Interview: John McCabe

John McCabe by Gareth Arnold

John McCabe retired at the age of 11. By this time, the young composer had already written 13 symphonies and part of an opera. What more was there to achieve? Quite a lot, as it turns out.

The British composer – announced in May as the winner of this year’s prestigious Ivor Novello Award for classical music – returned to composition in his late teens, and would go on to work with classical greats including John Barbirolli, Charles Dutoit, Bernard Haitink and Georg Solti, receive premieres by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, the Hallé and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, as well as recording the still-definitive version of Haydn’s piano sonatas in his other role as a concert pianist.

Now 75, John may be battling serious illness, but he’s still fired by that same urgent musical instinct that made him realise at just five years old that he was going to be a composer.

‘I just really wanted to write music,’ he remembers. ‘There was a lot of music in the house as I was growing up. 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!’

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John receives his Ivor Novello Award

Badly burned in an accident as a young child and educated at home for eight years, John had plenty of opportunity to experiment and explore musically, unhindered by timetable or curriculum – a spirit of discovery and independence that has characterised his musical choices ever since.

His earliest efforts however, he stresses with characteristic wryness, were far from those of a child prodigy. ‘Those early symphonies were absolute rubbish, and I have successfully destroyed most of them. I just didn’t know how you constructed a tune or constructed a movement based on that tune.’

This idea of construction, of musical architecture, is key for John, a composer with a fondness for detective fiction who admits that he has always been inclined to write large-scale, symphonic works.

‘If you’ve got a clear structural framework like Agatha Christie’s novels then you can do whatever you want within it,’ he explains.

‘An abstract musical form is fascinating because you are creating fact. You are making something which didn’t exist before, building it out of nothing. That is what fascinates me.’

John studied at the Royal Manchester College of Music, the institution responsible for training some of Britain’s finest contemporary composers, including Peter Maxwell Davies, Harrison Birtwistle and Alexander Goehr.

Manchester would later be the home of his first major composing successes: a performance of the virtuosic First Violin Concerto with the Hallé in 1959, and the Variations on a Theme of Hartmann two years later. A commission for John’s first symphony, Elegy, followed at the urging of none other than Barbirolli, and John’s path as a composer was set.

John McCabeLooking back however, the composer himself places his professional breakthrough a decade later.

‘The piece that really opened doors for me was a song cycle with orchestra called Notturni ed Alba, written for the Three Choirs Festival,’ he recalls.

‘It was very successful and taken up by all kinds of people like Andre Previn and Bernard Haitink – it brought me to a much bigger audience.’

Coloured by an unusually large percussion section, the work distils so much of what would become his signature sound. Rhythms pulse with quiet insistence; orchestration is thick but pellucid, always sensitive to the solo voice; lyricism – passionate, direct melodic gestures – are anchored by a clear structural architecture.

The urge to large scale works persisted, generating seven symphonies over the following 40 years and an astonishing two dozen concertos for instruments including harpsichord, recorder and oboe d’amore as well as more conventional soloists. But what is it about the concerto, with its opposing forces of soloist and orchestra, that appeals so strongly to John?

‘I think it’s the relationship, the dialogue, between the individual and the collective,’ he says.

‘I’m not a contest sort of person, and an anything-you-can-do style battle between soloist and orchestra doesn’t really interest me. I don’t actually like cadenzas, and whenever I was performing myself always chose the shortest possible one.

‘The closest thing I’ve ever written to a battle was my Third Piano Concerto – a huge piece and terribly hard, but one that stages conversations between the soloist and various groups from within the orchestra.’

It’s also a concerto that comes first to mind when I ask John which works – from a catalogue of over 150 – he is most proud of.

‘I wrote Les martinets noir largely in our garden during a lovely summer with the swifts wheeling about between trees and chimneys and making their noises,’ he says. ‘I was very excited by this, and really do think that I managed to capture their exhilaration and jolly screaming in the concerto.’

Such a prolific output suggests a rigorous working schedule, and John admits that has often worked for up to eight hours a day on his music.

‘I’ve always worked quickly though, partly because I think a lot about music when I’m doing other things. Whether I’m travelling, walking or in town it’s always in my mind.’

Despite being a pianist himself and writing a large repertoire of piano music, John admits he rarely writes at the keyboard. ‘I always found that bits of whatever I was playing at the time kept creeping into the music I was writing.’

Johannes Brahms

John was influenced by Brahms as a child

In a conversation that roams over politics as well as music, films, books and personal history, only once does John trade gentle, avuncular humour for anger. Having spoken fondly of his own musical childhood (Mendelssohn, Brahms, Beethoven, Schubert), John turns to the current state of music education.

‘Several generations in this country have been betrayed very badly – criminally – by our masters in politics and the way they’ve handled music education. Governments have commissioned all these reports on music education and paid not the slightest notice to any of the conclusions.

‘I know of at least one instance in which the Cabinet refused to accept the report’s conclusions and told researchers to go away and change them. What they don’t realise is that a musical education is really an education for life. Discipline, hard work, collaboration – all are important parts of making music,’ he believes.

John’s own musical education continues to this day. Prevented by illness from working at his usual pace, John now listens more voraciously than ever to music, working his way systematically through his CD collection each afternoon.

‘If I took you through my last year of listening you’d be amazed: almost all the Vaughan Williams I own, almost all the Bach, all the Haydn symphonies, quartets, trios and operas, and I’m now going through the Masses.’

Unlike so many composers, John has always been a regular concert-goer and listens widely. Particular musical loves include Vaughan Williams, Alan Rawsthorne and Carl Nielsen, and among contemporary composers Steve Martland, James MacMillan and Emily Howard.

Emily Howard by Sam Fairbrother

Emily Howard by Sam Fairbrother

The multiplicity of classical styles around today makes it hard for younger composers, John acknowledges, but also for listeners.

‘It’s hard to advise anyone where to start. You really have to take contemporary music on its own terms, let it come to you. That sounds like a cop-out, but I think working hard at it is often counter-productive.

‘I always used to loathe Schoenberg’s Piano Concerto. Recently I bought a recording of something else and the concerto was also on the disc so I decided that I’d sit through it again. I loved it. Emmanuel Ax was the soloist, and he played it like Schumann – with such elegance and refinement and expressive delicacy. Suddenly I realised what the piece was all about.’

During a 50-year career in music, John has – almost uniquely – worked not only as a composer, but also as pianist, writer, administrator and teacher.

Perhaps it’s this breadth that accounts for his curiosity, the persistence of the musical exploration and discovery that began as a child among his mother’s scores.

Whatever started it however, there’s no sign of it stopping anytime soon. ‘I have a whole series of projects I want to fulfil’, he says, looking to the future, ‘and that will keep me going for quite a while yet.’

Words: Alexandre Coghlan
Top picture credit: Gareth Arnold