About this Recording
8.571370 - McCABE, J.: Composer, Pianist, Conductor - Symphony No. 1 / Liszt Fantasy / Studies / Tuning (Snashall, McCabe)

John McCabe (b. 1939)
Composer, Pianist, Conductor


A group of studies by various authors of the music of John McCabe was brought together and published in 2008, edited by George Odam, under the collective title Landscapes of the Mind. The book’s title was the composer’s own, which we may take as a pointer regarding what he himself feels to be the emanation of his music.

Clearly, any music initially springs from its creator’s mind—unless randomly selected by a machine—but ‘Landscapes’? Does McCabe’s use of that word imply his compositions are either one or part of a series of musical ‘pictures’? The titles of many of his works imply a certain descriptive element, but his art is neither as simple, nor as simplistic, as that, for the musical qualities of his individual scores consistently outweigh illustrative connotations, qualities that lie at the heart of McCabe’s best work and which define his stature as a greatly significant composer.

McCabe’s choice of ‘Landscapes’ was surely intended to put the listener in a suitably receptive frame of mind, which, if properly applied, may reveal the inner sense of the best of his works—music which, on the surface, might appear to pose few ‘problems’, but which, on further investigation, analysis reveals always to have had an entirely musically inspired emanation.

Symphony No. 1 ‘Elegy’

John McCabe’s First Symphony is arguably the most important of his earlier orchestral works. It is manifestly not that early in his output in terms of emerging language: indeed, it is surely a genuine bid to enter the symphonic process when he felt ready to do so. The Symphony (the first of seven) falls into three movements, and is scored for full orchestra—triple woodwind, brass (, timpani, percussion (four players) with celeste, vibraphone, xylophone, celeste, harp and strings). It begins, Lento moderato, 4/4, with a pianissimo bare F sharp spread over seven octaves, glockenspiel gently repeating the note in even crotchets, from which a slow-moving theme arises.

Several immediate variants of this theme appear, forming the broad first part of the exposition, before a second main subject arrives, followed by what we perceive as the second subject. Thus the development has begun before the ‘classical’ exposition has finished—providing one of the first examples within McCabe’s output of the influence of Haydn in his symphonic writing, and demonstrating the power of the first subject, initially somewhat innocuous in its semitone-minor third-diminished fifth melodic outline.

In classical terms, the ‘subjects’ having now been stated, the further ‘development’ evolves, this later larger section strictly falling into three parts, before coming together in a positively Mahlerian nine-note chord, wherein an ‘inner’ major triad of E flat appears to exert somewhat greater harmonic pressure; the initial Tempo primo returns for the extended coda, the final bar being a quiet pizzicato on double-basses reinforcing the vibraphone’s higher E flat, overshadowed by a pianissimo final brass chord. The Prelude is over.

The central movement, the Dance (Allegro molto) begins quietly with two simple figures on side-drum and pizzicato double-basses, in 5/4; clarinets present an initial variant of the work’s melodic parameters (as we may now call them), soon answered by flutes, off the beat, with side drum and basses reinforcing their roots. As the Dance progresses, variants of the rhythmic dichotomy are revealed, culminating in an insistent 3/2–7/4 pulse until eventually an abrupt, thudding B shuts the energy off, brought to a pitch of independent power as if conjoined, one upon the other.

The Elegy (Adagio) itself now follows, fortissimo, pesante, in 5/4, the heart of the Symphony unfolding at once in clashing major triads, heard together; it soon fades, with a solo bassoon intoning the Symphony’s opening theme, here restated and expanded—structurally echoing the first movement’s exposition. The music appears uncertain as to the final arbiter, but remains content, coalescing to an unresolved cadence, possibly on D. But from the options, cellos outline an unaccompanied theme, harmonically uncertain, and eventually a contrapuntal texture unfurls, reinforced by second and first violins, the tapestry building to reveal brass alone, heralding livelier woodwinds, who recall elements of the Dance and the Prelude.

Once again, the 5/4 Tempo primo is heard, now pianissimo, con sordino, from which string orchestral texture a solo violin detaches itself three times, ending above the stave on B with the fundamental F-sharp below, the mode remaining indeterminate as horns oscillate, as at points throughout the Symphony. A lone clarinet muses over the elegiac opening, until the final tonal arbiter to which the work has been unceasingly drawn—yet has never fully acknowledged until the concluding cellos and basses pizzicato finally accept. It is B major/minor, here experienced not so much a key as a tonal region, bound by the tightest of melodic cells and urged by the subtlest and simplest of rhythmic displacements. After almost half a century, McCabe’s First Symphony remains a remarkable achievement, held together by profound organic construction and exhibiting a direct emotional expression rare in 20th-century music and exceptional in music of its period.

Fantasy on a Theme of Liszt • Capriccio • (Study No. 1) • Sostenuto (Study No. 2)

Writing of John McCabe’s piano music in 1977, in notes accompanying the original long-playing record of these recordings, the composer, pianist and pedagogue Harold Truscott identified McCabe’s Aspects of Whiteness (1967), for chorus and piano, as being of great significance in the composer achieving a personal piano style, which Truscott felt was ‘immediately apparent in the piece which followed.’ This was the Fantasy on a theme of Liszt, ‘as near’ (Truscott continued) ‘to a sonata movement as its composer has yet written for piano’. Although a number of McCabe’s subsequent solo piano works might have equally been entitled ‘Sonata’ (so broad has the definition become), he has avoided the term. As Truscott outlined in his commentary, the work’s ‘elements are strong, including basic tonalities, but they are not insisted upon. But what is striking is that, here as in most of McCabe’s music, his dissonances act on the ear almost like consonances, and although Liszt provided the motive power for the work, in that its material is drawn from the theme of augmented triads which opens the Faust Symphony, it is Beethoven who is strongly suggested. In the quieter introduction, the fierce Allegro main idea, the slower second theme, the even fiercer development, in which for the only time the Liszt theme is fully outlined, the wonderful passage with the middle ostinato part, and the coda, the sounds continually bring third period Beethoven piano writing to mind. The work is wonderfully organic, and is a concert piece which should interest any pianist worth his salt.’

The first two of McCabe’s relatively extensive series of solo piano studies were written in 1969 and, as Truscott observed, ‘each features a particular aspect of performing or compositional technique. Capriccio is built on quick repeated notes… [which] …grow into a number of diverse yet related ideas, bound together by one figure of staccato quaver chords, and featuring, as a contrast, a chordal theme on a favourite interval: a rising and falling minor third. This grows against earlier ideas and brings the piece to its culmination. Sostenuto, as its name implies, involves types of sustained touch; again, the figure of a rising and falling minor third is prominent. Mostly it is reflective music, with more vigorous writing in the middle section.’

Robert Matthew-Walker


Tuning was commissioned by the Carnegie United Kingdom Trust for performance by the National Youth Orchestra of Scotland in recognition of the 150th Anniversary of the birth of Andrew Carnegie and of European Music Year 1985. It is scored for very large orchestra, including quadruple woodwind, six horns, two tubas, and a substantial percussion section. There are also five trumpets, who are spread out across the back of the orchestra and towards the end are instructed to stand up to play their closing fanfare-like figures.

The idea for the piece had been in my mind for some time before I was asked to write a work for this orchestra, and it derived from a moment at an ensemble concert I attended, when the assembled players on the platform were tuning up prior to giving a performance of the Mozart Serenade for 13 Wind Instruments. By sheer chance, they alighted a couple of times on rich and sonorous chords, and it is from this accident that the impulse for this piece derives. So it is that, after an A from the oboe, the strings spread outwards from the same note and arrive at one of the four main chords of the work, sustaining it while harp and tuned percussion decorate it (though with a different harmony). After this process has been repeated, the woodwind have their ‘tuning’ material, their static chord being decorated by a group of wooden percussion (xylophone, temple blocks etc.), and when the brass enter, their percussion partners are drums (timpani, bongos and tom-toms).

Needless to say, the piece goes on to develop the harmonic material stated in these ‘tuning’ sections (which are written out fairly precisely, with some degree of freedom for the players), and the themes themselves are derived from these all-important chords. The work falls into two sections, the first slow and texturally quite dense, and the second fast, making much use of repeated notes and patterns and building up to a climax at which, apart from the trumpet fanfares already mentioned, the remaining brass instruments gradually join in to lead to the closing flourish. The final chords, the only moment in the whole work at which all the performers play together, is sustained quietly on solo strings, giving the effect of a distant echo.

John McCabe

As an adjunct to the composer’s note, the critic Kenneth Walton, writing in the Glasgow Herald on January 6, 1986 regarding the performance of Tuning, reported that ‘The standard of playing was quite remarkable… all-out commitment, consummate skill (especially the wind section of which the bassoons must be the envy of many a professional orchestra), and not a little enjoyment.’

John McCabe adds (September 2014) that this was his first and last attempt at conducting a large orchestra in a public performance, and it is only fair to add that the orchestra had been previously very well rehearsed by Nicholas Braithwaite.

Close the window