On 28 May 2023 at the Barbican Centre the London Symphony Orchestra and François-Xavier Roth premiere Mosaics, Colin Matthews’ latest work for large orchestra.

The 24-minute work is a set of eleven studies which began as a lockdown project. “I would not have composed Mosaics if it had not been for the sudden disappearance of performances and commissions at the beginning of 2020”, Matthews notes. “Uncertain how to cope with this – deadlines are always a good incentive for composing – I decided that I should try to keep up momentum by plunging, without any preconceptions, into a piece for large orchestra.”

Writing a piece outside a strict timetable saw Matthews working differently and exploring new territory. “I was not thinking in terms of performance”, he says. “It started out as studies because it was quite small-scale, trying out various ideas, almost improvising my way through some of them…Mosaics was entirely un-pre-planned…each individual movement was composed fairly spontaneously”. Matthews notes that he made very few preparatory sketches when writing the piece, which was completed remarkable rapidly. 

“Some of them were reworkings of sketches for which I had not found a place, or of existing pieces – the fourth one, for instance, is a radical rethinking of a piece originally written for only 6 players” (2009’s Scherzetto for Endymion Ensemble). The final movement, too, is an expansion of material in 1999’s Little Continuum for chamber ensemble (“not so little anymore”, notes Matthews).

The tenth movement may be another kind of reworking: Matthews describes it as “almost a fake Debussy Prelude”, which recalls the composer’s own orchestrations of Debussy’s piano music. Matthews also cites the “distant” influence of Pierre Boulez’s Notations on Mosaics, in the way that both elaborate their basic material as well as the substantial orchestral forces both call on.

The eleven movements reflect Matthews’ fondness for prime numbers (“13 didn’t feel right”, he notes) in assembling rhythms, note patterns, and other structural elements, and alternate fast and slow sequences. The title suggests the way that these episodes, with their varied moods and characters, fit together like tiles to create a vivid and animated whole; despite their contrasts they share material, “though mostly in a hidden way”, Matthews says. The final movement (veloce) is the largest, bringing the sequence to a decisive and energetic close, in a mechanistic character that is one of the hallmarks of Matthews’ style.

The piece sees Matthews’ first use of the bass trumpet. Matthews uses it, alongside the distinctive sonority of contrabass clarinet, to create a dark-hued chorale for low woodwinds, brass and percussion in the third movement that has a hieratic, processional quality. Other distinctive sonorities in Mosaics come from a pair of flugelhorns (in place of regular trumpets) and the addition of alto saxophone to the winds. Other mellow, earthy colours come from two bass clarinets, alto flute, as well as cor anglais and contrabassoon.

Mosaics continues Matthews’ longstanding relationship with the LSO, where he was Associate Composer from 1992-1999. The orchestra have given world premieres of numerous works, including Quatrain (1989), Machines and Dreams (1991), the orchestral version of Hidden Variables (1992), MemorialM50 (1995), and subsequently recorded by the LSO under the baton of Michael Tilson Thomas. In 1996 Matthews also composed his Concerto for Cello No.2 for the LSO and Mstislav Rostropovich.

“It was a thrill to hear the LSO sight-reading everything with the expertise that only the very best orchestras can offer”, said Matthews after hearing the first orchestral playthrough of Mosaics in February this year. “I know they can go from one mode of playing to another immediately…they are very at home with new music. Working with them on the Panufnik scheme – you see how much they can do.”

Indeed, Matthews’ involvement with the orchestra extends to his pivotal role in the LSO Panufnik Composers Scheme, devised by the Orchestra in association with Lady Panufnik in memory of her late husband Sir Andrzej Panufnik, which fosters emerging compositional talent.

Matthews has been supporting and mentoring students in their orchestral writing on the scheme since its inception in 2005, and to date worked with 105 young composers. His enthusiasm for the scheme is shared by the musicians of the LSO: “I get players coming up to me after these sessions and saying how much they appreciate it, and that it is one of the most important things they do”.

The LSO perform Mosaics on 28 May alongside music by Béla Bartók, Lili Boulanger, Jonathan Woolgar, and Cassie Kinoshi. Tickets are available here.