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John McCabe's musical contribution
as seen by Basil Ramsey

John McCabe - photograph Copyright (C) Verity ButlerMy encounters with composers earlier in my career included many now still living, should I have given the false impression that I was active in this way more than a lifetime ago! As John McCabe has been in the news recently arising out of his 60th birthday tributes, it gives me an opportunity to pay my respects to one of the few musical all-rounders that manages to do everything so well. I eagerly await his study of Alan Rawsthorne to be published shortly; I also look forward to listening to the new CD of his string quartets.

John has always managed to juggle aspects of musical professionalism so well that I have often thought of him as a cluster of talents in a single body. Composition is his chief concern most of the time, with many extraordinarily sensitive works to justify that remark. The first symphony firmly placed him on the British musical map: it was played, it was recorded, and it became the basis of a successful ballet.

John knows my estimation of his output was centered upon Notturni ed Alba. Written for Sheila Armstrong, it was premièred at the Three Choirs Festival at Hereford in the sixties, and later recorded with Jill Gomez. Such a work of penetrating power and acute evocation of the hours of darkness culminating in dawnbreak does not deserve the neglect that has followed its encouraging start in life.

As a pianist, McCabe long ago made a stir with his recording of the Haydn piano sonatas for Decca. His particular strength was in comprehension of the music, which arguably comes from a composer's intuition for another composer's invention.

Way beyond this, his pianistic prowess has always been inclusive of excellent but neglected piano music of most periods. A composer-pianist is an amalgam of gifts specifically beneficial to a listener.

In the way that artistic talent develops and matures, often without regard for public adulation, McCabe has enjoyed a vibrant musical life and accumulated a lengthy opus list, thereby enjoying the fruits of a multi-faceted intensity for musical creation and performance. There are such musicians elsewhere, living and creating out of the same musical ambience without whom the musical world would be disastrously incomplete. Those who are continuously at the cutting edge of new music have a different role to play, sometimes pioneering from a deserted landscape.

Copyright © Basil Ramsey, June 28th 1999


The John McCabe website is at

John McCabe's famous recording of the complete solo keyboard works of Josef Haydn is available as a twelve CD set on London 4437852


Three CDs of McCabe's music have been issued
to celebrate John's 60th Birthday:

String Quartets 3,4,5

The Vanbrugh Quartet

Hyperion CDA67078      DDD        68'15



The Chagall Windows
Hallé Orchestra/James Loughran

Notturni ed alba
Jill Gomez
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra/Louis Frémaux

Symphony No. 2
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra/Louis Frémaux

EMI Classics CDM 5 67120 2      ADD       75'20



John McCabe Piano Music
performed by the composer

5 Bagatelles
Haydn Variations

British Music Society BMS424CD      76'08

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