Concert pianist & writer
When Denis Matthews left Warwick School in 1935 to take up a scholarship at the Royal Academy of Music in London, one of his erstwhile masters said “They tell me that you are going in for music Matthews but what do you intend doing with the rest of your time?” The young Matthews would become one of Britain’s finest classical pianists with an international reputation on the concert platform and as a recording artist. In a professional career spanning fifty years he seldom had time to worry about how he should fill his days.
Early days in Leamington
Denis’s father Arthur Matthews had obtained a commission in the Royal Flying Corps during the Great War and served as a Flying Officer Observer until he was shot down and seriously wounded, losing a leg in the process. With the war ended, Arthur set up a small engineering business, the Norman Engineering Company in Upper Grove Street in Leamington. After living in lodgings and a variety of ‘digs’ in and around Leamington, the family moved to a large detached house “Woodville” at 23 Kenilworth Road in Leamington (now a retirement home and re-named Buckingham Lodge).
At the age of five Denis was sent to the kindergarten of the Leamington High School for Girls and three years later was enrolled at Arnold Lodge School, a local preparatory school just a few doors from “Woodville”. Not being a particularly gifted sportsman, Denis later admitted to a degree of embarrassment when joining in the school song which exhorted the boys to ‘play up, play up, and play the game!’ While still at Arnold Lodge at the age of twelve, the young Matthews returned from school one day to be greeted by tearful relatives and the news that his father had died in the family’s Armstrong Siddeley car parked near Waverley Wood. The inquest into Arthur Matthew’s death filled many columns in the local papers and a verdict of suicide was recorded. Denis often pondered on the words that his father had said to him when he tucked him up in bed on a June night in 1931 on the day before before he took his life ‘The Lord will look after you and your mother better than I have been able to do’.
Warwick School & music lessons
Denis’s mother Elsie, a former teacher, was an accomplished pianist and she encouraged his interest in music although the family finances were strained following Arthur’s tragic and untimely death. The following year, Denis and John Moir, son of the Arnold Lodge headmaster, won scholarships to the Royal Grammar School at Worcester but things did not turn out quite as expected. As boarders, both of the boys became very homesick and as something of a compromise Moir senior arranged for their scholarships to be honoured at Warwick School where Denis arrived as a day-boy in October 1932.
During his time at Warwick School he was able to pursue his musical interests to good effect and coincidentally on one occasion he almost bumped into one of the great English composers when his mother pointed out to him Edward Elgar buying sausages in a Leamington butcher’s shop . He took piano lessons from Sidney Bates, then organist at Holy Trinity Leamington and Music Master at Warwick School, and from Lionel Wiggins, organist of Leamington Parish Church, and he also took violin lessons from Walter Warren who had lost a very musical son named Purcell in the First World War. He was a regular entrant and frequent winner in the annual Leamington Music Festival. After he had played one year he met Herbert Howells, a fine composer and one of the judges, who encouraged him to consider a career in music. On his twelfth birthday his mother took him to Birmingham Town Hall to hear the Berlin Philharmonic under Furtwängler. Denis had admitted a certain foreboding at going to such a major event having never before attended a symphony concert but he was stunned by what he heard in a programme that included works by J S Bach, Richard Strauss and Beethoven. It was to be something of a life-changing experience for the talented schoolboy.
Royal Academy of Music
In 1935 Denis won a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music which put an added financial strain on his mother who did not have the wherewithal to cover his maintenance away from home. At the age of sixteen he was unable to qualify for a grant to support his studies since Education Grants were payable only at the age of seventeen, the recognised leaving-age for university candidates. The Head of Warwick School suggested a compromise whereby Dennis combined periods at the school which would be interspersed with spells at the Royal Academy and he generously offered to pay all Denis’s travel expenses for the year. The Kitchener Memorial Fund and the Freemasons also contributed additional funds for the duration of his formal studies in memory of his father. In due time his grant from the county was paid. The peripatetic nature of his first twelve months at the Royal Academy worked out well and Denis won three prizes, though none was for piano-playing. He went to lodge with one of the tutors at the Royal Academy, Harold Craxton and his wife and six children, in St John’s Wood and stayed with them through his student years.
The Royal Academy was the senior of the London music colleges; it had Sir Henry Wood to direct the orchestra; it was pleasantly situated on the edge of Regent’s Park and only ten minutes walk from the Queen’s Hall, then the hub of London’s music. Denis thrived there and soon discovered that although distracting in other ways, most of the fee-paying ladies on the books were not very serious rivals. He was awarded the Worshipful Company of Musicians Medal for most distinguished student in 1938. There were chances of earning occasional fees for accompanying which generally commanded a fee of two shillings an hour for the Academy opera class and five shillings for outside engagements. Playing for a concert might produce a guinea (£1.05p) or more as also did performances at smart city dinners and Mayfair soirées (as background music).
Denis’s debut with a full orchestra came at the age of eighteen in June 1938 at one of Sir Henry Wood’s promenade concerts then held at the Queens Hall, Langham Place. He played the Beethoven C minor concerto with Sir Henry Wood conducting. Sir Henry had given Denis some pre-concert advice which he was evidently fond of quoting ‘Make all your performances a grand improvisation’. Denis thought the concert went pretty well and is quoted as saying that he ‘did not drown on his maiden voyage with the Beethoven C minor’ but he remembered ‘falling overboard halfway through the finale.’
Denis Matthew’s course at the RAM was coming to an end in the Autumn of 1939 by which time he had auditioned for the BBC Midland Region and had made four broadcasts for which he was paid the princely sum of two guineas a time. He soon realised that it wasn’t so much the fees he received for these that counted as much as the high prestige of being heard on the wireless, free publicity which would lead to several engagements. May 1940 found Denis a member of the Royal Air Force with the rank of aircraftsman second class (AC2) and the service number 927993. After basic training and much ‘square-bashing,’ he joined a small group of fellow professional musicians and was posted to Bridgnorth. He somehow managed to persuade his superiors to grant him a 48-hour pass in order to play his own composition Symphonic Movement for piano and orchestra with Sir Henry Wood at the Academy Queen’s Hall concert.
The Central Band of the RAF had recruited to its ranks some of the finest wind players in the country and with the addition of a string section filled by equally talented players became the RAF Orchestra. As a pianist, Denis was something of an ‘add-on’ performer to be brought in when the programme demanded piano. In the meantime he pursued his career as a soloist and played regularly throughout the war years in the concerts arranged by Myra Hess at the National Gallery in London. One of the highlights of his appearances with the RAF Orchestra was a four-month exchange tour with the band of the US Army Air Force in November 1944. The orchestra played in twenty-six cities and as successful ambassadors were granted a welcome back-payment of a dollar-a-day’s retrospective pay which considering that Denis’s service pay amounted to only three-and-ninepence a day was a great help towards buying presents for the folk at home. In July 1945 the RAF Orchestra were asked by HM Government to be flown to Berlin during the Potsdam Conference of the so-called ‘Big Three’. They were to provide light music as background to Churchill’s final banquet with Stalin, Truman and their subsidiaries; followed the next evening by a full-scale concert in the palace of Sans Souci. At the banquet there was much good-natured banter between Truman and Stalin through interpreters as to the relative merits of Mozart and Beethoven. Towards the end of the evening Denis was dumbfounded when Harry Truman asked if he could sit on the piano stool and proceeded to play some Mozart. One of the orchestra, Cyril Stapleton, said to Denis later ‘You may play for some crowned heads in your time, Denis but I doubt if you will ever again have a President of the United States sit down and play for you’. By the end of the war Denis’s star was very much in the ascendant. He had made recordings for Columbia and EMI at Abbey Road studios and had teamed up with the eminent horn player Dennis Brain to record the Beethoven Horn sonata. He was increasingly in demand as a recitalist.
The post-war years
With the ending of the war, he was, for the first time in his life, able to devote all his energies to a full-time career as a musician. His particular forte was the music of the Viennese period – Haydn, Mozart, Schubert and above all, Beethoven. He played with all the major British orchestras of the time under Thomas Beecham, John Barbirolli and Malcolm Sargent both at home and on tours in many parts of the world and his autobiography includes many amusing anecdotes about music -making in foreign parts. He recalled how at a concert in Bulawayo with the Halle they had failed to take into account the high altitude and the cold tropical nights. For the performance, the orchestra wore pyjamas under their evening dress and Sir John Barbirolli took to the rostrum dressed in his greatcoat. The concerts and recordings brought wide popularity and much public acclaim. He hosted a regular programme Music Magazine on the radio, frequently illustrating his talks by playing pieces live on the piano and with recordings. In 1967 he was one of Roy Plomley’s castaways on Desert Island Discs. In the 1970’s he gave fewer recitals and was drawn more to lecturing, broadcasting and writing about music and composers. In 1971 he was appointed the first Professor of Music at Newcastle University and in 1975 he was made CBE. In 1985 he published a fine study of Beethoven in the Dent Master Musicians series which received the highest critical acclaim.
At the age of sixty-five, Denis’s time at Newcastle University came to an end and he returned to the Midlands and to occasional teaching at the Birmingham Conservatoire. Together with his wife Beryl (née Chempin), also a noted pianist, he set up a formidable teaching team based at their home in Reddings Road, Moseley but he rarely appeared as a recitalist in his latter years. It is said that he had suffered for some years from manic depression which is the lot of many talented performers and musicians. His many friends and followers were shocked to read in the newspapers that Denis was no more. On Christmas Day he had committed suicide just as his father had done fifty-seven years earlier. His close friends were aware that he was prey to periods of melancholy and bouts of depression but were none the less shocked by news of his suicide. Those who knew him spoke of his modesty, unassuming nature and of his warmth and great sense of humour. He was survived by Beryl and two children from two earlier marriages. His was a story of modest beginnings and of great heights scaled. He left behind a body of recordings many of which have in recent times been re-issued on compact disc. Many of his recordings are now freely available on the YouTube website. If you want to listen to a few minutes of excellent piano playing, you might like to follow the link below to some of Denis Matthew’s early recordings. The playing speaks for itself and is a fitting epitaph to a man who took Sir Henry Wood’s advice and made his performances ‘a grand improvisation’.
YouTube Beethoven Concerto No 5 in E flat op 73 (Adagio track 2) with the Philharmonia orchestra under Walter Susskind.
In Pursuit of Music by Denis Matthews [Victor Gollancz 1966]
The new Grove Dictionary of Music & Musicians [ Ed. Sadie 1980]
Oxford Dictionary of National Biography [OUP 2004]
Obituary in Warwick School magazine The Portcullis October 1989
All images from the author’s collection
Gervald Frykman Archivist Warwick School
Alan Griffin, January 2016