John McCabe (1939-2015)

British composer and pianist has died, aged 75

John McCabe (Gareth Arnold)

An all-round musician, John McCabe was a well-respected contemporary composer and a virtuoso pianist – particularly renowned for his Haydn recordings. He was director of the London College of Music from 1983 to 1990, and also published several books about music, including guides to Bartók and Rachmaninov.

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Born in Huyton, Liverpool in 1939, McCabe instantly took to music. His mother was an amateur violinist, and theirs was a musical household. By the age of 11 he had composed 13 symphonies. He later described them as ‘absolute rubbish’, adding that he’d destroyed most of them. But this ability to write prolifically never left him: his catalogue numbers more than 200 works, in a wide variety of genres. His pieces include seven symphonies, a children’s opera The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe and seven string quartets.

Studies at the Royal Manchester College of Music and in Munich with composer Harald Genzmer paved the way for his professional career. A stint as resident pianist at University College, Cardiff, coincided with his first successes as a composer with the Hallé. The First Violin Concerto (1959), Variations on a Theme of Hartmann (1964) and Symphony No. 1 (1965) all helped put his music on the British musical map.

Asked to define the McCabe style, the late writer Michael Kennedy said: ‘He has flirted with serialism, drawn inspiration from rock and jazz and in some recent works has nodded in the direction of minimalism.’

‘McCabe’s music is on the whole life-enhancing, optimistic, but in almost every work there comes an explosive, eruptive moment as if some dark fear returns to haunt his creative intelligence. … One can never take a McCabe work for granted.’

Recent works included Christ's Nativity, commissioned and performed by the Hallé Choir in 2014; his Seventh String Quartet (2012); and his Seventh Symphony (207), premiered by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra.

His series of Haydn piano sonatas recordings, made for Decca between 1974 and 1976, was highly praised. And as a pianist his extensive discography ranged from Scarlatti to Saxton, Mozart to Moeran.

John McCabe was awarded the CBE in 1985 for his services to British music. Liverpool University gave him an honorary doctorate in 2006, and last year he won the Ivor Novello award for classical music.

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Photo: Gareth Arnold