Music and Vision homepage


McCabe in Conversation

Composer John McCabe talks to the Chief Music Critic of the Birmingham Post, Christopher Morley

 << Continued from part 1 

CM: I hope you won't be offended if I perhaps describe you John as a very traditional kind of journeyman type of musician - composer, performer, an administrator - you've had seven years I believe as head of the London College of Music - and a writer too - you've got a new book on Alan Rawsthorne hot off the presses, yes?

JM: I think it's hot on the press at the moment, but it will be, they tell me.

CM: Yes, it was announced for August I think, wasn't it?

JM: I know.

CM: Mine hasn't come yet either - my review copy. Could I ask you why you've chosen to write a book about Rawsthorne?

JM: Well, the short answer is that I was asked to do so, of course, but it arose really because I knew Rawsthorne for many years - he died in 1971. I first met him when I was ten, I think - nine or ten. Probably nine. My piano teacher for many many years - I studied with Gordon Green, who lived in Liverpool until his last few years. I studied with him for seventeen years, which is very unusual for a pianist - you usually move on to somebody else after a while, but I stayed with Gordon, and I lived around the corner from him in Liverpool. Alan Rawsthorne was just about his closest friend. So when Alan had pieces played at the Philharmonic, which was quite regularly, he would stay with Gordon and I would meet him. The first time I met him I was already as a child hooked on his music, and later on I kept in touch and as I became a professional musician I played a lot of his works - I think I've played about twelve of his works, some of them many times, and I've never lost my love of the music and my sense of personal involvement with it.

So when the Rawsthorne Trust was looking for somebody to write a book about him, having written books and proved I could put sentences together, they thought it would be a good idea to ask me to do it. It's the first full-length book I've written - I'm not a biographer, but there is a disadvantage with Alan, which in my case turned out to be an advantage. It's a disadvantage for a proper biographer in that there is really no life to write about - I mean he did very little. He had a fairly convoluted private life but there's a limit to the mileage that you can get out of that, and I wanted to be fairly discrete about that because some of the people involved are still alive. He did drink too much, and that really is about all you can say about his life - he travelled very little. He never went to the United States. He went to Canada once and hated it because it was dry at the time.

CM: Dry in terms of the weather or the alcohol?

JM: In terms of the alcohol because it was a dry part of Canada he went to. He was an absolutely delightful man - he was a real sweetheart, I mean everybody - I can think of one person who didn't get on with him, but everybody else got on with him very well. He was very generous, very courteous, very funny - a very dry wit, he was very erudite, he knew far more English literature than many English teachers do, and I always thought that he was a really first class composer.

There isn't much biography to write, which suits me. The story of his life is told fairly simply, and you can concentrate on the music. There are of course some personal traumas which are dealt with in the book, in so far as one can, but without actually interviewing him about them - putting him on the psychiatrist's couch, you can't really do more than just mention certain facts. So it's basically a book about his music, which suits me fine. A conventional biography would be terribly difficult because he didn't write letters. He lived on the phone, and so there's very little written evidence, and not all of that is shown to people.

CM: So you said that he was often performed at the Liverpool Phil. and about twelve of his pieces have been in your own performing repertoire, and yet now he is something of a neglected composer, and I seem to sense that you have a certain feeling of solidarity, or that you feel it's your duty almost, to advocate these composers that you feel have been unjustly neglected - people like Karl Amadeus Hartmann, for example. His music was the subject of one of your own earliest orchestral compositions.

JM: Yes, Variations on a Theme of Hartmann.

CM: And, even although it seems impossible to credit it now, you were also an early advocate of the music of Rachmaninov at a time when he was really rather sneered at ...

JM: Yes, he was.

CM: ... which is an incredible thing for us now to think.

JM: Novellos, my music publisher, had a series of things called short biographies, which were thirty-two pages - quite small. Very useful little books, and they asked me to do one on Rachmaninov, and I'd always been keen on Rachmaninov, even the symphonies. I can remember as a child listening to the second symphony and being bowled over by it - a wonderful piece.

CM: Probably the cut version then, I should think.

JM: It was the cut version, yes. When I grew up and started reading criticisms of music and books about music, and they were so snooty about these pieces - I couldn't understand it. Again when I was asked to write that book I was delighted because it gave me the opportunity of exploring the works I didn't know. And what goes around comes around, as it were - he's become much more fashionable. I do remember, and I can't remember which director of the Proms it was - I don't know, fifteen years ago or twenty years ago, maybe - the introduction to the Proms syllabus making the policy statement that they were only going to have masterpieces at the Proms, and that that is why works, and even popular works like Rachmaninov's 2nd Piano Concerto were not included. I thought that was an appalling thing to do, and I really wish I could remember who was responsible because I'd name him. I thought it was an appallingly snobbish and really rather stupid remark, because I think the Rachmaninov 2nd Piano concerto is a masterpiece.

CM: Absolutely, yes.

Copyright © Christopher Morley / John McCabe, August 29th 1999
(Transcription from taped conversation by Keith Bramich)

 << Music & Vision homepage       Continue >>       John McCabe website >>