John McCabe remembered by David Wordsworth

Written by: David Wordsworth

John McCabe, 21 April 1939-13 February 2015

John McCabe (1939-2015)

John McCabe was that rarity – the complete musician. The composer of well over 200 works of all kinds ranging from highly successful ballet scores, works for brass and wind bands that have become classics of the repertoire, a hugely impressive series of Symphonies and String Quartets, to music for film and television. He didn’t seem too upset when I told him years ago that the first piece of his I heard was a trumpet tune he wrote in the 1970s for a bleak TV series called Sam. As a ten-year-old I perhaps found anything that my Grandparents watched a little bleak, but to this day I can whistle that tune!

That was just one side of John McCabe – he was also a fantastic pianist, possessing an impressive technique and great sensitivity, and, like the man himself, without a hint of affectation. In between the composing and the playing came the administrating (he was Director of the London College of Music for several years), serving on all kinds of Trusts and Committees, and the tireless support he gave to his fellow composers (both to his contemporaries and to young composers who he always treated as his equal) and turning up at concerts to hear pieces he found interesting.

He knew more music than anyone I have ever met – not just standard repertoire but delighting in the obscure and unusual. Having mentioned a particular ‘out of the way’ work, John’s eyes would light up and he would say “Oh, that’s a wonderful piece”, and then, just in case one should think “Ha, I’ve found a piece he doesn’t know’, he would start to describe a particular section within it and it would be back to the drawing-board – there has to be some pieces that John didn’t know!

I often suspected, as did some others, that a good deal of sight-reading was going on as far as his John’s piano-playing was concerned. Surely there had to be? John seemed able to play anything and everything with a relaxed authority, but how was it possible? There is a story of Alun Hoddinott handing a copy of a Piano Sonata to John as he boarded a train to Manchester and then John sitting down to play the piece at sight in a lunchtime concert – knowing Alun’s habitual late delivery and John’s technique I can perfectly imagine this happening – and in a fine first performance, too.

John’s piano music is full of not inconsiderable demands, but his repertoire included Concertos by Delius, John Ireland, Constant Lambert, John Corigliano and William Schuman; solo pieces by his friends and contemporaries as diverse as Hugh Wood, John Casken, Hoddinott, Emily Howard, Richard Rodney Bennett, his love of Ravel, Schubert and English romantics, duo-partnerships with Julian Lloyd Webber, Jane Manning and Erich Gruenberg; then the small matter of the complete piano works of Nielsen, Hindemith’s Ludus Tonalis (this composer, currently deeply unfashionable, was a particular enthusiasm) and the complete Haydn Sonatas, which many argue (quite rightly!) has never been bettered.

However, as I turned pages for John when he recorded the complete piano works of his great friend Alan Rawsthorne (about whom he also wrote an excellent book) I noticed there was no question of sight-reading – every page was carefully annotated and fingered. John’s own output for the piano runs to around 30 pieces that range from shorts for young players, through a series of Studies that focus on a particular pianistic technique and are a homage to artists or composers he admired (Ravel, Tippett and Mussorgsky for example) to deeply felt, large-scale virtuoso works such as Tenebrae and the Haydn Variations – as impressive a catalogue of piano music as any other recent composer, British or otherwise.

John’s ear for pianistic colour was only matched by his uncommon ear for orchestral sonority and detail. McCabe’s orchestral works quite literally glitter; they are full of dazzling light, crystal-clear textures and music that is often incisive and brilliant, delighting in giving the brass and percussion sections in particular plenty to do. The fact that conductors of the calibre of Solti, Previn and Haitink took up John’s pieces speaks for itself. This wonderful orchestral flair can be heard to especially great effect in my personal list of McCabe favourites – Variations on a Theme of Hartmann, The Chagall Windows, the Second and Third Symphonies, the wonderful song-cycle Notturni ed Alba, the Concerto for Orchestra, Fire at Durilgai and Joybox, the latter premiered only at BBC Proms 2013, a slightly crazy, whirling showpiece, that allowed John to pack everything he knew into the space of about seven minutes. The Concertos for almost every orchestral instrument (alongside three for piano) are well worth discovering, one of the best being the recent Trumpet Concerto, ‘La Primavera.

Although not particularly known for his choral works, in recent years John seemed to get a particular delight from writing for choirs – settings include a very successful Psalm Cantata for the English Baroque Choir and Jeremy Jackman, a touchingly simple Peace Carol and, just before Christmas last, the Hallé Choir premiered Christ’s Nativity, for choir and organ, that sets words by one of John’s favourite poets, Henry Vaughan. To my ever-lasting regret one of the pieces on his desk that now won’t see the light of day, was a short work that John promised to me for an anthology of Shakespeare settings I am compiling and editing for his publisher. He seemed so pleased to be asked. We talked about a text and he chose a speech from King Lear – not an obvious choice but an intriguing one. I know he struggled on with the setting until just a few days before he died and it is too sad that we won’t hear it or indeed any of the other works he had planned.

In recent times John was often heard to apologise for being “wobbly” on his feet and thought it was perhaps an inner-ear infection. As it turned out this was the beginning of his appalling illness, an incurable brain tumour that slowly and with immense and ever-increasing cruelty robbed him of his ability to play the piano, walk, and finally, most cruelly of all, to compose music. It has been incredibly moving to read tributes pouring out for John – the same words re-appear: integrity, honour, modesty, self-depreciation and humour.

Oddly enough what I remember about our last meetings is the laughter – I sat with him at a recent revival of his choral work, Songs of the Garden’ (another very good piece!), and the jokes (often at his own expense and at what he saw as the absurdity if his own situation) still came, as did the enthusiasm for music and for life. The sheer determination of the man, not to say the bravery in the face of overwhelming adversity is something I will never forget – an example to us all; as was the devoted care of his wife Monica, there to see John through every single minute of his terrible ordeal.

Enough words – now let us listen to the music and remember.

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