John McCabe (composer)

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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 director of the London College of Music from 1983 to 1990.[1] Guy Rickards praised him as "one of Britain's finest composers in the past half-century" and "a pianist of formidable gifts and wide-ranging sympathies".[2]

Early life and education[edit]

McCabe was born in Huyton, Liverpool on 21 April 1939.[2][3][4][5][6] His father was a physicist.[7] McCabe was badly burned in an accident when he was a child and was home schooled for eight years.[1] During this time, McCabe said that there was "a lot of music in the house", which inspired his future career.[8] 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!".[8] By the age of 11 McCabe had composed 13 symphonies, but he later suppressed them, believing they were not good enough.[9][4] He subsequently attended Liverpool Institute.[7]



After studies at the Royal Manchester College of Music (now the Royal Northern) and in Munich, with composers Humphrey Procter-Gregg, Thomas Pitfield, Harald Genzmer and others,[4][1] he embarked upon a career as both a composer and a virtuoso pianist.[4][5] Guy Rickards considers McCabe's early works to have been overlooked because he was perceived as a pianist rather than a composer.[4] 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,[4][1] which was described as "an intoxicating creation, full of tingling atmosphere and slumbering passion".[1] His Concerto for Orchestra (1982) brought him international recognition,[7] but it was not until the 1990s that he came to be viewed primarily as a composer, with the successes of the piano work Tenebrae (1992–93), 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 (1993–94); and his third ballet Edward II (1995),[4] which won the 1998 Barclays Theatre Award.[1]

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.[10] 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.[7] 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.[4][7] Other significant piano works include the Haydn Variations (1983), written to commemorate the 250th anniversary of Haydn's birth.[4][1]

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 to achieve more subtle forms of continuity.[11] Rickards states that his influences included Vaughan Williams, Britten, Tippett and Karl Amadeus Hartmann,[4] and he was also influenced by non-classical music including rock and jazz.[7]

He had a long-lasting association with the Presteigne Festival, an annual classical music event held in Powys County, Wales.[12]


McCabe first became known as a pianist. His repertoire was wide, from pre-classical to modern composers.[2] He specialised in 20th Century music, particularly by English composers, and performed the UK premiere of John Corigliano's Piano Concerto.[2] He also specialised in the music of Haydn, with Gramophone Magazine praising McCabe's 1970s-era recording of Haydn's piano sonatas as "definitive" and "one of the great recorded monuments of the keyboard repertoire".[2]

He recorded several CDs with the cellist Julian Lloyd Webber.[2]

Teacher and administrator[edit]

From 1965 to 1968 McCabe was pianist‐in‐residence at University College, Cardiff.[13] 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.[4][14] He also held visiting professorships at the universities of Melbourne, Australia and Cincinnati, USA during the 1990s.[4] Among his notable pupils is Canadian composer Gary Kulesha.[15]


McCabe wrote guides to the music of Haydn, Bartók and Rachmaninoff, and a book on contemporary English composer Alan Rawsthorne.[4]


McCabe was appointed a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 1985 for his services to music.[10][4] He was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Liverpool.[1]

In 2014, McCabe won the Classical Music Award at the 59th Ivor Novello Awards.[16]

Personal life[edit]

He married Monica Smith, a former head of the Sittingbourne Music Society, in 1974.[17][7] In December 2012 McCabe was diagnosed with a brain tumour. He continued to compose music during his treatment.[17][18]

John McCabe died after a long illness on 13 February 2015.[1]

Career highlights and awards[edit]

Key works[edit]

  • Three Folk Songs, Op. 19 (1963; soprano, clarinet, piano)
  • 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)
  • Images (1978; brass band)
  • 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)
  • Salamander (1994; brass band)
  • 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)
  • The Maunsell Forts (2002; brass band)
  • 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



  • McCabe, John Alan Rawsthorne: Portrait of a Composer (Oxford University Press; 1999) ISBN 0-19-816693-1


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i "Composer and pianist John McCabe dies aged 75". BBC News. 13 February 2015. Retrieved 28 January 2021.
  2. ^ a b c d e f "Composer John McCabe has died". Gramophone. 13 February 2015. Retrieved 28 January 2021.
  3. ^ Randel, Don Michael, ed. (1996). "McCabe, John". The Harvard Biographical Dictionary of Music. Cambridge and London: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. ISBN 9780674372993.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n Rickards, Guy (2001). "McCabe, John". In Sadie, Stanley; Tyrrell, John (eds.). The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians (2nd ed.). London: Macmillan. ISBN 9780195170672.
  5. ^ a b "John McCabe, Pianist and Composer Dies Aged 75". Classic FM. 13 February 2015. Retrieved 19 January 2019.
  6. ^ Venn, Edward (10 January 2019). "McCabe, John (1939–2015)". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online). doi:10.1093/odnb/9780198614128.013.109124. Retrieved 11 October 2019.
  7. ^ a b c d e f g "John McCabe, Composer: Obituary". The Telegraph. 13 February 2015. Retrieved 20 January 2019.
  8. ^ a b Coghlan, Alexandre. 5 June 2014. "Interview: John McCabe". M Magazine (accessed 19 January 2019).
  9. ^ "John Mccabe". Retrieved 28 January 2021.
  10. ^ a b Anon. 2014. John McCabe 1939-2015 British. Wise Music Classical (accessed 18 August 2014).
  11. ^ Maycock, Robert. 1989. "Variations on a Form: John McCabe's String Quartets". The Musical Times 130, no. 1757 (July): 386–88. p. 386.
  12. ^ "History of the Festival". Presteigne Festival. Retrieved 28 January 2021.
  13. ^ Kennedy, Michael. 2006. The Oxford Dictionary of Music, second edition, revised. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-861459-4.
  14. ^ 2017. London College of Music History. University of West London website (accessed 19 January 2019).
  15. ^ Horgan, Alan, and Evan Ware. 2008. "Gary Kulesha". The Canadian Encyclopedia (accessed 19 January 2019).
  16. ^ Davidson, Amy. 2014. "The Ivor Novello Awards 2014: Winners in Full" DigitalSpy (22 May; accessed 20 January 2019).
  17. ^ a b Robinson, Hayley. 2 August 2013. "Poorly Composer John McCabe's Delight as His Music Features at Proms" KentOnline website (accessed 20 January 2019).
  18. ^ McCabe, Monica. 2013. "Composing in Adversity". Musical Opinion 136, n. 1496 (September–October): 12–13. Reprinted, as "Composer in Adversity", on the composer’s website (accessed 19 January 2016).
  19. ^ "HAYDN The Piano Sonatas John McCabe". Retrieved 28 January 2021.
  20. ^ "ISM Distinguished Musician Award". ISM. Retrieved 28 January 2021.
  21. ^ "Long-standing ISM member John McCabe CBE awarded The Ivors Classical…". ISM. Retrieved 28 January 2021.


  • Beale, Catherine. 2010. A Festival History Presteigne Festival website (accessed 20 January 2019).
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.

External links[edit]