John McCabe

1939 2015

John McCabe

Composer • Piano


John McCabe was a brilliant, British all-round musician. McCabe made his mark as a virtuoso concert pianist, composer, writer and administrator. He was particularly fond of the concerto form and was closely associated with the Hallé orchestra in Manchester and the London College of Music.

McCabe was born on 21 April 1939 in Huyton, Liverpool. As a result of a grievous accident at the young age of two, in which he was severely burnt, McCabe was prone to much illness throughout his childhood. Despite this unfortunate fate, he was able to explore the world of music from early on through records. Enthusiastic to create his own music, McCabe composed 13 symphonies by the age of 11.

McCabe entered Manchester University, studying composition with Humphrey Procter-Gregg from 1958 to 1960 before moving on to the “old” Royal Manchester College of Music (RMCM) between 1961 and 1962 to study piano with Gordon Green and composition with Thomas B. Pitfield. McCabe belonged to the generation of English composers that studied following the well-known composersBirtwistle, Goehr, Ogdon andMaxwell Davies. These composers that studied before him had a profound influence on his education, as can be seen in the repertoire McCabe chose for his exams. Ogdon began a tradition in which he performed his own works on his examinations, inspiring McCabe to do the same, along with works such as the Piano Sonata by Elliott Carter and Copland’s Variations. While at RMCM, McCabe also had the opportunity to serve as répétiteur for the school’s prestigious opera production. The head of the school, Frederic Cox, even requested that McCabe arrange non-operatic works, such as Beethoven’s Piano Sonata op. 31 no. 1, which was to be presented as sung recitative, replacing the spoken dialogue inFidelio.

After completing his studies in England, McCabe headed to Germany for a year to study withGenzmer at the Munich Hochschule für Musik, where he was introduced to the music ofKarl Amadeus Hartmann. He then went to Cardiff University to serve as pianist-in-residence from 1965 to 1968.

During this early period, McCabe’s career as a concert pianist and composer took off, beginning with Hallé Orchestra’s performance of his Violin Concerto no. 1 (1959) with soloist Martin Milner in the spring of 1963. This was followed by the orchestra’s 1965 premiere of McCabe’s breakthrough piece Variations on a Theme of Hartmann(1964), conducted by Maurice Handford. The success of these works led the orchestra to commission McCabe’s Symphony no. 1 ‘Elegy’ (1965), which was conducted bySir John Barbirolli in 1966 at the Cheltenham Festival. It was with this symphony that McCabe was truly recognized as a master of 20th-century musical trends and not a blind follower of the avant-garde traditions.

Many commissions followed for McCabe, including the Piano concerto no. 1 by the Southport centenary festival (1967),Metamorphosen for harpsichord and orchestra (1968), which was commissioned by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Society and featured the composer himself as the soloist, and the Concerto for Orchestra (1982) by the London Philharmonic. The Concerto for Orchestra was first conducted by Sir Georg Solti, who was so impressed by the work that he brought it back with him to his own orchestra, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

One of McCabe’s first major choral commissions was a setting of medieval Latin texts,Notturni ed Alba for soprano and orchestra (1970), which was commissioned by and composed for the Hereford Festival for the Three Choirs. The work was an immediate success with performers and audiences alike, leading quickly to recordings.

McCabe also achieved success in the 1970s with his Symphony no. 2 (1971), which has been used for a ballet based onThe Turn of the Screw and also with The Chagall Windows(1975), a 30-minute work that most resembles a tone-poem and provided the inspiration for a ballet in Stuttgart. The work was first commissioned by the Hallé orchestra and conducted by James Loughran in 1975 before being used for the ballet. It is also likely that his Symphony no. 4 ‘Of Time and the River’ (1994-5), which was commissioned by the Australian Broadcasting Commission and the BBC, will be used at some point for a ballet, due to its (unstated) programmatic nature. The fact that so many choreographers wish to use McCabe’s music for ballet attests to the dramatic, theatrical and rhythmic elements of his works.

McCabe has also composed a number of works that were intended to be stage works, including the children’s operaThe Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (1968), based on one of theNarnia stories from C.S. Lewis that was turned into a libretto by Gerald Larner. Following this opera, McCabe composed the chamber operaThe Play of Mother Courage (1974) in a Britten-like style, and then the impressive two-act balletMary, Queen of Scots (1975). Adding to his collection of historically informed works is the full-length balletEdward II (1995), based on the play by Christopher Marlowe, for the Stuttgart Ballet with choreography by David Bintley.Edward II has been described by critics as having as powerful and effective as Britten’s ballet scoreThe Prince of the Pagodas, something only Maxwell Davies has also been able to accomplish.

McCabe’s output as a whole totals more than 150 works covering all “classical” genres, including works for orchestra, wind and brass, chamber ensembles, organ, piano, vocals, choir and the stage. His style is influenced by a variety of composers, including Bartók and Stravinsky in terms of his rhythmic energy and Nielsen’s tonalities along with elements from Hindemith, Hartmann and Vaughn Williams. He has used stylistic features ranging from baroque techniques to jazz and rock-and-roll and from serialism to minimalism.

McCabe was able to make use of short motifs in works such as his orchestral pieceFire at Durilgai (1988) but also broad sweeping melodies as in Edward II and Symphony No. 4.

Among his two dozen or so concertos in the Double Concerto for oboe and Clarinet and also Rainforest I, which both incorporate elements of minimalism. His Flute Concerto (1990) for James Galway is perhaps the angriest most dissonant flute concerto every written and requires the soloist “to be a strident Orpheus trying to tame the Furies and not succeeding too well”. With his Oboe Concerto (1994), McCabe also escapes the expectations established by Strauss and Vaughn Williams.

Alongside his brilliant career as a composer, McCabe was known as a virtuoso pianist, especially his interpretations of Haydn’s music. He recorded all of the Haydn sonatas, a huge feat! In addition, he has recorded piano works from Satie, Vaughn Williams, Grieg, Webern, Scarlatti and Clementi. He was also the soloist for the British premiere of John Corigliano’s piano concerto and brought the Delius concerto to Denmark. He won a prize for his playing at the prestigious Gaudeamus competition in the Netherlands in 1969.

McCabe involved with and served on the board or as president of a number of societies including the ISM (president 1982-3), the Royal Philharmonic and Performing Rights societies, Association of Professional Composers (chairman 1985-6) and the Musicians’ Union. He also served as principal of the London College of Music from 1983 to 1990 and a visiting professor composition at both the Royal Academy of Music and the London College of Music. In addition, he gave lectures at the universities of Cincinnati and Melbourne. For his services to British Music, McCabe was given a Composers’ Guild of Great Britain special award in 1975 and was made a CBE (Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire) in 1985.