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McCabe in Conversation

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

3. Repertoire

 << Continued from part 2 

CM: In your performing you like to include in your repertoire composers that perhaps need a little bit of an extra shove, or perhaps an introduction to a listening public which hasn't really come to grips with their music. For example, you gave an important Messiaen première in Australia.

JM: Oh yes, the Sept Haïkaï, which is a very tough piece. I rather over-did Messiaen when I was a student. I discovered him and overindulged, and it had rather the effect that it did when I first overindulged in cider - I couldn't drink cider for many years. [laughter] But Messiaen's toughest pieces I still like for some reason, and that is one which I have great delight in playing - I'm playing it again next year in Spain.

JM: The thing is, that I think the general repertoire is much too narrow, and I don't only include contemporary works in that. I include things like overtures by Schumann or Weber. If you get a Weber overture, it's going to be Der Freischütz or Oberon - probably. It almost certainly won't be Peter Schmoll or one of the lesser known ones. If you get a Mendelssohn overture it's almost certainly not going to be The Fair Melusine or Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage - it'll be The Hebrides or Midsummer Night's Dream, and I think that so much richness has gone out of the repertoire, for whatever reason - I think there are many contributory factors.

JM: I remember one extremely distinguished conductor telling me he walked out of the programme planning session meeting of his orchestra committee, because they'd got Eric Leinsdorf coming as a guest conductor, and they spent an hour and a half discussing whether he should conduct the overture Der Freischütz or the overture Euryanthe, because half the committee said Der Freischütz was standard repertoire and they must pick that, and half of them said 'well Euryanthe is hardly ever done and it's a splendid piece' and they were arguing for an hour and a half, and he said 'Look, I've got better things to do'. They should have just done Euryanthe of course. You apply that right across the board. You apply it to big symphonies and concertos, you apply it to the all-Tchaikovsky programme - why don't they do Hamlet instead of Romeo and Juliet?

CM: That's a good piece.

JM: You know, It's a terrific piece. You can still do the B flat minor and the Pathétique, and I don't think the fact that they do Hamlet is going to lose one ticket sale. But they don't do that - oh no - Tchaikovsky programme - got to be popular - Romeo and Juliet. It's a sort of pavlovian dog syndrome, and I think it's really damaged music, because I think in every programme there should be something which, if not unknown to the audience, is at least less familiar, because, you go along to a concert, if you know the style of the composer but you hear a terrific piece which you haven't heard before, or which is less familiar, it widens your horizon, however minutely, and that has to be a good thing, because it makes the other pieces fresh - it keeps them fresher - it casts a new light on them, and if, for example - I always reckoned if you're a conductor conducting the Eroica symphony, or any Beethoven, I think you'd probably do it probably much better if you know, say, Lutoslawsky's third symphony or Robert Simpson's ninth, because they reflect back on things which derive from the Beethoven symphonies. So you go back to the Beethoven with a new insight, because of what is in so many different ways what stems from his work, and he stems from Haydn and many other things, so it's part of the process, and if you restrict yourself to doing just Beethoven, I think that you're actually too narrow.

CM: Right John, you've mentioned the H word - Haydn, [Laughter] and that leads on ever so neatly, thank you very much, to the next question I want to ask you. Your devotion to Haydn is well known - you've made twelve CDs which feature all his piano sonatas, and you've composed a major solo piano piece based on a theme from a Haydn sonata, and I was talking about you in terms of this kind of extremely practical hands-on musician in all sorts of ways - composer, performer, an administrator - and similarly too, with Haydn, do you feel any particular affinity with him? Do you feel as though you and he have got some sort of link in the same kind of world and the same kind of ball-game?

JM: Well I suppose yes I probably do. I've always, even when I was a child, I got onto the Haydn symphonies - only certain obvious ones, but I always enjoyed those particularly, and I bought 78s of the Military Symphony, for instance, which I went for, rather than doing the obvious thing and buying a Mozart. I think there's always been an attraction to his music, and indeed to his personality - I would love to have met him. There are two composers I would like to have met - Carl Nielsen is the other, and I suppose that I feel that there is a kinship. He's had a terrific influence on my own music. I mean I like to use very small motifs and get the maximum out of them that I can, and I think that derives from studying his music. I'm not sure how far one should take the business of a kinship though, because I don't actually feel the spirit of Haydn hovering over my shoulder when I play his music - in fact I curse him from time to time when I'm practising - but I don't feel the shadow, you know, that he's over my shoulder or that I can talk to him, though there are many things I'd like to ask.

CM: Your piano variations on him are absolutely extraordinary because they don't actually allow us to hear in its original form - the theme that you're using - until we're at least half way through, and it happens on page 32 of the score and it's a quote from the 32nd sonata.

JM: Yes that's right.

CM: Is that a co-incidence ...

JM: Absolutely

CM: ... or did you plan it like that? [laughter]

JM: I didn't realise that. Good gracious. Well it must be, you see there are more things in Heaven and Earth ...

CM: Perhaps it's Haydn having a joke with you there?

JM: Yes. [laughter] I really would like to meet him.

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

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