Landscapes of the Mind is the title of the major study of John McCabe’s music, published around ten years ago, with contributions from numerous people who greatly admired this remarkable and surprisingly original composer’s work.
The surprise in McCabe’s originality stems from the fact that almost all of his music is tonally based, but not in any kind of ‘traditional’ sense: knowing the profundity of tonality in any music, even that which professes to abandon it, it was all too easy for some commentators (particularly those who grew up in the same generation as McCabe did) to airily dismiss his work as though it were not original enough – in the sense of childhood regression, by refusing to acknowledge musical truths because they were too difficult (adult) to grasp, so a return to throwing the toys out of the pram in a fit of selfishness may have produced a veritable tranche of music, suitable for analysis along the lines of navel-gazing, but without any lasting significance. McCabe was never part of this school (bland sameness), and the surprise of his work continues as we consider again the book’s title, which was, I understand, suggested by McCabe himself, clearly offered as a clue as to how we should approach his music.
Pictures in music can be a vexed question, and it is not one that I feel adds much to our understanding of a work, for each of us hears things differently, and not every music-lover has a commensurate interest in painting or the graphic arts. Architecture we have to make use of, unless we wish to spend our lives in the open-air, but such as Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, Bliss’s A Colour Symphony, Martinů’s Frescoes of Piero della Francesca, Gunther Schuller’s Seven Studies on Themes of Paul Klee, and Gerard Schurmann’s Six Studies of Francis Bacon may owe their initial inspiration to pictorial impetus, but stand or fall solely on musical qualities.
Such masterly works as those are not film music without the film, but for John McCabe visual impetuses may be cited for his initial inspiration, and putting the listener in the right frame of mind before hearing a note of the music, but McCabe’s subtleties run deep, for not only does he work things out in purely musical terms, but in so doing frees the listener from the straight-jacket of conformity. The result, when investigating the work of this astonishingly gifted and creative figure, is a catalogue that goes far beyond and much deeper than mere musical pictorialism.
McCabe’s output was remarkably wide, from seven Symphonies and around a dozen Concertos, much chamber music and several full-length ballets, to a pop music ‘hit’ – the theme from the ITV series Sam, set in Lancashire in the 1970s – here was, alongside a pianist of international stature, a musician as practical as Hindemith or Britten, and as wide-ranging. McCabe knew the structural functions of harmony as well as those composers and the others who accepted the challenges of writing serious music in the twentieth-century whilst not wishing to destroy everything that preceded such glimpses into the Apocalypse as were universal in their lifetimes.
This Park Lane Group programme of McCabe’s music, alongside Haydn – marking McCabe’s pioneering complete recording of his Piano Sonatas, issued by Decca in the 1970s – honoured his passing this February at the age of 75. Although a full evening, it – of course – could have been only a selection from the many Landscapes of the Mind which engendered McCabe’s music, although our fond memory was truly honoured with a succession of magnificent performances.
It was a brilliant idea to open with Upon Entering a Painting, which title alone tells us much, for the work is a masterpiece, pure and not so simple. Joseph Tong and Waka Hasegawa have recorded this fine work (2009 – it is dedicated to them) and the sense of being drawn into the experience of the work of art (Rothko) at the beginning, and slowly leaving it at the end, perfectly encapsulates the experience of the music and the effect it has had on the composer’s (and pianists’ and listeners’) imagination. This was a truly impressive account, followed by Maria Marchant’s intelligent and expressive reading of Haydn’s G minor Sonata, so subtle in its composition with much being spun across its two movements from so fine a thread.
McCabe’s great Tenebrae of 1993 followed from James Kreiling. If anyone doubted the quality of McCabe’s invention, Kreiling’s deeply musical and technically dumbfounding reading would have disabused them entirely. I doubt if this major contribution to piano literature has ever been played better – and I include the composer, who would have been thrilled at Kreiling’s understanding of his work.
The second half began with a wonderful account of Haydn’s B minor Sonata from Christopher Guild. His tempo for the finale seemed, initially, so fast as to make us wonder if it could be maintained – but it was, brilliantly and meaningfully, following which Joseph Houston gave two of McCabe’s Studies, from 2000 and 2001, each varied and both played superbly.
The recital concluded with McCabe’s penultimate work, a Sonata ‘Haec Dies’ for trumpet and piano, written last year when the composer was in the throes of coping with the aggressive and inoperable brain tumour which finally claimed him. It is an astonishing work to have been created in those circumstances – an extensive 20-minute study on a motet by William Byrd – requiring both flugelhorn and trumpet in D. It was magnificently played by Simon Desbruslais (who commissioned it), wonderfully partnered by Clare Hammond, demonstrating how McCabe was able, in his final months, to show what can be achieved in the face of conditions which would have felled a less powerful creative mind.
Two encores revealed McCabe in less intense mood – the piano Lamentation Rag (for Haydn’s 250th-anniversary), and Highland Habanera, one of a set of Associated Board pieces (Dances for Trumpet and Piano) – this latter gem being the first McCabe music Desbruslais encountered as a student and a fine touch to end a truly memorable recital, the whole forming a fitting tribute to a great musician.