a great deal of choral music, and a full-scale opera, The Servants. Such a routine seems extraordinary, but it is important to understand that music was an ever-present force for my father. I was aware from a very early age that the creative process was something always present for him — even when he was doing something else — and that it was a force which he could turn in any desired direction or channel at a given time. Hence his ability to compose a wide variety of orchestral, choral, instrumental or chamber music, as well as music for the church and for young people.

Mathias working

I could always tell when a piece was gestating in his mind because he would become intensely thoughtful and preoccupied. When the time was right, he would roughly sketch the piece, trying out a few ideas on one of the two pianos in his studio, and then attend to the detailed work of producing his meticulously tidy manuscripts — always in black ink (this was in the days before Sibelius). The majority of his works were written to commission, and from as far back as I can remember, he usually had to plan two, often three years in advance in order to meet the demand of commissions he wanted to fulfil. He told me that sometimes, after finishing his composition in the early hours, he used to pop into my bedroom when I was very young and find me standing up in my cot, waiting for him to come and say goodnight.

His enormous work commitments meant that we, as a family, rarely went on holiday during the summer. There were, however, regular trips to Whitland in South Wales, my father’s home town, to visit my grandmother Marian, and I recall a wonderful holiday in Greece – impressions of which partly became the inspiration for his Melos for flute, harp, percussion and strings (1977) and Helios for orchestra (1977). In 1982, we went to America where my father embarked on an immensely successful tour of the East coast involving lectures, performances, and workshops in Boston, New York, Athens in Georgia, and San Antonio in Texas. The connection with the States was a lasting one and, after my father’s retirement from Bangor University in 1988, it became usual for him to visit America twice, often three times a year.

At the beginning of 1992, my father was commissioned to write a symphony (his fourth) by the Santa Fe Symphony Orchestra. Sadly, the new symphony was not to come to fruition — he passed away in July 1992 — but the true, creative artist has an uncanny ability to transcend mortality. He would have been 80 in November, and it is wonderful that his anniversary is being celebrated this year by a series of concerts, festivals, and new publications. His vibrant character – full of vitality, optimism, and joy – very much lives on in his music.

Rhiannon Mathias is a musicologist, broadcaster, and flautist. She is the author of a book about the music of Elisabeth Lutyens, Elizabeth Maconchy, and Grace Williams (Ashgate 2012) and lectures on Twentieth-Century Women Composers at Bangor University. She is also a Trustee of the William Mathias Music Centre in north Wales.

William Mathias was born in Whitland, Dyfed. He studied at the University College of Wales, and subsequently at the Royal Academy of Music. From 1970-1988 he was Head of the Music Department at the University College of North Wales, Bangor. Mathias musical language embraced both instrumental and vocal forms with equal success, and he addressed a large and varied audience both in Britain and abroad. He was also known as a conductor and pianist, and gave or directed many premières of his own works. He was made CBE in the 1985 New Year’s Honours. In 1992, the year of his death, Nimbus Records embarked upon a series of recordings of his major works.

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  1. […] composers Alun Hoddinott and William Mathias received international recognition; both played an important part in musical education in Wales […]

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