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John McCabe (composer)

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Subject: List of historical ballet characters, Birmingham Royal Ballet, List of variations on a theme by another composer, John McCabe, The Good Soldier (1981 film)
Collection: 1939 Births, 2015 Deaths, 20Th-Century Classical Composers, 20Th-Century English Musicians, 20Th-Century Pianists, 21St-Century Classical Composers, 21St-Century English Musicians, 21St-Century Pianists, Ballet Composers, Commanders of the Order of the British Empire, English Classical Composers, English Classical Pianists, English Male Classical Composers, Honorary Members of the Royal Academy of Music, Living People, Musicians from Liverpool, People Educated at Liverpool Institute High School for Boys, People from Huyton
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John McCabe (composer)

McCabe in 2012

John McCabe, CBE (21 April 1939 – 13 February 2015) was a British composer and pianist. He created works in many different forms, including symphonies, ballets, and solo works for the piano. He served as principal of the London College of Music from 1983 to 1990. Guy Rickards described him as "one of Britain’s finest composers in the past half-century" and "a pianist of formidable gifts and wide-ranging sympathies."[1]


  • Early life and education 1
  • Career 2
    • Composer 2.1
    • Pianist 2.2
    • Teacher and administrator 2.3
    • Author 2.4
  • Awards 3
  • Personal life 4
  • Career highlights 5
  • Key works 6
  • Recordings 7
  • Writings 8
  • Sources 9
  • References 10
  • External links 11

Early life and education

McCabe was born in Huyton, Liverpool, Merseyside on 21 April 1939.[1][2] His father was a physicist.[3] McCabe was badly burned in an accident when he was a child and was home schooled for eight years.[4] During this time, McCabe said that there was "a lot of music in the house", which inspired his future career.[5] He explained "My mother was a very good amateur violinist and there were records and printed music everywhere. I thought that if all these guys – Beethoven, Brahms, Schubert – can do it, then so can I!"[5] McCabe later suppressed his early symphonies, believing they were not good enough.[5] He subsequently attended Liverpool Institute.[3]



A prolific composer from an early age, McCabe had written thirteen symphonies by the time he was eleven (Rickards 2001). After studies at the Royal Manchester College of Music (now the Royal Northern) and in Munich, with composers Thomas Pitfield, Harald Genzmer and others,[1][6] he embarked upon a career as both a composer and a virtuoso pianist.[2] Guy Rickards considers McCabe's early compositions to have been overlooked because of his perception as a pianist.[1] One of his early successes was the orchestral song cycle Notturni ed Alba (1970), based on a set of poems in medieval Latin about the theme of night,[1][6] which was described by Gramophone as "an intoxicating creation, full of tingling atmosphere and slumbering passion".[7] His Concerto for Orchestra (1982) brought him international recognition,[3] but it was not until the 1990s that he came to be perceived primarily as a composer, with the successes of the piano work Tenebrae (1992–3), which marked the deaths in 1992 of musicians Sir Charles Groves, William Mathias and Stephen Oliver, and was written for Barry Douglas; his Fourth Symphony, Of Time and the River (1993–4); and his third ballet Edward II (1995),[1] which won the 1998 Barclays Theatre Award.[6]

He worked in almost every genre, though large-scale forms lie at the heart of his catalogue with seven symphonies, two dozen concertante works and eight ballet scores to his name (Anon. 2014). His numerous concerti include four for his own instrument, the piano (1966–76), three for one or two violins (1959, 1980, 2003) as well as for viola (1962), harpsichord (1968), oboe d'amore (1972), clarinet (1977), orchestra (1982), trumpet (1987) and flute (1990), and double concertos for viola and cello (1965) and clarinet and oboe (1988). His chamber works include seven string quartets, the third of which (1979) was inspired by the landscape of the Lake District.[3] His solo instrumental music was mainly written for the piano; he composed 13 studies for the instrument, including Gaudí (1970), inspired by the architect; Mosaic (1980), inspired by Islamic art; and a series of seven (2000–9) each explicitly drawing inspiration from a different composer.[1][3] Other significant piano works include the Haydn Variations (1983), written to commemorate the 250th anniversary of Haydn's birth.[1][6]

McCabe's style evolved gradually from an initial lyrical constructivism through a serialist phase, with a fascination with repetitive patterns leading to a more complex combination of processes in order to achieve more subtle forms of continuity (Maycock 1989, 386). Rickards states his influences as including Vaughan Williams, Britten, Tippett and Karl Amadeus Hartmann,[1] and he was also influenced by non-classical music including rock and jazz.[3]

He had a long-lasting association with the Presteigne Festival.[8]


McCabe first became known as a pianist. His repertoire was wide, from pre-classical to modern composers.[1] He specialised in twentieth-century music, particularly by English composers. He gave the UK premiere of John Corigliano's Piano Concerto.[1] Another specialism was the music of Haydn; McCabe's "definitive"[6] mid-1970s recording of Haydn's complete piano sonatas was described by Gramophone as "one of the great recorded monuments of the keyboard repertoire." [9] He recorded several CDs with the cellist Julian Lloyd Webber.[1]

Teacher and administrator

From 1965 to 1968 McCabe was pianist‐in‐residence at University College, Cardiff (Kennedy 2006). He served as principal of the London College of Music from 1983 to 1990, where his efforts to enhance the college's profile resulted in its merging with Thames Valley University.[1][10] He also held visiting professorships at the universities of Melbourne, Australia and Cincinnati, USA during the 1990s.[1] Among his notable pupils is Canadian composer Gary Kulesha.[11]


McCabe wrote guides to the music of Haydn, Bartók and Rachmaninoff, and a book on contemporary English composer Alan Rawsthorne.[1]


McCabe was appointed a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 1985 for his services to music.[12](Rickards 2001; Anon. 2014) He was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Liverpool.[6]

In 2014, McCabe won the Classical Music Award at the 59th Ivor Novello Awards.[13]

Personal life

McCabe married Monica (née Smith), a former head of the Sittingbourne Music Society, in 1974.[3][14] In December 2012, McCabe was diagnosed with a brain tumour. He continued to compose music during his treatment.[14][15]

He died after a long illness on 13 February 2015.[4]

Career highlights

Key works

  • Variations on a theme by Karl Amadeus Hartmann (1964; orchestra)
  • Symphony No. 1, Elegy (1965; orchestra)
  • Notturni ed Alba (1970; soprano, orchestra)
  • Symphony No. 2 (1971; orchestra)
  • Chagall Windows (1974; orchestra)
  • Piano Concerto No. 3 (1977)
  • Symphony No. 3, Hommages (1978; orchestra)
  • Magnificat in C (1979)
  • String Quartet No. 3 (1979)
  • Concerto for Orchestra (1982)
  • String Quartet No. 4 (1982)
  • Cloudcatcher Fells (1982; brass band)
  • Haydn Variations (1983; piano; dedicated to and premiered by Philip Fowke)
  • Fire at Durilgai (1988; orchestra)
  • String Quartet No. 5 (1989)
  • Flute Concerto (1990)
  • Tenebrae (1993; piano)
  • Symphony No. 4, Of Time and the River (1994; orchestra)
  • Edward II (1995; ballet)
  • Pilgrim (1998; double string orchestra)
  • Arthur Parts 1 & 2 (1999 and 2001; ballet)
  • Woman by the Sea (2001; piano, string quartet)
  • Labyrinth [Symphony No.7] (2007; orchestra)
  • Piano Sonata (Hommage to Tippett) (2009)
  • Horn Quintet (2010–11)
  • Clarinet Quintet (2010–11)
  • String Quartet No. 6 (2011) Silver Nocturnes
  • String Quartet No. 7 (2012) Summer Eves


  • Edward II - Hyperion CDA 67135/6
  • Six Minute Symphony; Concertante Variations of Nicholas Maw; Piano Concerto No 2; Sonata on a Motet - Dutton CDLX 7133
  • Symphony ‘Of Time and the River’; Flute Concerto - Hyperion CDA67089
  • Dance Prelude for Oboe d'Amore and Piano - Amoris Edition AR 1003 - written for Jennifer Paull (1972)
  • McCabe: Concerto for Orchestra & The Chagall Windows; Arnold: Philharmonic Concerto - London Philharmonic Orchestra LPO 0023



  • Anon. 2014. John McCabe. Music Sales Classical: Part of Music Sales Group website (accessed 18 August 2014).
  • Craggs, Stewart R. 1991. John McCabe: A Bio-Bibliography. Bio-Bibliographies in Music, no. 32. Westport: Greenwood Press. ISBN 0-313-26445-7.
  • Foreman, Ronald Lewis Edmund (ed.). 1975. British Music Now: A Guide to the Work of Younger Composers. London: Elek.
  • Kennedy, Michael. 2006. The Oxford Dictionary of Music, second edition, revised. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-861459-4.
  • Larner, Gerald. 1969. "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe". The Musical Times 110, no. 1514 (April): 372.
  • Matthew-Walker, Robert. 1999. "John McCabe at 60". Musical Opinion 122, no. 1417 (Spring): 138–39.
  • Maycock, Robert. 1989. "Variations on a Form: John McCabe's String Quartets". The Musical Times 130, no. 1757 (July): 386–88.
  • Odam, George (ed.). 2008. Landscapes of the Mind: The Music of John McCabe, with a foreword by Vernon Handley. Guildhall School of Music & Drama Research Studies, no. 6. London: Guildhall School of Music and Drama. ISBN 978-0-7546-5816-0.
  • Rickards, Guy. 1999. "The Piano and John McCabe". British Music: The Journal of the British Music Society 21:35–47.
  • Rickards, Guy. 2001. "McCabe, John". The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, second edition, edited by Stanley Sadie and John Tyrrell. London: Macmillan Publishers.


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p Rickards, Guy (13 February 2015). "Composer John McCabe has died".  
  2. ^ a b Davis, Elizabeth (13 February 2015). "John McCabe, pianist and composer dies aged 75".  
  3. ^ a b c d e f g Anonymous (13 February 2015), "John McCabe, composer - obituary",  
  4. ^ a b "BBC News - Composer and pianist John McCabe dies aged 75". BBC News. Retrieved 13 February 2015. 
  5. ^ a b c Coghlan, Alexandre (5 June 2014). "Interview: John McCabe". M magazine. Retrieved 13 February 2015. 
  6. ^ a b c d e f g Anonymous (13 February 2015), "Composer and pianist John McCabe dies aged 75", BBC News (BBC), retrieved 14 February 2015 
  7. ^ Quoted in [6]
  8. ^ Beale, Catherine. "Composer John McCabe has died". presteignefestival. Retrieved 13 February 2015. 
  9. ^ Quoted in [1]
  10. ^ LCM History, University of West London: London College of Music, retrieved 14 February 2015 
  11. ^ "Gary Kulesha", The Canadian Encyclopedia, retrieved 14 February 2015 
  12. ^ "John McCabe". Retrieved 13 February 2015. 
  13. ^ Davidson, Amy (22 May 2014). "The Ivor Novello Awards 2014: Winners in full".  
  14. ^ a b Robinson, Hayley (2 August 2013). "Poorly composer John McCabe's delight as his music features at Proms". Kent Online. Retrieved 13 February 2015. 
  15. ^ McCabe, Monica (2013), Composer in Adversity, retrieved 14 February 2015 

External links

  • Official website
  • Performance of Partita for Cello on YouTube
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