Interview with Tobias Fischer
15 Questions, September 2012
‘Homage to Haydn’
Muso, Dec 2009/Jan 2010 issue
Ahead of his performance in the Cambridge Music Festival Haydn bicentenary celebrations, Matthew Schellhorn talks to Claire Jackson, Editor of Muso magazine, about a series of six miniatures that take unusual inspiration from the great composer.
From birthdays to death dates, 2009 saw myriad composer anniversaries commemorated; we marked 200 years after Mendelssohn's birth and 350 years post Purcell's arrival. We paid our sombre respects to Handel, 250 years after his passing and noted the 50 years gone by after the death of Martinu. While these are all worthy events, it can be difficult for the discerning artist or programmer to find an appropriate means of showcasing the legacy of the composers' repertoire without resorting to simply trotting out populist classics.
So, when pianist Matthew Schellhorn (above) began planning his recital at the Cambridge Music Festival in November, he vowed to mark the 200 years after Haydn's death with a fitting, creative and contemporary tribute. Schellhorn sought inspiration from a soggetto cavato project undertaken 100 years ago for the Haydn centenary, in which prominent composers of the day – Debussy, Ravel, Dukas, d'Indy, Hahn and Widor – each wrote a piece based on the letters H, A, Y, D, N translated into the musical notes B, A, D, D, G (where B = H in German, and with D and G supplying for otherwise unplayable letters). The pieces were later published in La Revue Musicale, for the Société Internationale de Musique. Schellhorn asked six British composers – Cheryl Frances-Hoad, Michael Zev Gordon, Cecilia McDowall, Colin Riley, Jeremy Thurlow, and Tim Watts – to write new works in a similar vein, this time freeing up the use of the letters, with some extraordinary results.
'A typical centenary would survey pieces by the composer himself,' explains Schellhorn. 'I became aware of the La Revue Musicale project and thought it seemed a neat and fun way of celebrating 200 years of Haydn.'
Watts, a close composer friend of Schellhorn's from their Cambridge University days was a clear choice when it came to commissioning; the other writers were picked due to their broad-ranging techniques and musical personalities. 'I wanted to get a nice spread of styles because it was obvious to me from the original set that each composer is very different,' says Schellhorn. 'I left the brief fairly open to ensure different responses. Originally the five notes were predetermined but I suggested either using these or having a completely different pattern of notes, if the composers could justify them. I was worried that they might all come back with the same piece and feared direct repetition, but they've all dealt with it differently. I did consider putting them all in touch with each other to prevent any crossover, but I decided that might be a bit synthetic.'
There is a strong sense of individuality within the final set; each piece has its own personality, from the pensive, meditative sustained notes of Riley's weave to the structural technique employed in Butterfly by Thurlow. Such clear characterisation might have made the work as a whole disjointed, but Schellhorn has given the order of appearance much consideration: 'The order they appear [in the magazine] is the order I performed them. I decided to start with Tim's piece, which imitates a clock whirring back to life. The set is a bit like a Haydn symphony, really, with a slow introduction and then a minuet in the middle, finishing with a virtuosic finale.'
The music was premiered at the 2009 Cambridge Music Festival in November, as part of a concert that also showcased works by Mendelssohn, marking the composer's aforementioned 200th birthday. While contemporary music often gets a hard rap from musicians and critics alike, Schellhorn is confident the Homage to Haydn project has broken boundaries in a way that audiences can engage with.
'This isn't gimmicky,' he says, firmly. 'Every piece was new at some point. Often we listen to music and accept it, simply because it's famous or by a composer we know. Virtually every great piece came with some controversy; it seems appropriate to celebrate Haydn, who was a groundbreaking composer, with pieces that are entirely new.
Interview by David Bruce
CompositionToday.com, May 2007
Matthew Schellhorn talks to David Bruce, composer and founder of new music website, CompositionToday, about his background, his interests, and his plans for the future.
Tell us something about your background.
Originally, I'm from Yorkshire, where I was born in 1977.
At thirteen, I went to study at Chetham's School of Music in Manchester, where I learned with a wonderful piano teacher, David Hartigan; during that time I also took lessons with Ryszard Bakst and Maria Curcio. They were all extremely different teachers, yet the variety of approaches I experienced from a young age was so helpful, and still is. I'd say what my early teachers had in common was a deep respect and love for music, and I could feel that from them. In addition to the insights they shared with me, they also made me realise the need to work hard, and the need to look with fresh eyes at music no matter how familiar it is.
After school I went to study music at Cambridge, and while there I began to study with Peter Hill, whose recordings I had got to know at school. I had started to play Messiaen's music when he died (in 1992), and as I played more and more Messiaen it seemed natural and only right that I should ask for Peter's advice on my playing. I was also looking for a teacher that could respect the fact that I was by now an adult! What developed took me completely by surprise: we got on so well that we became good friends, which created an ideal environment for learning. I couldn't but respect the beauty of Peter's music making, not to mention the experience he brought to lessons having studied with Messiaen himself; but we also studied so much more – lots of Chopin, Bach, Mozart, Berg and we talked a lot about music.
Later on, more recently, I went to study in Paris with Messiaen's wife, Yvonne Loriod (whom I had first met when I was seventeen). These lessons were extremely moving experiences, where we would play for long periods, chat about Messiaen's life, and also about life in general. Madame Loriod's sheer humanity and kindness remains a huge inspiration to me.
How did you become interested in Contemporary Music?
I have always been interested in contemporary music; I don't think I can remember why or how it happened. I think I have always been open to playing any music.
When I play an "established" piece I try to approach it as if it had just been written, so that I can try to experience how fresh it must have sounded when it was itself new.
You have a special relationship with Messiaen's music. What is it that attracts you about his music?
Messiaen's music has a bit of everything that great music has! Rhythmic vitality; harmonic colour; subtlety and suppleness of expression. The Catholic spirituality in Messiaen interests me greatly, as does his fascination with the natural world. There is also great virtuosity, which of course I enjoy! The first piece of Messiaen I played was, I think, Île de feu No. 1 from the Quatre études de rythme.
What excites you about a piece of music - what keeps you interested?
I like music that seems uncontrived. And it needs to be emotionally direct. I also like a piece to have a strong formal sense, which is not to say that it needs to be structured in an obvious way. One of my favourite pieces of new music is Ian Wilson's Lim, the form of which is discernible almost only when viewed, as it were, from a distance: it proceeds like a stream of consciousness when you're playing or listening to it, though. I'm also very fond of James MacMillan's piano miniatures: everything that is on the page is "necessary". Speaking technically, I like a certain amount of lyricism and rhythmic dynamism. I think you can "feel" when a piece is written well: it validates itself.
And what turns you off?
Complexity that seems to be for its own sake.
What do you see as the role (intended and actual) of new music in the modern world?
Yes, I guess there is indeed a difference between "intended" and "actual" insofar as new music is concerned in the modern world. But maybe it's as simple as this: new music is like old music, and its role is as an expression of the human condition.
How do you go about programming your concerts?
Well, I play pieces that I like! I always think about how a programme will 'feel' to an audience overall. When I programme new music, I do like to give it a context. I experiment often, but never on a complete whim: I weigh it up. I did a recital recently in Cambridge where I decided to make the first half all new music, and then the second half was Schumann's Carnaval; I said to the audience how I though that the Schumann is in itself like a collection of separate, quite avant garde pieces, so it suited.
How do you respond to unsolicited work - do you give feedback? Do you ever commission new work yourself?
Well, unsolicited work I always look at and consider playing. I wouldn't really give feedback about a piece except from the point of view of the practicalities of playing it.
I have commissioned music, including pieces by Jeremy Thurlow and Tim Watts. Ian Wilson is now writing a wonderful piece called Stations for me, which is in fourteen movements divided into four Books; I gave the world premiere of the first two Books at this year's London Festival of Contemporary Church Music, and I hope to "complete" the cycle at the Wigmore Hall next year.
What are you working on at the moment?
At the moment I'm preparing to record Ian Wilson's Limena with the Belgrade Strings. I'm thinking about how to structure my repertoire around concerts in the next couple of seasons. And preparing for the Messiaen centenary in 2008 – a big year!
What are your plans for the future?
Lots of things! I want to record more, including the music that has been written for me and also the Messiaen piano works. I'd also love to commission a piano concerto.
How can people find out more about you?
I have a website, www.matthewschellhorn.com, where there is a schedule of my concerts and items of news; you can also join my newsletter list there. The best way to find out more is to come and hear me play!
Interview by Malcolm Ball
OlivierMessiaen.net, Apr 2006
Malcolm Ball, founder of oliviermessiaen.net, interviews Matthew Schellhorn
My first encounter with Matthew Schellhorn was at the 2002 Messiaen Conference in Sheffield where he presented a paper entitled ‘Les Noces and Trois petites liturgies: An Assessment of Stravinsky’s Influence on Messiaen’. A brave subject to tackle since Messiaen always publicly refuted any links between the two works. However, Matthew’s analysis and research threw new light on the relationship between the two works citing many cross influences between Stravinsky and Messiaen. At the same conference Matthew also made two concert appearances. One along side Peter Hill performing Visions de l’Amen and the other a dazzling account of La Fauvette des jardins a performance that prompted Chris Dingle of BBC Music Magazine to describe as ‘a cherished memory for those privileged enough to experience it’. For me, I was totally blown away by the sheer energy and power injected into his reading of this incredibly technically demanding music. This was to be repeated with no less gloss in his debut recital at the Purcell Room on London’s South Bank (6th April 2006) as part of the Fresh Young Musician’s Platform series.
It is this ‘power’ in Schellhorn’s playing that sets his interpretations apart from others who are bold enough to tackle these mighty works.
Apart from La Fauvette, Matthew performed four pieces from the Catalogue d’Oiseaux: Le Loriot, Le Traquet stapazin, L’Alouette calandrelle and Le Courlis cendré.
Matthew Schellhorn has the ability to transport his audience to the lakes, mountains and habitats of Messiaen's marvellous birds and we were all touched by his sensitive and masterly interpretations, a fact supported by the enthusiastic reception. As Peter Hill said in his pre concert talk shared with fellow Messiaen authority Nigel Simeone, ‘these works are so rarely performed due to their technical and virtuosic demands’ but Schellhorn surmounted these demands and presented an evening of poetic and musical imagery that, to quote Yvonne Loriod-Messiaen, 'was everything Messiaen would have wished'.
Even during the most complex and dense passages in the music Schellhorn displays the sensitivity and timbre control that bring all the species to life with crystalline clarity. However, the birds are only a part of this music. The landscape, habitats and backdrops are just as important, and it is this aspect that Schellhorn makes the most of and one really feels a sense of the grandeur of the mountains, the crashing of waves, the enormity of nature etc.
When I met with Matthew a month or so before the Purcell Room concert we spoke about his piano education and he revealed that he was 16 years old when he first began to work and study Messiaen’s piano music seriously beginning with Ile de Feu 1, Premiére communion de la Vierge (Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant Jesus) and Le Courlis cendré (Catalogue d’oiseaux). His love for this music continued to developed and in 2001 he was able to study with Yvonne Loriod in Paris.
He said that the one thing that really came out of these studies was reassurance. Apart from odd technical details, Loriod imparted great personal insight into the music and reassured him that he was doing everything right. A great accolade!
Matthew Schellhorn’s repertoire is wide reaching performing established piano fair by the likes of Beethoven, Chopin and Haydn to 21st century pioneers such as Jeremy Thurlow, James MacMillan and Ian Wilson.