About this Recording
8.571367 - McCABE, J.: Piano Music - Variations, Op. 22 / Studies No. 3, 4 and 6 / 5 Bagatelles / Haydn Variations (McCabe)

John McCabe (1939–2015)
Piano Music


John McCabe, CBE, was born in Huyton, Lancashire, on April 21, 1939. He studied at Manchester University from 1958–60, gaining his degree (B. Mus.) despite being expelled from the composition class of Humphrey Proctor-Gregg for having the temerity to play one of his own pieces in a recital at his old school (Liverpool Institute High School for Boys) against his tutor’s wishes. From 1961–2 McCabe studied with Thomas Pitfield (composition) and Gordon Greene (piano) at the Royal Manchester College of Music and attended the Munich Hochschule für Musik in 1964 where his composition teacher was Harald Genzmer, a former pupil of Hindemith. His intention had been to study with the great Bavarian composer Karl Amadeus Hartmann, a performance of whose Concerto funebre for violin and strings (1939, rev 1959) had made a great impact on the young composer (so much so that he wrote one of his own, but for viola, in 1962). Although McCabe was interviewed by Hartmann—who took no students but agreed to supervise McCabe’s tuition there—in 1963, the Bavarian died in December that same year. McCabe composed his Variations on a theme of Karl Amadeus Hartmann in 1964 in his memory.

Variation form is a recurrent feature of McCabe’s large output (of over two hundred and thirty pieces), whether as constituent movements or episodes of larger works, as in several of the concertos or his ballet Edward II (1994–5), or as complete works, such as the Concertante Variations on a theme of Nicholas Maw for strings (1970), the Fantasy on a theme of Liszt for piano (1967) and—his most spectacular achievement in the medium—the Haydn Variations (1983). His mastery of the genre was aptly demonstrated, however, fully two decades earlier, even before the Hartmann Variations, in the set published as Opus 22 (though the composer soon dropped the use of opus numbers). Entitled simply Variations, these were written in 1963 and published soon after as the first of a “modern piano series edited by John Ogdon” (then still fresh from his success in the Tchaikovsky Piano Competition in 1961) called Virtuoso. McCabe’s original intention had been to write a set of etudes, which may account for their extra degree of exploratory writing, and were dedicated to Gordon Greene “with affection and gratitude”. There are eighteen variations in all, with a brief Cadenza interposed between Nos. 17 and 18, on the opening eight-bar theme. This theme alternates a growing, lento dotted phrase (encompassing the triton, C–F#), with più mosso semi- and demisemiquaver octaves almost at every bar, a melodic ‘profile’ reprised closely in variation 3. The composer described the use of the triton as “the springboard of the theme”. As Ogdon commented in a note prefacing the printed score, there is “a basic melodic unity” to the whole work, placing it “closer to Rachmaninov’s use of variation technique… than to Brahms’s”. The variations also often flow one into another to form groups, thus: theme and variations 1–3; variations 4–7 (all doppio movimento); the much slower variations 8–12; Nos. 13–16 (all più mosso); and the final triptych, grandioso – cadenza – maestoso.

The first group forms a kind of exposition with the first variation primarily developing the dotted phrase (already changing within the eight-bar theme itself) and in the second beginning to fuse elements of both ‘subjects’. The partial reprise of the theme in the third clearly delineates this group from the leggiero fourth, which cracks on doppio movimento where the second left off. No. 5 is essentially a variation, all’ottava, on its immediate predecessor; only in the sixth does the theme’s alternate octave subject, rapidly arpeggiated, return to centre stage in the left hand, with the constantly extending dotted phrase, now itself a theme, in the right hand. The staccato seventh variation presents the extended dotted theme mainly in sevenths, a subtle twist on the octaves of the main theme. The climax of the passage from Variations 4–7 is reached in the lento eighth, the start of what might be thought a slow movement. There is a Bartókian feel to the music here, which is succeeded by impressionistic waves rising three times from the depths to the heights (and written on three staves; subsequent variations require four). The adagio tenth variation is a highly sublimated presentation of the theme, recalling the original profile in its apparent alternation of tempi (in fact the speed is unified), but in Nos. 11, pochissimo più mosso, and 12, poco meno mosso, the writing becomes gradually more intense, leading to the più mosso group (Nos. 13–16), the first two of which are tiny: just three highly packed bars apiece. Their busy triplet motion, a logical outcome of elements in earlier variations, is developed further in Nos. 15–16, in the latter juxtaposed with a contrary motion passage rising to the heights and falling to the depths at the same time, before exploding into the grandioso writing of the seventeenth variation, where five-note octave chords alternate with demisemiquaver runs—another transformation of the opening theme’s profile. After the brief upward-running cadenza, the maestoso eighteenth and last variation closes with an apotheosis of the theme before closing with a peremptory octave-tritone chord in the bass (A – Eb – A).

Ogdon noted the “larger canvas” of the Variations’ ten-minute span when set against McCabe’s other piano compositions of the period, such as the Three Impromptus (1963) and Five Bagatelles (1964) which, in Ogdon’s words “illustrated different aspects of pianistic and compositional techniques—atonality included—with brevity and assurance.” This double intent is important as McCabe was very distinctly a composer-pianist, who successfully progressed both careers around the globe (with the emphasis at home and abroad varying from the composer to the pianist at different times). Out-and-out composer-pianists of international standing in both disciplines are few and far between—one thinks of Bartók and Rachmaninov (on each of whom McCabe wrote short, penetrating studies), Prokofiev and Stravinsky before the Second World War, or Ogdon and Finnissy in more recent times. McCabe’s most distinguished achievement as a recording artist was the much-acclaimed set of the complete Haydn Piano Sonatas for Decca, and which in forty years has never been out of print, although his recorded legacy encompassed Hindemith, Bax, Howells, William Schuman, Nielsen and many more. The career of the late John Ogdon afforded a revealing parallel to McCabe’s own: both possessed a formidable keyboard technique and virtuosity in alliance with compositional precocity. But if Ogdon possessed perhaps the more mercurial pianistic genius, as a composer McCabe outstripped Ogdon, setting his sights rather higher. It is no accident that pianists have more readily taken up McCabe’s pieces than Ogdon’s.

Brevity is the watchword for the Five Bagatelles which are all over and done with in as many minutes. The composer told the present writer that they “were written to a request for not-too-difficult 12-note pieces”. All share a dance-like, almost balletic quality that seemed with hindsight like a premonition of the composer’s later acclaimed stage works, like Mary, Queen of Scots (1973–5) and Edward II. The opening Capriccio proceeds by staccato chords slamming their way, however lightfootedly, through an ill-tempered dance; the succeeding Aria is quiet, reserved, with a Sarabande-like momentum. The third bagatelle, Elegia, is sparer in texture, more questioning in spirit, but seems not to find any answers, while the Toccata moves brashly around the keyboard oblivious to all concerns. The final Notturno combines the reservation of the Aria with the Elegia’s questing; here at last by contemplation is a resolution arrived at.

In early 1969, McCabe began the composition of a series of piano Studies which, while designed to be independent “works in their own right, … all include as part of their basic composition an exploration of certain aspects of piano technique or compositional procedure.” The series started with Capriccio and Sostenuto, and continued in 1970 with Gaudí, in the composer’s words “formally, a large-scale Rondo … a tribute to the work of the Spanish architect Antonio Gaudí whose extraordinary and unique buildings”—including the astonishing (and still unfinished) Sagrada Família Cathedral in Barcelona—“are a source of continual fascination”. In a preface to the printed score the composer has provided the best description to the overall sound-world of this haunting tribute in some notes he made before composing the piece, of what he wanted to express: “Bells / deep gong sounds; contrast of decoration with static sculptural forms; intricate, ornate ornamentation; variety of planes, textures and materials; juxtaposition of the ferocious and the idyllic”.

The music on the printed page has a radically different look from that of the Variations or Bagatelles: in Gaudí, the piece proceeds for the most part with no pulse in the conventional sense, just as the architect’s most characteristic buildings took their inspiration from features of the natural rather than architectural landscape, not least the fantastic pillars and towers of the great Montserrat outcrop. (The composer suggested once, however, that the “strongest influence on Gaudí, was Stockhausen!”) The study progresses through the interaction of five contrasting tempi and the musics associated with them: quaver = 152, with its five-chord rhythmic charge recurring throughout the piece, often associated with deep, gong-like tetrachords; dotted quaver = 152 in rapid triplets; crotchet = 76 in a single, weird passage of glassy counterpoint marked esitando on its outset; the martellato, driving but deliberate crotchet = 144–152 with its Bartókian note clusters; and quaver = 144 (in a wonderful quasi campanelli section). These combine elemental power with the delicacy of a butterfly’s wing in a fantasia of kaleidoscopic colours and sounds. The crux of the work is a short, strange, pianissimo passage marked largo possible and lontano, glassy tone, a quiet, undulating synthesis of the work’s entire process, after which follows a brief, varied recapitulation of the first two tempi’s musics—the basic cells of the work—to conclude.

By contrast with Gaudí, Aubade, written that same year, is much simpler and conventionally written though no less evocative. According to the composer, “the music derives principally from the extended use of arpeggio features and appoggiaturas, as the pianistic elements uppermost in the piece … it is intended to conjure up not so much the coming dawn … but the moment of stillness before dawn.” Its dreamy, Messiaen-like sonorities conjure up through some exotic birdsong-like inflections a captivating, if un-British dawn chorus. Again, there is an alternation of two basic elements, marked initially Lento, con rubato and pochissimo più mosso, respectively a fast-moving current of notes and a progression of static chords with grace-notes which fuse into something entirely new.

In 1979 and 1980, McCabe wrote a further pair of Studies, the Paraphrase on ‘Mary, Queen of Scots’ and Mosaic. The latter is another large-scale offering, running to around a quarter-of-an-hour as with Gaudí. Mosaic was dedicated to the Welsh composer William Mathias (another composer-pianist) and written to a commission for the 1980 North Wales Festival. As with the three preceding works in the series, there was an extra-musical aspect of the music, the beautiful mosaics in the mosques of Damascus that the composer saw during a concert tour there the previous year. The title, however, reflects equally well the process of construction. Mosaic opens slowly and quietly, quasi lontano, with a thrice-repeated five note refrain, , C# – D# – D – E – C. Alternating in slow and fast “streams”, the latter senza misura, this refrain gradually extends and modifies to form an eleven-note row: C# – D# – D – E – C – Bb – Ab – A – F# – G# – F, with only G missing. The row is not treated remotely serially—rather it is a source from which the fast “stream” develops ever more sinuous, octave-leaping lines, where notes are repeated freely and change places, but with the basic sequence holding good. Both “streams” introduce new elements, building from the row and assimilating aspects of each other, while frequently recalling earlier passages or variants on them, like the recurring patterns in a Damascene mosaic. The treatment of the material becomes ever more elaborate, the study proceeding as a fantasia-like set of dovetailed and freewheeling variations on the opening page. The climax is reached via a long, fast marcato passage that starts out over a constantly changing pulse, effectively—though not marked as such—4/4, 6/4, 3/4, 7/16, 9/16, 5/8, 3/4, before slipping the shackles of the bar-line altogether in a relentless upward-climbing crescendo. The apex is crowned by a short ostinato on the notes C# – D# – D – E – C – Bb that the player is directed to “repeat c. 10 times, with Rall[entando] towards the end”. The music then unravels back rapidly through a couple of selected variations in a kind of reverse recapitulation leading to the reprise of the opening five-note refrain, which is then unpicked note by note to leave a final C#.

Of his solo piano works, at 26 minutes in duration the longest and largest in scale is the Haydn Variations, written in 1983 for Philip Fowke to a commission from the City Music Society, London, and premiered in Goldsmith’s Hall, by the dedicatee in October that year. In layout, the Haydn Variations are rather unorthodox, even given McCabe’s highly original use of variation techniques. The Theme, taken from the first movement (Moderato) of Haydn’s Piano Sonata No 32 in G minor, Hob XVI: 44, does not appear until page 32 of the 53-page score, where it emerges pianissimo as an appendage to the preceding Lento e solenne variation. Delaying the statement of the theme to be varied, and then making it seem inconsequential, is nothing new—one need look no further than Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a theme of Paganini for a precedent—but rarely can the theme have been delayed so long. What initially sounds like the theme, the opening Vivo, con bravura, has nothing Haydnesque about it in sound, though it is a fairly straightforward brillante rhythmic transformation of the theme’s opening triplet (D – Eb – D) applied across the entire melody. The ensuing Deciso is a fugue, seeing the melody largely in terms of repeated notes, its contrasting Pochissimo meno mosso (Lirico) episode having a more gently flowing “take” on Haydn’s tune.

The variations are not clear-cut in the manner of the Op 22 set of twenty years earlier. McCabe does not number them and with good reason, since what may appear on the page as separate variations or sub-variations (nearly three dozen in all) are rather episodes in much larger sections. The composer had in mind Haydn’s “alternating variation” technique, where two themes, one each in the major and minor, were varied in parallel, though here McCabe does not alternate themes, but rather different variations of the same theme. Thus far the Deciso – Pochissimo meno mosso (Lirico) sub-variations are in fact the opening two episodes in an integrated movement within the overall composition, leading through an interchange of Presto possible, Senza misura and Deciso passages to a final Allegro. There follows immediately a fugal-sounding Vigoroso, complete in itself, where the profile of Haydn’s tune again becomes audible, though smoothed out into even crotchets and quavers. What follows is a large double variation in the form of a complex of micro-developments upon two derivations of the theme of such divergent character that they are almost alien species. The first, Accel. al Presto possibile (Tempo 1), is quiet, gently arpeggiated and moving mostly in parallel motion; the second, Lento, senza misura (Tempo 2), is a short set of three harsh chords. These then flow into and exchange facets of themselves with each other, and emerge at the other side as two quite distinct new hybrids. Each stage in the process has its own “Tempo”, each derived from a predecessor; at the conclusion the chord sequence originating in Tempo 2 has extended somewhat into a long chain of quiet, staccato chords, while the undulating contrary motion of Tempo 1 has metamorphosed into something hard and unyielding, eventually losing even its motion in a series of hammered repeated chords.

Another important feature of the work is the use of pauses. “The pauses are crucial”, the composer wrote, “the music disintegrating before turning a corner and restarting.” Something akin to a slow movement emerges from the huge double variation after just such a pause in a sequence of (apparently) eight variations. The first, Lento, is brief and introductory, the succeeding Grazioso and Lento e solenne building on elements of it, and themselves containing smaller sub-variations of their initial passages. Only after the bell-like sonorities of the Lento e solenne have died away does the Theme finally emerge at the same tempo, masked by quietly dissonant chords over the top, as if a throwaway episode of one of its own variations. This is followed by the calm of the Andante and Adagio fifth and sixth variations, which lead directly into the Lento con moto seventh, a slow, serene musing on the opening Vivo, con bravura with its dominant triplet rhythm. A clear shift of mood occurs at the start of the next variation, Andante, heralding a new movement within the larger whole. The additional markings of this new section (misterioso, murmurando) lucidly indicate its character, at least at first. Through seven notional sub-variations the music becomes less mysterious and more intense until the pace changes to Deliberato. Through a series of lengthening accelerandi, each returning to the initial tempo, a new cascading elaboration of the theme is heard high in the treble reach of the piano before subsiding into a partial recapitulation of part of the earlier Deciso section. The final variation is a quiet coda, Andante, its unhurried flow nonetheless closing the book on this highly original utterance with total satisfaction.

Guy Rickards

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