Oeno-File, the Wine & Gastronomy Column

by Frank Ward

A Tribute to a Leading English Composer : Seven Wines for Seven Symphonies

June 2014. In Vino – et Musica – Veritas : A Tribute to a Leading English Composer

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David Matthews_ Essays_Tributes_and_Criticism“David Matthews, Essays, Tributes and Criticism” (Plumbago Books)*, published to mark the composer’s 70th birthday (which fell last year), is to be launched on 25th June 2014. It is packed with lively contributions by a host of distinguished musicians and writers including Robin Holloway, composer John McCabe, David’s brother Colin (also a leading composer), Paul McCartney, Roger Scruton the philosopher, and many others. It costs £45 in hardback, £15.99 in paperback.

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 David has been described by his peers as “a leading symphonist of our time”. He has written seven critically acclaimed symphonies, while an eighth, commissioned by the BBC, will receive its world première in Manchester next year. Other works include 12 string quartets and a whole range of pieces covering most of the instrumental and vocal genres. He was recently commissioned by Westminster Abbey to compose a choral piece, based on a poem by Harold Monro, to commemorate the onset of the First World War. It will receive its first performance at the Abbey on August 4th, timed to coincide to the minute with the 100th anniversary of the declaration of war.

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I was proud to be asked to write a short, light-hearted epilogue to the book, with wine and music as its theme. The editor, Thomas Hyde of Worcester College, Oxford, has kindly given me permission to publish my piece prior to the book’s appearance.

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Seven Wines for Seven Symphonies

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by Frank Ward

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Wine, according to Robert Louis Stevenson, is ‘bottled poetry’. He could equally well have called it bottled music. Wine and music dovetail beautifully. Most oenophiles love music, and hosts of musicians, composers not least, love wine. Beethoven’s very last words, uttered on his deathbed (“Pity, pity, too late!”), expressed his anguish at the fact that his favourite wine had not arrived in time. Both music and wine exist in time, in the fourth dimension, and need time in which to divulge their full complexities, opening up as the seconds tick away, revealing fresh nuances at every moment, with full disclosure not occurring until the very end.

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In both cases, start and finish are inextricably linked. Daniel Barenboim makes the cogent point that ‘the last sound is not the end of the music … the last note must be related to the silence that follows it.’ The aftertaste of a fine wine performs a comparable function.

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My friendship with David Matthews began some years ago, and it was precisely music and wine that brought us together. By chance, he and I were buying fish at Jenkins’s excellent fishmonger’s shop in Deal. Impulsively, I introduced myself, thanking David for the many superb concerts he’d organised while director of the annual Deal Music Festival. It seemed only natural to invite him back to taste a couple of wines in my eighteenth-century cellar, and that turned out to be the start of a rewarding friendship in which both music and wine have played a big role.

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I can’t read a note or play any musical instrument but music has flowed through me like, well, wine ever since I can remember. And many a wine tasted in the course of the week calls to mind a particular piece of music. The comparisons I make below are half playful and half serious, but as I start to think about which wines best match David’s symphonies I cannot suppress the notion that we should one day try to prevail on him to write a symphony to match a wine.

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Symphony No. 1 – Champagne (Krug or Pol Roger)

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 Of his debut symphony, David writes that it is made up of three movements in one. Trios and trinities manifest themselves throughout nature and art and, not infrequently, in wine. Some champagnes are fashioned from each of three permitted grapes. Each contributes something unique, but all three meld into a seamless whole – as do the three components of this first symphony. Champagne seems like an ideal choice here, being the liveliest and most effervescent of wines and also the most aural (think of the pop of the cork and the tantalising susurration in the glass). It’s also the perfect aperitif, and can now perform that function by launching the first of the seven symphonies, which also seems to be infused with freshness and youthful vitality. Just as the various groups of instruments in the orchestra bring different but complementary qualities to David’s symphony, so do the different grapes confer their separate but harmonizing traits on the wine. Chardonnay – vitality, delicacy, incisiveness (strings, flutes, harp); Pinot Meunier – roundness, a kind of unifying warmth (cellos, French horns); Pinot Noir – structure, depth, volume (double bass, bassoon, timpani, etc.). The scherzo, David writes, ‘bursts out energetically’ – as when the glass of champagne is replenished, causing the wine to seethe and bubble with still greater vitality, sending almost invisible columns of microscopic bubbles to ascend with ever-increasing vigour. A heady wine for a heady symphony.

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 Symphony No. 2 – Châteauneuf-du-Pape (Beaucastel, Mont-Redon)

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 This symphony is on a larger scale and strikes a more serious note – an expansive, purposeful work that shows great sweep and focus. All of the instruments are given great play, but also perform together too, to great effect, with the whole adding up to very much more than the sum of its parts. Châteauneuf-du-Pape fits the bill perfectly, being voluminous, assertive, but also able to show delicacy and subtlety. A maximum of thirteen different grapes may be used – pretty well an entire vinous orchestra – with some of them used in tiny quantities, yet each still discernible in the finished wine (as with some instruments). A Châteauneuf producer, more than any of his colleagues, really has to act like a conductor, making sure that each grape comes into its own without drowning out any other. David’s Second is a Châteauneuf-du-Pape of a work: dramatic, forceful, heady, full of purpose.

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 Symphony No. 3 – Corton, a Grand Cru of Burgundy

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 Only truly great wines have both power and finesse. In some it is power that has the upper hand, in others, finesse. Music is like that too; think of Wagner and Bruckner on the one hand and Mozart and Schubert on the other. In this symphony, both qualities are present but in varying strengths at varying times. To me, the Third’s beginning is full of finesse, even if the power is seldom far away. Of all the red grapes in the world none can rival Burgundy’s Pinot Noir when it comes to sheer finesse. I choose a Grand Cru, Corton, because, while exhibiting all the finesse one could wish for, it also shows an almost daunting, slightly savage, power: like this symphony. A silky, subtle wine when mature, it never quite loses that firm, ferruginous backbone that reminds one of the forces of nature. Again, like the symphony.

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 Symphony No. 4 – 1978 Château Lafite

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 David describes this work as a ‘classical archetype’ in five movements. The most classical of all wines, surely, is claret, and the most classical of clarets is Château Lafite. It too has four movements (or four grapes at least), the fifth component being the moment when as a quartet they fuse together to create a unified whole.

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 The essential nature of claret was brought home to me as never before when a bottle of ‘78 Lafite was sent to our table at the Parisian restaurant Le Taillevent by its owner, the late Jean-Claude Vrinat, surely the greatest restaurateur who ever lived. The Fourth Symphony’s ‘light and flowing’ opening calls to mind the initial bouquet of that lovely wine, which to start with was dominated by the lightest and most delicate of the four grapes, the Cabernet-Franc, the other four being subdued at this early stage (as with the symphony’s movements, the grapes in this particular wine presented themselves in sequence). Soon the round, voluptuous Merlot took over, exhaling its round, sensuous aromas. Then came the intense, structured Cabernet Sauvignon, which stayed in the ascendant for quite some time. Finally, the densest variety of all, the Petit-Verdot, brought its fascinating truffle-and-liquorice flavour to the ensemble. I’m sure that any musician could suggest one or other instrument that plays such parts in the orchestra. Last of all, the quintessential character of the wine asserted itself, a fusion of all four grapes, ennobled by the unique Lafite vineyard, melded into a seamless whole, expressed in a long aftertaste which, like David’s Fourth, concludes on a note of ‘lusher harmonic textures’.

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Neither wine nor symphony is a blockbuster, but both show superb harmony and great tensile strength. They are the very soul of classicism.

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Symphony No. 5 – Hermitage ‘Les Bessards’

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 This work, in David’s own words, has a ‘dark and restless mood’ and its ‘energy hardly relaxes’. This makes me think of that powerhouse of a wine, Hermitage, and of the choicest part of that fabled vineyard, ‘Les Bessards’, where the granitic subsoil supplies a massive backbone to the wine. Hermitage has been famously called the manliest of French wines. I enjoy the thought that it is in fact made from one of the few French grapes that is of the feminine gender: La Syrah. In the symphony, too, power and subtlety are intertwined.

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 The music is complex and structured; so too is the wine from the Bessards section, that unique plot covering just a few precious hectares. I relish the notion that the vineyard, because of its steepness, is divided into many terraces, a visual parallel to the many-layered structure of David’s work. But Hermitage, like the Fifth, is not about power alone. The wine can be elegiac, just as in the third movement violas provide a gentler theme. There are no violas in an Hermitage, but it often carries a whiff of violets. The mood of the symphony’s finale is ‘brightly energetic’. When the second glass of Hermitage is replenished, the wine is reanimated and a whole range of redoubled scents and flavours emanate from the glass. The finish of both music and wine is full of energy, and both reverberate long after the last note, and drop, has faded away.

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 Symphony No. 6 – Riesling Smaragd (Prager) from the Wachau, Austria

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 The rousing, tinglingly fresh opening and the use of Austrian cowbells, not to mention David’s allusion to Mahler’s evocation of the Austrian Alps, turn my thoughts instantly to the great bone-dry, cracklingly alive Rieslings of that country. A glass of fine Riesling is almost like an electrical charge, so full of energy is it. Its scent brings thoughts of birdsong and wild flowers. But classic Riesling is about more than bouquet and freshness of flavour. The grape, more than most, extracts all manner of minerals from the subsoil, which gives added texture almost in the way the multiple subsidiary themes of David’s piece do to the music. When David writes ‘the timpani hammers out the first notes of the opening’, I have an image of the Riesling hammering out its complex, mineral aftertaste, which is given additional intensity by its bracing fruity acidity comparable in its way to that blast of brass and timpani in the symphony. Some passages, indeed, deliver a kind of delicious shock, comparable to the moment when the Riesling releases its manifold subsidiary flavours, forming part of a rolling finish which is dry yet contains a kind of honeyed sweetness at its core. Both wine and music have a finale that’s both an aftertaste and an aftershock.

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 Symphony No. 7 – Chambolle-Musigny 1er Cru ‘Les Amoureuses’

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 One leading critic has written that this single-movement piece ‘rings endless changes on a rapturous viola melody, heard … over the tremulous violin’. This rare Burgundy red is a single-grape wine that rings endless changes on the Pinot Noir, producing rapturous sensations. It, too, has a tremulous quality, the wine village of Chambolle-Musigny giving the most delicate and subtle of all burgundies (you can almost feel the wine tremble as you taste it). This apparent fragility does not prevent the wine from being one of the most structured and long-lived of the whole region. This one-movement symphony has many parts – as does this one-grape wine, whose delectable ripe-grape sweetness is given backbone and structure by the iron-rich subsoil and the complex mix of minerals and metals therein. Acidity and tannin – which function a bit like timpani and brass in a symphony – give rigour, while lightly-toasted oak in the barrels, in interaction with the Pinot Noir grape, provides a slightly exotic touch of spice. The finishes of both wine and symphony are very long.

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© Frank Ward 2014

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David Matthews

Essays, Tributes and Criticism

Edited by Thomas Hyde

http://www.boydellandbrewer.com/store/viewItem.asp?idProduct=14533

One Response to “A Tribute to a Leading English Composer : Seven Wines for Seven Symphonies”

  1. […] A Tribute to a Leading English Composer : Seven Wines for Seven Symphonies […]

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