Robert Matthew-Walker, composer

Who or what are the most significant influences on your musical life and career as a composer?

In terms of influences, I am unaware of any with regard to my musical language, in so far as it exists, but the composers who have influenced me in terms of creative musical expression, rather than technique of musical syntax, I suppose from an early compositional age they have been Walton, Britten, Hindemith, Vaughan Williams, Robert Simpson, Malcolm Arnold, Bernstein, Havergal Brian, Alun Hoddinott and Milhaud. Of those ten, I knew eight of them personally, so perhaps knowing them, and how they approached writing music as individuals (a composer cannot do otherwise) rubbed off on how I wrote – and still approach writing – music.

It boils down to, in every instance, the desire to communicate something in musical terms, to write music solely for audiences, not for friends who think the same way as you do, and certainly not for academics – of whom, I am glad to say, there are none today of whom I am aware that can ‘teach’ composition.

However, I still regard Stanford’s little book on composing to be the finest and most practical (in terms of ‘advice to young composers’) treatise I have ever read. It is chock-full of sheer common-sense, which is regrettably so often in short supply these days by composers who imagine the only way they will ‘get on’ is by being fashionable. Such an attitude should be abandoned immediately, as ‘This Week’s Composer’ very soon becomes ‘Last Week’s’.

Either a composer has, or develops, or continues to think about, the ability to communicate to his audience that which he thinks, or imagines, he ought to express. It is a mood, a driven impetus, which cannot be denied – or, if it is, such denial is to the detriment of the composer’s character.

This doesn’t mean that a composer should think that his (and I’m using the masculine as I’m writing about myself) music has to be performed, in much the same way as the parent ought not to imagine that just because their child is alive, everyone should pay attention to what their offspring says or does. It is their life, not their parents’. So I view my works almost as children – I have given them birth, but – apart from helping them along the way – they live or fail by their own qualities, or lack of them.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?

Meeting deadlines! Sometimes, a commission coincides with the notion of something I would like to tackle, in which case, the music flows well, but if it is a struggle, I knew instinctively this is not for me, and I simply cannot do it.

This doesn’t mean I give up entirely – my recent Viola Concerto took me almost three years, stopping and starting and destroying much of what I had written, but I got it right in the end, as it was a commission I wanted very much to do: it was very hard work, but worth it in the end – certainly to judge by the reaction of soloist, conductor, orchestra and audience!

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working on a commissioned piece?

If I accept the commission the greatest challenges are ensuring that the deadline is met, that the score and parts are clear and unambiguous – if that all works out, the ‘inner pleasure’ is akin to having drunk a big cup of favourite bed-time cocoa and settling down in relaxation.

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working with particular musicians, singers, ensembles or orchestras?

Knowing their performance artistry and moulding my ideas to my perception of their art/technique/skills – these are the special pleasures.

Of which works are you most proud?

My most recent ones, perhaps – the 4th, 6th and 7th String Quartets, my Concertante on a Theme of Paganini for Piano and Double String Orchestra (the audience reaction, as well as that of the performing musicians, especially), Viola Concerto, Music for Violins, Recorder Concerto (written in a single day!), as well as the earlier Symphony No 1 (written when I was 16, and praised to my unforgettable chuffiness, by Edmund Rubbra), Symphony no 4, Récréation Concertnate for violin and orchestra, Fantasia della Sinfonia for 11-part string orchestra, Violin Sonata no 2, and three recent solo piano pieces especially – Evening of Memory, The Fields are White Already and the Fantasy on Malcolm Arnold as well as the earlier Divertimento on a Theme of Mozart for piano duet, and of course the Hamlet Sonata – these last are on this new SOMM CD.

How would you characterise your compositional language?

Mainstream, tonal.

How do you work?

When I get an idea – which can come from anywhere. This last week the organist Jens Körndorfer asked for a new piece, and within four hours I had the thing virtually planned: it is a Fantasia on a Offertory of César Franck (Franck’s five Offertoires are virtually unknown), bit like – when it is finished – a shorter Tallis Fantasia of RWV – but it is an organ work, not playable on the piano!

The aforementioned Recorder Concerto simply flew out of me: I was writing staves with pencil and book-edge as a ruler on envelopes without bothering to get some manuscript paper! I couldn’t stop it, and had to get it down on paper any way I could! My wife thought I was crackers! But I did it.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

Audiences responding positively to what you have written.

What advice would you give to young/aspiring composers?

Listen to as much music as you possibly can of all kinds – in the 1960s, I played in several rock bands (not very well) and opened a rock music venue – the Tunnel Club – in Greenwich, by the Blackwall Tunnel, and I have written five books on rock music – including the first biography of Madonna, which was serialised for an entire week in The Sun newspaper (I think she is a great artist – ‘Papa Don’t Preach’ begins like a Shostakovich Chamber Symphony; it is a truly inspired musical gem in popular, adept, language) – but I have also written books on Havergal Brian (whom I knew quite well), Rachmaninoff, Grieg (four books on him, as I think he is seriously misunderstood), Alun Hoddinott (knew him also very well) and hopefully a couple more to come. Yet my advice remains the same – I don’t listen to Grime much (haven’t got the time), but one ought not to listen to Grime or John Holt (the great reggae genius) in the same way as one would listen to Bartók or Hindemith or Schoenberg Quartets – or those by Simpson, Tippett or Milhaud or David Matthews. My advice is to never stop listening, and always try to prepare by putting yourself in a receptive frame of mind, whether it be Hugo Wolf’s Spanish Liederbuch or UB40’s Greatest Hits. You have to put in the work and not expect anything from music as a creative figure without doing your bit – the composer, whoever they are, has done their bit – it’s up to you to do yours.

What do you feel needs to be done to grow classical music’s audiences?

It’s a very bad time at the moment, thanks to Michael Gove removing Music as a subject from the National Curriculum almost ten years ago. That was the worst piece of intellectual vandalism ever perpetrated by a Government Minister since 1945 – when it was put into the National Curriculum by the post-war Labour Government – although it was first mooted by Winston Churchill in 1944.

It’s been made a hundred times worse by the shambles that now passes for the BBC, following the catastrophic internal reorganisation which led immediately to Roger Wright resigning as Controller of Radio 3 about ten years ago, when he saw – all too clearly, I’m afraid – the way the wind was going to blow. He was right, and Radio 3 is now little more than a national disgrace, with subservient damage to the Proms and other one-time admired classical music outlets. When was the last time you saw a string quartet concert on British television? It was almost 30 years ago, when Channel 4 – NOT the BBC – televised the complete chamber music of Arnold Schoenberg. If it happened today, there’d be a riot – but the consequence has meant that three or four successive generations of British children have been born and brought up without ever having seen a string quartet. The tragedy is that it is their heritage, it belongs to them, and it’s free – and they are deliberately denied access to it, unlike their parent and grandparents, who were born and brought up in a society in which classical music was accepted as part of it – not everyone’s cup of tea (it never was) but it was there if you wanted it, or if accidentally you came across it and found you wanted to find out more about it.

Today, such opportunities simply don’t exist – the Coronation is in a few months’ time, but all we’ve had are details of a ‘Coronation Concert’ featuring ageing rock-and-roll stars of the last century and a few current faves, perhaps with a Puccini aria from an ‘opera singer’ – but where’s today’s equivalent of Britten’s Gloriana, of Walton’s Coronation Marches, or Vaughan Williams’s 1937 Flourish for a Coronation (a quite brilliant short cantata)? Is anyone there?

What’s the one thing in the music industry we’re not talking about but you think we should be?

Music – art music, the legacy of musical art from the last 500 years – and I don’t just mean tv programmes, very important though they be: pop and rock music are well catered for, but the history of reggae, the history of jazz and the history of ‘classical’ music are treated as if they ought not to mean a damn thing to anyone ‘livin’ today’ – but music is not merely a combination of drugs, sex and rock’n’roll – it remains, and will always do so, as a living organism in time, not in space, and the time for music, as it always has been, is now.

What next – where would you like to be in 10 years?


What is your idea of perfect happiness?

It is unattainable; for me, an unknowable concept.

What is your most treasured possession?

A note from Darius Milhaud (my teacher) saying how much he enjoyed my visits and my music.

What do you enjoy doing most?

Sitting in the garden on a fine summer’s day.

What is your present state of mind?

Optimistic, despite the state of the world right now.

A Bad Night in Los Angelos: piano music by Robert Matthew-Walker, performed by Mark Bebbington and Rebecca Omordia, is released on the SOMM label. The album features first recordings of eight works composed between 1980 and 2021, including the title track – “disco dance music for the piano” – one of Three American Pictures offering vibrant impressions of the City of Angels and New York.

Robert Matthew-Walker was born in 1939 in Lewisham, London, and studied at Goldsmiths CollegeLondon College of Music and the London College of Printing (University of the Arts, London). After leaving the Army in 1962, following service at the Joint Air Reconnaissance Intelligence Centre and the War Office, he studied composition with the French composer Darius Milhaud in Paris in 1962–63.

He founded the Tunnel Club rock venue in Greenwich before joining CBS Records in 1970 as head of the UK classical department. He was subsequently appointed the company’s Director of Marketing, prior to joining RCA Records, where he launched James Galway‘s solo career. He later founded several independent labels; as producer, he won the Grand Prix du Disque of the Academie Charles Cros in 1980 for his RCA recording of Brian Ferneyhough‘s Sonatas for String Quartet (the first recording of any of Ferneyhough’s works). He later compiled numerous tv-marketed classical albums including ‘The Pavarotti Collection’ which reached no. 8 in the pop charts, and appeared with disco rapper Adamski on a dance single, Kraktali Daze.

Robert Matthew-Walker was for many years a member of The Critics’ Circle. From 1984 to 1988 he edited the magazine Music and Musicians, later becoming editor of Musical Opinion and The Organ since 2008. He has published 24 books and has also been a Fellow of the Atlantic Council of Great Britain. His compositions include six symphonies (1956-68), Symphonic Variations for orchestra (1955 – premiered on Romanian television in 2015), six concertos, seven string quartets and various violin and piano sonatas. Days To Remember: Three Pieces for Rock Band (1966), Meditation on the Death of Elvis Presley (1980) and An American Triptych for solo piano (2021) reflect his parallel interest in popular music.