Obituary: John McCabe CBE, composer and pianist

John McCabe: Composer whose works towered in scale and ambition
John McCabe: Composer whose works towered in scale and ambition
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Born: 21 April, 1939, in Liverpool. Died: 13 February, 2015, in London, aged 75

John McCabe was a prolific composer of much sensitivity who wrote works for a wide variety of ensembles. He was renowned as the composer of such ballets as Mary, Queen of Scots for Scottish Ballet and the epic ­Edward II for Birmingham Royal Ballet. McCabe was also an acclaimed pianist recording all the piano sonatas of Haydn (which the influential Gramophone magazine called, “one of the great recorded monuments of the keyboard repertoire”) and the complete piano music of Carl Nielsen – both are recognised as landmarks in his career.

His compositions were noted for their energy, imagination and inventiveness and his music abounded with rhythm and colour. Many consider his two greatest works were his Concerto for Orchestra and The Chagall Windows. The former was premiered in 1983 under Sir Georg Solti with the London Philharmonic Orchestra. The Chagall Windowss was premiered in 1974 by the LPO under Bernard Haitink and ­confirmed McCabe as a major composer.

McCabe often visited Scotland for significant performances of his music. The Scottish Ballet commission for Mary, Queen of Scots in 1976 was a major challenge: a full length and grandly conceived work choreographed by then artistic director Peter ­Darrell. McCabe avoided relying on Scottish folk music and, instead, did much historical research on the characters and depicted their varying personalities in his music.

McCabe made a strong impression with Tuning, which was given its premiere by the National Youth Orchestra of Scotland in 1986. It was to celebrate the European Music Year and was scored for a large orchestra (including quadruple woodwind). It was a hugely dramatic piece with five extra trumpets standing up to play a fanfare at the work’s conclusion. The NYOS were in tremendous form and well up to the challenge.

That debut, with McCabe conducting, was given at the Albert Hall, Stirling, and later performed at Glasgow City Hall. Of the recording, a critic wrote: “The performance is technically fluent and enters into the playful spirit of the work.”

The BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra had a close and regular association with McCabe dating from 1971 when they premiered, in the studio, under Andrew Davis the Concerto funèbre. Other BBC SSO concerts on stage or for R3 included Notturni ed Alba in 1981 with Norman del Mar and the Suite from Mary, Queen of Scots under George Hurst in 1987. His final appearance with the orchestra was in 2006 when he recorded his Piano Concerto No.1. The Royal Scottish National Orchestra was also a keen supporter of McCabe’s music, performing The Chagall Windows in 1977 and the Clarinet Concerto the following year with Jane Hilton as soloist – to whom the concerto was dedicated.

McCabe displayed a marked musical talent – especially on the piano – from an early age. An accident in which he suffered burns gave him more time to study music. This he continued at the Royal Northern College of Music and the Liverpool Institute for the Performing Arts where, a few years behind him, were Paul McCartney and George Harrison.

McCabe then read music at Manchester University and did a postgraduate at the Royal Manchester College. During these years he found success with his early compositions and his first violin concerto was premiered by the Hallé Orchestra in 1959. After three years study in Munich, his first symphony (the Elegy) was given its debut again by the Hallé under Sir John Barbirolli in 1965. McCabe developed a remarkable ability to score huge compositions (over 200 in all), many influenced by the greats of the 20th century: Britten, Tippett and Stravinsky.

In the 1990s he found wider recognition when his facility to score large works was seen to remarkable effect – notably in his Fourth Symphony.

McCabe, who was awarded the CBE in 1985, had many interests. He was an avid movie goer and keen cricket fan – watching Test matches on TV and composing with equal enthusiasm. Last year, he won the Ivor Novello award for classical music.

He suffered a brain tumour some years ago but continued to compose. His final work, Christ’s Nativity, was commissioned by the Hallé Choir and premiered in Manchester in December. He married Hilary Tann in 1968; the marriage was dissolved in 1972. Two years later he married Monica Smith, who survives him.