Composer / Pianist  John  McCabe

Two Conversations with Bruce Duffie


I am known for doing long interviews, and I make no apologies for it!  A number of people have mentioned it, and indeed, when being cited in the British magazine OPERA as part of their tribute on the death of critic Andrew Porter, they referred readers to
“a long 1988 interview conducted by the Chicago broadcaster Bruce Duffie.”  [As usual, names on this webpage which are links refer to my Interviews elsewhere on my website.]  Since this page presents two conversations with my guest, you are forewarned that it is unusually long, even by my own standards.  It is my hope, however, that the material will be of sufficient interest and importance to make it all worthwhile.  The selections of recording covers, though not arbitrary, is meant to be illustrative rather than all-inclusive.

First, a tribute made to McCabe at the time of his death . . . . .

John McCabe obituary

by John Turner, The Guardian, Friday, 13 February, 2015
[Text only - photos and links added for this wepbage presentation]

Prolific composer and pianist of international standing

The gifted English composer and pianist John McCabe, who has died aged 75, was a remarkably rounded musician who was responsible for more than 200 compositions and pursued a busy solo career over several decades.

As a pianist of international standing, he inspired many composers, including John Casken, Sir Richard Rodney Bennett and George Benjamin, to write solos and concertos for him. He relished accompanying, and formed partnerships with Julian Lloyd Webber (cello), Erich Gruenberg (violin), Ifor James (horn) and the singer Jane Manning.


His first recording, a 1967 LP of songs by Charles Ives, Alexander Goehr and Gerard Schurmann, with the American soprano Marni Nixon, was both pioneering and revelatory, not least because Ives was largely ignored at that time. But McCabe’s Haydn piano sonatas and the complete piano music of Carl Nielsen are probably his most lasting pianistic legacy. McCabe’s technique was immaculate, sensitive and unshowy, as faithful as possible to the composer’s intentions. His preparation of scores was extremely thorough, often with every note fingered in pencil.


His compositional work is particularly noteworthy for its sense of colour; in the orchestral works there is often a striking use of percussion and brass to create ear-tickling sonorities, as in the much-admired orchestral song cycle Notturni ed Alba (1970).

Landscape was frequently an inspiration for him; one of his best-loved works was the brass band piece Cloudcatcher Fells (1985), which reflected a lifelong love of the Lake District, while his series of “desert and rainforest” works drew on foreign landscapes relished on his worldwide trips.

McCabe’s compositions covered most of the established forms, with the exception of grand opera, and included seven symphonies, three piano concertos, and concertos for most orchestral instruments. Also for piano, he composed a series of 13 studies, as well as the large-scale Tenebrae (1993) and Haydn Variations (1983). He leaves five full-length ballets, including Edward II (1995), commissioned by the Stuttgart Ballet, and Arthur Pendragon (1999) and Morte d’Arthur (2000), both for the Birmingham Royal Ballet. He wrote chamber music and choral music in abundance, as well as several sets of light educational pieces.

McCabe regarded his composing and piano playing as equally balanced elements of his musical personality. But in addition he was a perceptive author on musical subjects, and an effective political crusader for British music and performers. His writings included the definitive life and works of his friend Alan Rawsthorne, and BBC Music Guides on the Haydn piano sonatas and Béla Bartók’s orchestral music. He was president of the British Music Society and the Rawsthorne Trust, and a patron of the William Alwyn Foundation. He also fought tenaciously with the Performing Rights Society for the interests of composers.

McCabe was born in Huyton, near Liverpool. His father, Frank, was a research physicist, working on the development of transistors, and was one of the four children of Joseph McCabe, the free-thinking writer. His mother, Elisabeth Herlitzius, a talented watercolourist, was of German descent and came to England in the early 1920s with her father, an inventor of confectionery recipes.

John was the only child of their marriage, and showed great precocity as a pianist and composer from the age of six. A childhood accident with fire in the home resulted in much time off school, which allowed his musical gifts to develop quickly. When he was eight he started piano lessons with Gordon Green, the well-known Liverpool pianist, at the Royal Manchester (now Royal Northern) College of Music, and he remained Green’s piano pupil for 17 years. His general schooling was at the Liverpool Institute (now the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts), where his younger contemporaries included Paul McCartney and George Harrison. McCabe’s light-hearted recorder and piano piece Domestic Life (2000), with its catchy Merseybeat tunes, recalled those formative Liverpool years.

He entered Manchester University to read music, and took lessons from the composer Thomas Pitfield, who was so astonished at his pupil’s facility that he maintained he could compose a piece on the top deck of a bus. He then went to the Royal Manchester College for a four-year postgraduate diploma in piano and composition. Many of his early successes date from this period: his Violin Concerto No 1 (1959) was played by Martin Milner with the Hallé Orchestra, and Variations on a Theme of Hartmann (1964) was taken up by the Hallé as a repertoire piece for many years.


After a year studying in Munich, from 1965 to 1968 McCabe was pianist in residence at Cardiff University, another fruitful period for composition, including Symphony No 1 (1965) performed by the Hallé under John Barbirolli, and the children’s opera The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (1968), after CS Lewis. From 1968 onwards, he lived and worked in London, then Kent, as a freelance composer and pianist, although he also had a spell as director of the London College of Music from 1983 to 1990 and subsequent short tenures as a visiting professor at the universities of Melbourne and Cincinnati. He was appointed CBE in 1985.

McCabe’s last completed works were a Proms commission, Joybox (2013), a choral work for the Hallé, Christ’s Nativity (2014), and a trumpet sonata. He was contemplating an eighth symphony, two more string quartets, and solo pieces for cello and piano.

John married Hilary Tann in 1968; they were divorced in 1972. Two years later he married Monica Smith, who survives him.

• John McCabe, composer and pianist, born 21 April 1939; died 13 February 2015

Another tribute (with surprisingly little duplication) appears at the bottom of this webpage.

We met for our first interview on October 6, 1986.  He was in Chicago briefly, and graciously took time from his hectic schedule.  Subsequently we stayed in touch by letter, most of which were typed and signed.  The one shown here, however, was dashed off while he was awaiting his flight out of JFK in NYC.  He knew I was a nightowl, so he noted that it was the crack of dawn!


As can be seen, he generously helped in arranging further interviews with his friends Richard Rodney Bennett and Malcolm Williamson, who held the title Master of the Queen
’s Music. 

McCabe was in Chicago on a couple more occasions, and as shown in a second letter reproduced midway down this webpage, we
agreed to see each other again in the spring of 1998. 

Here is the first interview . . . . . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:    Are you on a tour around this area?

John McCabe:    I was in Detroit.  There was concert of my chamber music yesterday with The Detroit Contemporary Chamber Ensemble.  They did three chamber works and I played a piano piece, and I did a few lectures last week.  Now I’ve got this recital, and then a few other lectures on this trip.  It’s going to be little more relaxing than usual as I shall actually have a bit of time off in New York, which is unusual because usually it is frantic.

BD:    You’re a pianist and you’re a composer, so what do you do on your time off?  Do you practice?  Do you write?  Both?  None?

mccabeJMcC:    I never have time off, really.  I very occasionally manage to get away for a short holiday
maybe once every two yearsand I like to go walking.  This year we did have a holiday, and we came over and went on a tour in the westthe Grand Canyon and Yosemite and all that, which I thought I’m never going to see when I’m over here working.  I might see one of them if I’m lucky but not as a vacation.  Then I read books and I watch films.  I’m very interested in cricket!

BD:    I know nothing about cricket I’m afraid!

JMcC:    Well now isn’t the time to learn because it would take a long time to explain. [Both laugh]

BD:    Then how do you balance your career between performing and composing?

JMcC:    I balance it by doing whatever I have to do next.  That’s the simple answer really.

BD:    Who sets up the calendar of what comes next?

JMcC:    I do.  If I’ve got a whole pile of concerts to do, I practice and rehearse and so on.  When they’re over I go back to composing, and I’ve got an academic position as well.  I direct the London College of Music, which occupies a fair amount of time.  That’s an interesting job because I took it on the basis that they wanted me because I’m a musician and not an academic or an administrator.  They wanted ideas from the music profession.  I said there’s no point in me giving up my work as a musician in order to take this on because they want me, so they agreed and they made me an offer I could not refuse really.  I said I would come in two days a week
plus obvious extrasand basically they told me the administration would done and I’d be able to pursue my own work.  In a sense it’s very good for the College that they somebody who is publicly a musician all the time.  So it works out like that.   It’s pretty hectic, but it’s fun.

BD:    So you manage though to keep these areas separate?

JMcC:    Oh, yes!  I’m very organized.  It may not seem so, but I am pretty organized.  I have to be, really.  A composer ought to be able to organize.  Not all composers can, but they’re organizing all the time.

BD:    Organizing sounds and rhythms etc.? 

JMcC:    Yes, everything about the score. 

BD:    What do you expect of the audience who comes to see a performance of a composition of yours?

JMcC:    What I would like is for them to respond, and I would actually like them to enjoy the music.  I’m not one of those composers who say I don’t care what the audience thinks.  I don’t think of the audience when I’m writing, but I do when I’ve finished.  I feel I’ve got something to say to them, at least I hope I have.  I would like to feel they’re willing to make that little bit of effort necessary to allow themselves to respond to a language which might be new to them.  I’m not a particularly avant-garde composer but my music is new, and therefore it’s not familiar to them.  I’d like to feel that they actually make that little bit of effort.  It doesn’t require that much. 

BD:    What kind of a label do you like to put on your music
if any?

JMcC:    I don’t really like to put anything on, but I would say mainstream because I regard myself as a true progressive.  I’m not a radical in terms of creating a new school of thought.  I’m one of those composers who likes to take from whatever schools of thought they feel they can, and that’s relevant to what they’re writing.  So I’m more an integrator than an explorer.  That’s my basic standpoint.  It’s important that the mainstream of music should be propelled forwards, and it always has been propelled forwards by that kind of process.

mccabeBD:    If you do not write for the public, for whom do you write?

JMcC:    I write the kind of music that I would like to be hearing.

BD:    So you write for yourself?

JMcC:    Hmmm... to an extent.  But I would be very unhappy writing for myself and putting the music in a drawer.  I think I might give up composing if that had to be the way.

BD:    Are you surprised where a composition of yours winds up?

JMcC:    No, never!  Because when I start, I know exactly how it’s going to end, and I know what it is.  It’s a question of actually working out the detail.  I’ve always got a very clear game plan of the piece before I start.  I don’t have to go through the process as some composers have to do with working it all out on paper.  I do go through the same process, but it’s purely mental rather than physically on paper.

BD:    Are you the ideal interpreter of your works?

JMcC:    No!  Definitely not!

BD:    Are you ever surprised by what you hear when other people play your works?

JMcC:    Yes, I am!  And usually gratified because they’ve brought something of their own to it.  There are certain things which you can’t write down, which the performer brings to the music.  You can’t write them down; they’re part of the whole process, and I’m really very pleased when that happens, and people do that.  A composer very easily just forgets about putting music across the audience.  There are enough surprises for the composer in the music.

BD:    Do you feel that being a performer you put your ideas better on paper because you know the secrets of performing, especially in the piano literature?

JMcC:    I hope so, yes.  I’ve got a fairly practical mind when it comes to writing music down and making it clear what I want.   It’s tricky, though, because every performer has slightly different preferences to the way they’d like things written down.  The composer thinks he’s written something very clearly, and somebody says it would be much simpler if you’d written this way or that way.  So it doesn’t follow through entirely.

BD:    Are you a better performer because you are also a composer?

JMcC:    Yes, I think so.  I hope so.

BD:    When you’re playing Haydn do you think like a composer?

JMcC:    I think I do, yes.  Actually I found that when I start learning a piece, I very seldom feel compelled to go and read about it.  If I feel I’m compelled to read about the piece before learning it, I shouldn’t be learning that piece.  When I’ve started learning a piece, and then gone and read about it, just out of curiosity not necessity, I found very often that I got no surprises at all, that I knew everything that I read about the piece instinctively.  I’m sure because I’m a composer.  It’s the only reason for it.

mccabeBD:    When people write about your music, should that be read before people come to the concerts?

JMcC:    Ah, that is difficult!  I don’t really think so.  If people are given some sort of clue to what the music is about, some sort of peg to hang onto while listening to it, that’s all they need.  Details don’t matter.

BD:    So you don’t go in for copious program notes?

JMcC:    No!  I find copious program notes by composers very off-putting very often because they’re too technical, and most of the audience really couldn’t care less whether the theme is heard backwards in the fifth bar.  They really couldn’t care two hoots about that.

BD:    They just care about what it sounds like?

JMcC:    That’s right.  That’s what it is.  It’s sound, and emotion expressed through sound, and experience expressed.  The technical details are purely a means to that end, and it’s really largely irrelevant for the audience.  Certain obvious formal things help, but more than that, no.

BD:    So when you’re composing you actually hear it in your head?  It’s not just a visual thing?

JMcC:    Hearing it in the head is a rather difficult phrase, but I think I do, yes.  I know exactly what it’s going to sound like.  I do actually write away from the piano.  I don’t use the piano ever when I’m composing, so that I can see the music taking shape.  If I use the piano, I keep playing my favorite bits instead of getting on with it.  [Laughs]  It’s true, it’s true.  Oh, I like that so I’ll play it again, and you lose the line of the music, which is very important. 

BD:    Is it off-putting for the audience to find a favorite bit and then have it go on to something else?

JMcC:    I don’t know quite honestly!  I can’t really separate myself.  I’d have to put myself in the position of the audience listening to something else.  [Thinks a moment]  No, I don’t think so!  You want to hear it again if there’s a bit which you particularly like and then it disappears.  You might be rather sorry it’s gone, but you want to hear it again.  So you go back to the piece, hopefully.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    When you’re preparing a work for a concert, is it different than when you’re preparing for a recording?

JMcC:    No, not at all.  Recording should be performance.  Of course you hear everybody say this, but it’s true.  A recording should be a performance with retakes to smooth out the odd roughness.  But basically it should be a complete thing.

BD:    Can recordings then be made too perfect?

JMcC:    I don’t know.  I suppose so.  I’ve never heard one.  I’m thinking of someone like Karajan, who obviously wants to be perfect, but the thing is he’s never succeeded. 

BD:    Even though they’re less than perfect, do they set up an impossible standard that you can
’t duplicate in the concert hall?

JMcC:    Yes, I think they do.  The accidents will happen, and that’s part of the fun. 

BD:    Really???

JMcC:    Well... avoiding the accidents, yes.  [Laughs]

BD:    So from the performer
s point of view it’s fun avoiding the accidents, but from the listeners point of view is it fun to find the accidents?

mccabeJMcC:    It might be, yes.  The accidents occur for all sorts of reasons and become part of the piece.  And the audience becomes part of the piece.  The tempo changes slightly because of the acoustics, because of the audience, because of the cricket scores that day in my case.  If England is doing very well I might play faster... but all sorts of things go up to make a performance, and of course in recording that doesn’t happen so much.  The acoustics might be better, but you take away the audience and you’ve taken away part of the interactive process.  But I don’t think it affects what I said about the recording being a performance.  You have to try and conjure up your own audience.  So you end up by trying to do the same thing.  Accidents happen, and some of the greatest recordings are of live performances because of that electricity. 

BD:    Are audiences different around the world?  Are there different publics?

JMcC:    Not vastly.  People say that they are, but I don’t find that particularly.  If you go to somewhere like certain parts of the Middle East, they are different.  They have different habits.  In Turkey, for instance, they’re much more used to talking during the performance.  In fact, they will sometimes comment on the performance.  The more noise you hear from the audience, the better they’re enjoying it, which is very curious!  But in the Western circle, there is not that much difference.  Some are enthusiastic, some are bit cool, but I don’t think there is a vast amount of difference.  People are actually a little bit more and more reserved or a little bit more extrovert, but they are basically the same people.

BD:    Is the audience is perhaps too reverent of the music these days?

JMcC:    I never thought of that.  They’re too reverent of the Masterpiece Syndrome.  Everything has to be a Masterpiece.  It doesn’t, of course.  Some of the great composers wrote wonderful pieces that are light.  Johann Strauss wrote masterpieces of a particular kind, but people still belittle them somewhat because they’re not the Beethoven Choral Symphony.  People have an over-reverence to that particular attitude.

BD:    Are your compositions Masterpieces?

JMcC:    [Laughs]  Come back in 150 years’ time!  I think some of them are very good and some of them are pretty terrible, but only time can possibly tell, really.

BD:    Are there any pieces that the public has accepted that you think are pretty terrible?

JMcC:    Awful?  No, no.  The orchestral pieces and chamber pieces that seem to get done most are, I think, the ones that are the best on the whole.  There are one or two that I’d like to hear more often that haven’t been done much, but on the whole, no, no.  I’ve been lucky that the better pieces seem to have come out mostly... well, not into the standard repertoire, but sort of the ‘fringe repertoire’. 

BD:    Should your music be played on concerts of all contemporary music, or all McCabe music, or general concerts?

JMcC:    I’m tempted to say that they should be played in all McCabe music concerts, but actually that would be a bad thing.  I’m a great believer in mixed programming.  There are plenty of reasons why you would have an all contemporary concert, and they can be very enjoyable, but I prefer myself to listen to a mixed program.  If there’s a work of mine, or another modern work, and a Haydn symphony and a Rachmaninoff concerto... I never get tired of hearing Rachmaninoff’s Second Concerto, for instance.  I adore the piece.

BD:    Hearing or playing?

JMcC:    Hearing.  I can’t play it.  I’ve got small hands, and the particular shape of my hands just doesn’t lend itself to that work.  I can’t get near that.

BD:    Is that one of the reasons you play a lot of Haydn?

JMcC:    Well, yes.  Actually it’s rather a good thing.  I would love to play everything, you see.  I’m a great consumer of music, and the fact that the hands are this particular shape means that I can’t play most of Liszt, which I would love to play, and I can’t play most of Rachmaninoff, though I can play the Corelli Variations.  I can’t play a lot of Schumann, which I adore, so it narrows down the awful business of choosing what to play.  This is partly made for me, and Haydn fits my hands very well.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Let us talk a little bit about the keyboard.   When you’re playing, do you always play piano or do you also play harpsichord and fortepiano?

JMcC:    I always play piano.  I have got a harpsichord but I don’t play it much.

BD:    Why?

JMcC:    No time actually!  I’d like to play it.

BD:    Were the Haydn pieces conceived for harpsichord, or were they conceived for a piano?

JMcC:    They were conceived for cembalo, which means really the keyboard instrument of that time, normally clavichord or harpsichord, and then fortepiano, and then on from that.

BD:    But not the modern Steinway grand?

JMcC:    No, not the modern Steinway grand.  However, I believe they sound right on the modern Steinway partly because the modern Steinway is what it is because of Haydn, Clementi, Beethoven, and so on.  They made the piano a different instrument by what they wrote, and if you put it under a glass case, so to speak, and play these works on the instrument of the time, you gain certain things
particularly coloring, dynamic contrasts and so on — but what you lose is the sense of the music leading into the future.  You lose a more rounded picture of what the music is, and not only where it’s coming frombecause he came from a lot of different things.  He was influenced by what was happening in his time, and he integrated these things and moved music further on.  You lose that sense if you only play them on fortepianos.

mccabeBD:    Let’s go the other direction then.  Should your music be played on instruments of the twenty-first and twenty-second century, rather than the piano and instruments that we have now?

JMcC:    That’s a very leading and good question.  I can’t really answer that.  Of course we’re got synthesizers now, and I would like my music to be played now on the instrument for which it’s written.  I don’t think I would like synthesizer versions of my pieces, but I’m not sure what would happen in a hundred years’ time.  It depends what place I’ve got in music, you see.  If in fact I turn out to be a Haydn who pushes music on, then I think I would probably be quite happy with the instrument of the time.  If, however, I’m isolated, of my own time only, then it would probably be more sensible to play them on the original instruments.

BD:    Do you write with an eye of the future?

JMcC:    No, no, not at all.  I don’t see how one can.

BD:    Wagner did!

JMcC:    Well, yes!  [Both laugh]  Does that tell you anything?

BD:    I think Liszt did, also.

JMcC:    Liszt is one of my favorites.

BD:    At the time of his death, Liszt was starting with bi-tonality.  I would like to have seen where that would have gone.

JMcC:    Yes, so would I.  He was an explorer, and also one of my heroes because he was so generous to other musicians.  He conducted pieces by all sorts of people.  He recommended Smetana’s music to a publisher.  He did a lot for Grieg.  He was tremendous support to other composers, and that’s rare.

BD:    Why?

JMcC:    Because, I suppose, composing is such a selfish occupation.  I know a lot of composers who are very good friends of mine and I like them very much, and they wouldn’t lift a finger to help me.  They wouldn’t suggest a work of mine to a conductor.  I know that they wouldn’t!  It’s something that I accept, but I regret it because it’s a pity.  Liszt was an example who was good to other composers, and I admire him very much for that.  He’s always thought of as being just sheer egocentric
and of course he wasbut the two sides of him don’t conflict.  You can be a tremendously egocentric and flamboyant character, and at the same time so enthusiastic about music that you want to help whoever you see around who’s got some quality which you think can be nurtured.  And he picked on winners too.  He really knew what he was doing. 

BD:    Is composing fun?

JMcC:    Oh yes!  Yes, I love it!  I love the musical life.  I wouldn’t do anything else.  Well, I suppose... I mean, who knows, in ten years’ time I might have to do something else, but...

BD:    What would force you to do something else?

JMcC:    If people start playing my music and asking me to play, and I get the sack from my college, then I would be looking for a job.  I don’t know what I would do, but I wouldn’t willing give up this life.  It’s wonderful.  It’s a wonderful thing to be involved with.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Tell me about one of your pet composers
Franz Joseph Haydn.  You’ve recorded all of the keyboard works, so does it hold together as a body of work, or is it a collection of isolated works?

JMcC:    It’s more a collection of isolated works, or groups of works, than the string quartets or the symphonies where you can see a very steady line of development and change and maturing.  At the same time, it isn’t quite as diverse as all that.  You do see a line of development, and there are a lot of wonderful pieces in the very large group of middle sonatas which are not played enough.  There are a lot of very fine ones.  For instance, Sviatoslav Richter
’s choice of Haydn sonatas is always very interesting.  The ones he’s played and recorded are very largely from that middle area, and they’re the ones that nobody else seems to play much.  I came across another compact disc of him a short while ago which has yet again another one of these which just happens to be one of my favorites, the little D major Sonata from the middle batch.  I was so pleased because there he is choosing interesting pieces.  They’re all very good, excellent works, which really reward a lot of thought and care on the part of the performer.  They’re difficult, but audiences enjoy them.  This is a great stream of pieces, which are not masterpieces necessarily, but their quality is such that they are clearly by a master composer writing very well.  They are not quite masterpieces because they’re not big enough and not important enough, or they don’t sum up a genre.  The Blue Danube, for instance, sums up a genre so wonderfully that it’s a masterpiece of its kind.  These are not quite in that category, but they have enough quality to make one really want to hear them.  There is a sense in which his development can be seen in the sonatas, so there is more of a line than one might think when one is just sort of randomly dipping into them.  But they’re not as coherent a statement of his career as the quartets and symphonies are.

mccabeBD:    Does it give you satisfaction to know that you have recorded all of them?

JMcC:    Yes, but I’d like to do it again. 

BD:    [Surprised]  Why?

JMcC:    I’ve changed my ideas a little bit
not radically, but a little bit on some things.  I suppose everyone does...

BD:    Is that enough of an excuse to re-record the whole set?

JMcC:    The obvious thing is that I could do them a little better than before!  I never listen to my own recordings as I always know that I can play it better the next day
which is one of the awful things about concertizing.  No matter how well the concert or the performance went, you know you can do better... which is, again, fine.  You go back to the hotel room and think that wasn’t bad, but that slow bit was a little bit too quick, or whatever, and you remember one phrase that didn’t work.  So you don’t brood about it, and you just file it away and make a mental note.

BD:    Does it bother you at all to have people come up and say that they really adore your recordings?

JMcC:    No, I enjoy that.  Again, it’s the communication; the use of music as a means of expression between people.  I think that’s wonderful when people enjoy them.  It also means that they’ve maybe listened to these works that they may not have known before.  I have a very strong desire to introduce people to music which I know they’re going to enjoy
— or am pretty sure they’ll enjoyand maybe they haven’t had the opportunity to do so because they’re not standard repertoire.  We run into this awful business of people all playing exactly the same things all the time.  I was talking to somebody the other day about this and he said the problem is you have this identical repertoire and identical pianists, and if your soloist for the Emperor Concerto is run over by a bus, they just pick out another soloist and plunk him in that slot, and it doesn’t make that much difference.   There’s a lot of meaning there, and I’ve never thought of it like that. 

BD:    So do you purposely try to stand apart from the crowd?

JMcC:    To a certain extent, yes.  I don’t think I would have much to say about most Beethoven sonatas, if I were to play them all.  There about three or four which I do play.  The D minor I play the lot, and the Appassionata, which is of course a fearfully difficult piece.

BD:    Then how do you decide ones you will play and which ones you won’t?

JMcC:    It’s just a question of my personal commitment to the music, which is a much deeper thing than thoroughly enjoying playing it.  There are a lot of Beethoven sonatas which I love listening to, like the Waldstein, which is a wonderful piece.  I like playing it through, and the same with Opus 109, but I would never dream of learning it and playing it in concert.  I did learn the Waldstein years ago, but I don’t feel I’ve got the commitment to it to convey to an audience that this music is coming through me.  Now with the D minor I do feel that, and with the Appassionata I do feel that.  I keep on meaning to bring back the Opus 110 because I know I have the same feeling about the music, a real commitment to play this to people because it’s a question of one’s own involvement. 

BD:    That is the penultimate, No. 31.  I often try to surprise people by playing a record of the middle section of No. 32 where it has the syncopated rhythm, and ask them who they think composed it.  Then they fall over in a faint when I tell them it’s Beethoven!  [Both laugh]

JMcC:    Yes, that’s right, yes!  That’s one I’ve always wanted to play, but it has some hand problems in the first movement, and I haven’t looked at it for quite a few years.

BD:    When you’re setting up a recital of piano works, do you always try and include some music of McCabe?

JMcC:    I usually do.  People like you to play something of yours, but there are other works I want to play, and you can’t necessarily do more than one or perhaps two of twentieth century pieces.


BD:    You’ve never done an all-McCabe program?

JMcC:    No, I haven’t actually.  I’ve never been asked to, not for solo piano.

BD:    Would you if you were asked?

JMcC:    Yes, yes, I think so!  That’s obviously a special thing.  I wouldn’t ever do an all-Beethoven program because other people do that sort of thing all the time.  It’s become rather an industry.  I do happen to love Beethoven’s music, but I wouldn’t dream of doing that much.  I don’t want to be part of that industry.  I’ve been asked to do all the Beethoven violin sonatas on a series with a friend of mine.  We do a lot of playing together and I enjoy working with him, but there are only three Beethoven sonatas that I really want to play
Opus 96, the G Major; the earlier G major, which I’ve also played (Opus 30 No. 3); and the Spring (Opus 24).

BD:    Not the Kreutzer (Opus 47)?

JMcC:    No.  I have played that once, and hated it.  I enjoy listening to it, but I actually loathe playing it.  I guess it’s partly a physical thing.  I feel uncomfortable playing that piece for the same reason I don’t play any Chopin.  He is a wonderful composer and I adore listening to it played by Rubinstein or Horowitz, but not for me to play.  That is temperamental.  It’s not just a physical thing, it
’s very much a temperamental thing.

BD:    What music do you go to hear?

JMcC:    When I have time
which isn’t very oftenI go to symphony concerts.  I would like to go to more piano recitals and chamber music.  I don’t go to song recitals very often, but I don’t really get much time.  My absolute heaven is listening to symphony concerts.  My three favorite composers are Haydn, Schubert and Vaughan Williams.  If I had a program of a Haydn symphony, the Schubert Ninth, and a Vaughan Williams symphony, I would be pretty well satisfied with that.

BD:    You should make a cassette of that and just carry it around.

JMcC:    Yes!  But I would miss all the other things.  We have a program in England called ‘Desert Island Discs’.  It’s been going since the 1940s.  The interviewer interviews whoever it happens to be from any walk of life, plunks them down on a desert island with only eight discs of their own choice.  It’s a game we all play in England every so often.

BD:    They would ask that question on the Metropolitan Opera Intermission Quiz once in a while.  They finally got so tired of it they said,
If you were going out on a desert island with some recordings, which desert island would you pick?  [Both laugh]  After a few remote islands were mentioned, one smart mouth said Manhattan!  [Huge laughter from both]

JMcC:    That’s good.  I like it, yes.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    You compose in all forms, not just for piano.  Is there an opera in there?

JMcC:    There’s a chamber opera, and there’s a children’s opera.

BD:    What are the special problems of being a pianist and yet composing a work that doesn’t have piano in it?

JMcC:    It’s easier.  [Laughs]  I used to find writing with piano very difficult.

BD:    But you’ve written quite a bit of piano music!

JMcC:    In about 1963 I wrote a set of variations, and that was the first time I felt comfortable writing for piano.   Before that I’d written orchestral works, chamber works and vocal works.  The reason is I’m a pianist, so you get tied up with what you’re playing and you start to think like what you’re playing.  It’s no problem now, but it took a long time to get free from the piano.

BD:    When you’re writing an orchestral piece, is it at all pianistic in the way Bruckner symphonies are registered for organ?

JMcC:    I don’t think so, no.  The room I write in hasn’t got a piano.  The old cliché about Rachmaninoff’s orchestral music is that it’s his piano music orchestrated.   Somebody said that’s not true; it’s actually his piano pieces which are piano reductions of his orchestral thinking, and I think that’s correct because he was a very good conductor.  He was known in Russia as a conductor and composer, more than he was as a pianist.  He was offered the Boston Symphony a couple of times and felt he didn’t have the repertoire to take it.  Probably it is the same with me.  I think naturally about the orchestra but not about the piano.  When I’m playing the piano I do think of it as an orchestra.  I think of instrumental colorings when I’m playing.

BD:    Do you ever wish that some of the little tiny things could be sustained like an oboe or violin?

JMcC:    Yes, I do.  I try very hard to think sustained notes, and I hope that those will get through.

BD:    Have you gone in at all for the modern techniques of prepared piano, or other things than just simply playing with your fingers on the keys?

JMcC:    Not really.  I have used the inside of the piano a little bit, and I was very happy with the way it worked out, but very seldom.  I haven’t needed to.  If I need to I will.

BD:    What dictates the need?

JMcC:    The fact that you are able to make the sounds that you want without needing an extra element.  When I have used these things a couple of times is due to the fact that I couldn’t make the sounds any other way.  So it’s a question of what sounds one is using.  But I would have no hesitation about doing so.

mccabeBD:    You had a work done here with the Chicago Symphony...

JMcC:    Concerto for Orchestra, yes.  What a wonderful performance that was, a marvelous performance.

BD:    Why was that so pleasing to you?

JMcC:    It was pleasing because of two things.  First of all, Solti is a conductor I very much admire, and the piece, as it turned out, suited him very well... at least I think it did.  He seemed to enjoy it very much.  He did it quite a bit in England and here.  And secondly, there was the reaction of the players.  You don’t often get orchestra players coming up to you for your autograph, but I had a couple of people did that, and I was very touched.  This is a wonderful, friendly and co-operative bunch, and they would ask your opinion about the phrasing of some section.

BD:    Did you write it for this orchestra?

JMcC:    No, it was written for the London Philharmonic.  It was commissioned for their fiftieth season, and Solti did it there.

BD:    Would there be anything different if you’d known it was headed for the Chicago Symphony?

JMcC:    No, I don’t think there would have been. The piece would have been pretty much as it is.  It seemed to suit them very well, and that was purely fortuitous.  The piece was the piece that I wanted to write, actually.

BD:    When you’re sitting down at the desk, how do you decide if you’re going to write a symphony, or a piano piece, or a chamber work, or something else?

JMcC:    I have a list of pieces I want to write, and I have specific ideas for a lot of pieces, so I try to get commissions to do those.  Then, when I sit down at my desk and have some blank manuscript, I know what piece is going to be.  Right now, it’s going to be for trumpet and eleven strings.  It’s commissioned by The Harrogate Festival in England for a Swedish trumpeter called Håkan Hardenberger, who’s a brilliant player.  I’ve got this commission for a piece for which I have an idea for, so that’s what I’m going to do.  That’s how it works.

BD:    Do you have enough commissions?

JMcC:    Oh, yes!

BD:    Too many?

JMcC:    No, no.  I’m very careful.  I used to write too much but I don’t think I do now.  I ration myself out to things I know I want to do.

BD:    When this commission come to you, was it for trumpet and eleven strings, or did they just say they want a piece for trumpet and chamber group, or that they wanted a piece for this Festival?

JMcC:    It was a piece for this trumpeter and his particular string ensemble, which is very good.  The idea I had was for the trumpet and strings.  It helps actually to define it a little clearer.  Sometimes the guideline is welcome.

BD:    Have you ever had someone commission a piece and then come up to you and say that it doesn’t work, or that it’s terrible?

JMcC:    As a matter of fact, yes I did.  It was a lady who was a singer who is still a very good friend of mine, though we had a couple of years of not speaking to each other as a result of this.  She never performed the work, but it’s been quite successful since.

BD:    You were vindicated!

JMcC:    I was vindicated, yes, but she’s a nice lady and a fine singer, so all is well.

BD:    Were these some songs?

JMcC:    Yes, it was a piece for soprano and piano.

BD:    What about it didn’t she like?

JMcC:    I haven’t the faintest idea!

BD:    Obviously you wouldn’t
correct it for her...

JMcC:    Oh, I knew the piece was right!  I felt the piece was absolutely right, and I have no idea to this day why she didn’t like it.  I haven’t actually dared to ask her, I must admit.

BD:    Have you ever taken suggestions from a performer?

JMcC:    Oh yes, very much so.  Sometimes they do say some rather odd things, and sometimes the comments are very useful, very creative input into a piece written for a particular performer.

BD:    Is there any piece of yours that you would say your whole reputation should stand or fall on this one work?

JMcC:    No, I don’t honestly think I could pick out one piece, really.  If I did, it would have to be an orchestral work of some kind.  I can narrow it down to that, but I couldn’t narrow it down to one piece.

BD:    What about the orchestral works are special for you?

mccabeJMcC:    There’s a song cycle called Notturni ed Alba, which is very personal to me. The Second Violin Concerto also has a strong personal feeling for me.  I’m thinking of works which I feel have a particular personal commitment over and above happening to like them particularly.  The Third Symphony is a piece I like very much, and I have a strong personal feeling for that piece, but it’s not affiliated with my own personal life and associations and so on.  It’s just that I happen to be very fond of that piece on musical grounds.  I think it really does work, and there are one or two other symphonies, but Notturni ed Alba is a very important piece to me.

BD:    Has it been recorded?

JMcC:    Yes, it has. In fact, it was recorded years ago by EMI in England, and it got a special citation from the Koussevitzky Recording Foundation, which was very nice.  It’s been done over here in the U.S. in Minnesota and one or two other places.

BD:    When you attend rehearsals of a work of yourssay, an orchestral workdo you makes suggestions to the conductor?

JMcC:    Yes, I do.  I’m fairly discreet with conductors because many of them don’t actually like the composer leaping onto stage or shouting,
“Too fast!” from the back of the hall.  I’m fairly discreet about it and I like to wait until they ask me, but yes I do!  Hearing a rehearsal, I do actually write a few things down so when they’ve gone through the work I can come up to the conductor and say, “Two bars before Letter L, I felt there could be a bit more tuba, and three bars after M, there could be a bit more accent.

BD:    These are more adjustments, though.

JMcC:    Yes, and tempo adjustments vary slightly.  But if you write the music out in as clear a way as you can, there shouldn’t be any major problems.  We have been to different performances... Notturni ed Alba, for instance, has been performed by a lot of different conductors, and they’ve done it different ways.  André Previn and Bernard Haitink played the piece in London separated in time by about six months, and they were very different and both quite superb.  André Previn’s performance had an extraordinary feeling and tiny subtle rubatos where you felt that really he was almost playing it on one instrument himself.  It was remarkable, and Haitink’s had a different quality.  It had a particular symphonic strength to it which I had never heard in that way from anybody else.  Both were great performances.

BD:    Was Previn’s different because he, like you, is also a pianist?

JMcC:    It might be!  And of course he’s a composer, so he has an instinctive understanding from that point of view.  But Haitink is a highly intelligent and articulate musician, and a great conductor.  When you’re talking about intelligence in conductors, I always think back to Barbirolli, who was a great hero of mine, and a wonderful bloke and who did my First Symphony years ago.  It was commissioned by the Hallé Orchestra in Manchester, and Barbirolli did actually do seven or eight performances.  I worked with him quite closely on that piece.  He had an instinctive understanding of what was going on in the music he conducted, although what he actually said about it was quite often absolute nonsense!  [Laughs]  Nielsen is another favorite composer of mine, and Barbirolli used to do wonderful performances of the Fifth Symphony.  I remember hearing him rehearse, and in the last movement when the strings start their fugue
the slow, quiet fugue which is a variation of the opening theme of the second movementhe turned to the strings and said, [Impersonating the conductor] Come on, this is completely new material.  [Both laugh]  Of course it isn’t completely new material!  It’s very clearly a version of the tune we’ve heard, and he had not cottoned on to the fact.  He wasn’t just saying this.  He really didn’t realize it was the same tune, but he did instinctively know that it was from the way that he performed it.

BD:    So then he should let his performing speak for itself?

JMcC:    He was a purely instinctive intelligence of the highest order, but not articulate in those terms at all.  He talked nonsense about the pieces, but then did the right things in many instances... though not always.  Nobody does the right things all the time.  It’s just a natural insight that he had.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Should music be art or should music be entertainment?

JMcC:    Entertainment is art, isn’t it really?

BD:    Then where’s the balance?

mccabeJMcC:    I often wonder about this, and I really cannot come to any conclusion.  I don’t think there is a balance.  A definition would say you draw this line, and on this side we’ve got entertainment, and on this side we’ve got art, but then there are all sorts of pieces in both.  There are all sorts of borderline pieces.  There are all sorts of pieces which are one, all sorts which are the other, and some which are both.  I’m a little bit worried about the way classical music is perceived by so many as being an elitist thing because it should not be an elitist thing.  Obviously, Webern is not going to become Top 20 material.  I enjoy Webern’s music very much, but I feel very worried when people talk about Classical Music as if they rather distrusted selling it.  I want the biggest audience I can get, and I don’t care who they are!  If half the people in the world actually listened to my music and enjoyed it, or at least have the opportunity of hearing it, and didn’t regard it
because it’s classicalas being some that’s not for them, then I would be a great deal happier.  In Classical Music, there are still a lot of people who have got almost a vested interest in keeping it to themselves.

BD:    So then what?  Should you take your piano to a cricket match, and before the play starts just give a little recital, and then have the match?

JMcC:    Well, that’s an interesting thought.  It rains a lot in England, as you may know!  I have given an open-air recital once in my life, and it rained... but that wasn’t in England, it was in the Middle East.  At some cricket matches they do have a brass band
the brass band being peculiarly British phenomenonand they play selections from South Pacific and maybe the Can-Can from Orpheus in the Underworld, and so on.  They don’t play while the cricket is going on, but they play in the breaks, in the intervals and so on, and I think that’s terrific.  I would like to see more of that!

BD:    So why don’t you write a piece for brass band and send it to the bandmaster there?

JMcC:    I have written for brass band, but it’s all a question of what is appropriate.  But people do put up this great barrier.  A lot of people think Classical Music is not for them, when the fact is they really don’t know it.  There’s no reason why people shouldn’t like and enjoy pop music, but at the same time I do feel that that hard sell is sometimes deliberately at keeping classical music out of it because that market would take away some of the money.  It’s a specific marketing ploy.  You cut out something that would impinge on your market, and Classical Music doesn’t know how to sell itself properly.  I don’t know what the answer is, in case you’re going to ask me, but I don’t think we’ve thought about it.

BD:    Do you think Classical Music should be sold as a commodity like breakfast cereal?

JMcC:    Not quite, no.  I don’t mean that necessarily, but there must be ways of making it more available to people, and making people realize that it is not forbidding necessarily.  It depends what the music is.

BD:    Does putting it on television help?

JMcC:    Again, it depends on how it’s done.  I’m sure it does actually.  To go back to him, André Previn has done Classical Music shows in England, and he’s done them without a compromise.  He’s played some very popular pieces but he’s done it without compromise.  He’s played the whole piece.  He hasn
’t just done gems like the Can-Can from Orpheus in the Underworld, and he’s got a big audience for the programs!  But the attitude of people who are not necessarily in the classical world is different.  For instance, a famous and now retired head of one of the commercial companies in England was horrified when he allowed a Verdi operaI think it was Nabuccoto be televised on his channel late at night.  He was horrified to learn that there were only five million viewers.  He wanted eight million, nine million, thirteen million, so he was horrified.  My answer to that is you’ve got five million viewers who are probably more committed to watching that than the eleven million who are watching the sport program on Saturday afternoon.  They’re not really watching the sport program, they’re going to be watching one of the sports.  They’re not going to be watching the International Tiddly Winks finals.  They’re wanting the soccer, or the golf, or whatever it is, and they’re not necessarily going to be interested in all the other sports.  When those others are on, they’re in the kitchen making a cup of tea, or in the garden for half an hour.  That is an uncommitted audience.  If you’ve got a committed audience of five million watching something on your channel they really want to watch, I would have thought that’s a damn good thing.  But he wouldn’t see that.  No, it’s all purely numbers, and the quality of those numbers seems irrelevant.  I don’t think it is irrelevant. but we’ve got a lot of work to do, and I’m sure I’m right about this.

BD:    There was a book put out a few years ago called The Classical Advantage, and the whole point was to tell advertisers that there might not be as many people listening, but these are the people who will buy expensive watches, and take cruises, and buy airline tickets, and buy premium wines, and do all these expensive things.  Therefore, they should advertise on the classical music station.


JMcC:    That’s the perfectly viable point of view, and I would like to extend it.  I would like to feel that the vast areas of under-privileged people in our two societies would also feel that they can switch on the radio and listen to classical music if they feel like listening to it.  But they don’t.  It just doesn’t occur to them because it’s not their music, and I don’t think that’s right.  They are actually missing out on something, really. 

BD:    Is there any way to get more audience?

JMcC:    I haven’t the faintest idea!  But I’m absolutely convinced there must be.  It’s all a question of having the courage to program works for young people.  If you have young people’s concerts in England
symphony orchestra concertsthey invariably do a bit of Beethoven, and bit of Brahms, and a bit of Mozart.  They might possibly do the whole Hoe-Down from Rodeo, or they might possibly do one of Malcolm Arnold’s English Dances, or they might even do a bit of modern music, such as a piece by Ligeti!  I’ve seen Lontano actually on a program of this kind.  Now that’s all fine and dandy, but I do believe that they’re actually approaching this in quite the wrong way.  They really ought to take the risk and give the kids a program of music of roughly in their own time, that is to say the last thirty or forty years.  Now we’re going to play Copland, we’re going to play Malcolm Arnold, but we’re not just going to do a three-minute piece.  We’re going to do several pieces which have got jazzy rhythms and colorful orchestration.  If nothing else, and the kids are bored to tears with the sell, they can at least watch the percussionist dashing about.  Kids love to watch, but of course in a Beethoven symphony you don’t get that.  It’s presented now partly as a thing that the parents might expect to like, and it’s all approached the wrong way.

BD:    I can’t imagine a Beethoven symphony being done as a music video...

JMcC:    [Laughs] No, I can’t, either!  Fantasia is a wonderful film; extraordinary.  The Rite of Spring is a fabulous piece of work in that movie.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    You’ve written a children’s opera.  How is that different from an opera that you would want done at Covent Garden?

JMcC:    For a start, children have to play and sing it.  It is actually an hour and twenty minutes, titled The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, based on the book by C.S. Lewis.  We had a lot of fun working on that.  It’s four acts so it’s almost a grand opera for kids.  It really does push them to work for that length of time.  Most kids’ operas are fifty minutes or less.  Noye’s Fludde is about fifty-two, but we decided to go for this, and it’s written for their capabilities.  It’s fairly elaborate to stage but it can be done in various ways.

BD:    Are there adults in it as well as the children?

JMcC:    Oh, yes.  There are two adults who are the lion and the witch.  Those have to be pretty decent professionalish singers.  The ones in the first performance were professionals, but they can be done by really good amateurs.

BD:    Where do you expect this to be given?

mccabeJMcC:    It’s been given by High Schools and so on in England.  It’s been on quite a bit.  It gets a production or two every year.  I wish that it had been taken up by an opera company for an Easter time show because I think it would work if it were actually done by adults.  It’s a pretty tuneful piece.

BD:    Is it kind of an Easter counterpart to the Christmas opera Amahl and the Night Visitors by Menotti?

JMcC:    It is really in a way, yes.  It’s very much an Easter book, and the Resurrection is part of the thinking of the book.

BD:    Would it work well on television?

JMcC:    I think it would, yes.  It can be done in other ways, but in the original production it was designed to be done using a revolving stage.  There are a lot of scene changes, so you have three scenes on this revolve.  It goes round, and there’s a little orchestral interlude between each scene.  At the first three performances it had to revolve about fifty times.  There was one time it didn’t revolve, and the lion is supposed to come on stage to the stone table.  The previous scene had the forest on the stage with all the kids dressed as trees.  So nothing happened, and the lion was standing at the back wondering when the hell he could come on.  The trees were standing there shivering in their boots, wondering what on earth to do next because they’d been told not to go off until the thing started going round.  So the lion had to fight his way on through the trees while the trees were trying to get off the stage.  [Both laugh]  Accidents happen, you see!

BD:    Does this give you more encouragement to write another opera for the same kind of forces?

JMcC:    No!  Because I’ve got so many other things that I want to do.  I thought about it from time to time, but writing for children and amateurs is very, very difficult.  It works in this particular piece.  I’ve done some pieces where it didn’t work, where I either made too many concessions for their technical standard that the piece became compromised, or where I haven’t made enough and they can never quite do it.  I’ve written a few pieces, and maybe in ten years’ time I’ll think about it again, but not at the moment.

BD:    You also wrote a chamber opera?

JMcC:    Yes, that’s right.  That was commissioned by a semi-professional group, but they used professional orchestra, and the singers are all professional standard.  It’s called The Play of Mother Courage, and it’s based not on the Brecht play but on the original book by [Hans Jakob Christoffel von] Grimmelshausen.  It’s five scenes from that book, and although it was written a long time ago, it is now awaiting revision.  I’m not sure I could revise it now, so I withdrew it temporarily, and temporarily has been a long time
twelve years or something.  [According to the list on his official website, there is no date shown for a revision.]

BD:    If someone comes to you and says they want to do this piece just as you’ve written it, would you let it out again?

JMcC:    I don’t know.  I’d have to go and look at it.

BD:    I like to talk with composers about revisions because we seem to have a notion now for going through their notes and first drafts and waste baskets, trying to come up with an Urtext.  How do you, as a living, working composer, feel about going back to those things?

JMcC:    I don’t like to go back actually.  I’ve done it only once, and when a piece has been performed the first time, you make adjustments in rehearsal.  After the first performance you may say, no it is actually too long.  I’m going to cut three bars, or whatever, but that is part of the immediate process.  A question of going back after a period of years is very, very difficult.  It makes me nervous to think of going back more than a few years.  There are one or two pieces which I might go back on, and I’m gradually orchestrating this very piece for soprano and piano that I mentioned before, but then I had in mind orchestrating it when I was writing it.  In fact, I started to write orchestral indications in the sketches when I was writing it.  So though it is a genuine piano part, it was conceived as both simultaneously, and I’ve just never had the time to go back and orchestrate it.  Now that I’ve kept in the time capsule, I feel no nervousness about going back and doing that.  But actually going back to a piece where I haven’t got that long-term plan, and looking at it again and rewriting it makes me nervous because I feel I would be going back literally in my career.

BD:    On a related subject, are you more nervous when you are the pianist playing your own works, or when orchestras are playing your works?

JMcC:    Oh, I’m much more nervous as a pianist.   I used to be really quite ill before concerts.  I am much less now.

BD:    Of your own music, or just as pianist?

JMcC:    Just playing.  Playing anything, it doesn’t matter, but my own music worst of all.  I still get very nervous, but I manage to control it better.  Before an orchestra plays a work, I’m usually not nervous.  On the very, very rare occasions when I rather dread the performance is going to be pretty bad, I get nervous then because I wish it were over.  But normally, no, no.  I relax and think about something else when it’s going on.  [Laughs]  It’s very difficult to put one in a position of the audience.  However, you can achieve a certain amount of objectivity over the period of years.  When you go back to listen to a piece after six or seven years, to a certain extent you can be relatively objective, but it is relative.  It’s still very much part of you, even if you’ve forgotten the piece
which does happen.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    What’s the role of the critic?

JMcC:    I don’t know what the role of the critic is, I really don’t!  It’s obviously a commentator to convey their own personal reactions.  That’s all anybody can do.  I don’t think it is to tell composers how they should be composing, or to tell performers how they should be performing.  You can clearly say that so and so played a fistful of wrong notes if they did.  That’s a fact, but when it gets beyond the realm of fact, it is not right for a critic to say it is obviously quite invalid to write in this style these days.  That’s just not on.  I wish they would more often convey the fact that what they’re doing is conveying their own reaction and not telling you facts, because they’re not telling us facts!  They will say that this performance was good or bad.  They wrap it up with all the various details, but they will basically say this was not a good performance, when they are not actually dealing with a fact.  It might have been a very accurate performance, but it was just not a performance to their taste.  It’s their taste that is coming into it, and they should make us aware that they realize this.

BD:    Is the audience always right in its assessment of music, especially of new music?

JMcC:    No, no, nobody is.  Critics aren’t, and even composers are wrong about their own pieces.  Actually if you ask me about my favorite pieces, it’s quite likely that I’ve mentioned the ones that in 150 years’ time might be the only ones which aren’t played.  [Both laugh]  I haven’t known any composer to be a completely reliable guide to his own music, and I don’t see how audiences can be right.  It takes so much time for pieces to get established.  You listen to a piece the first time, and you’re bowled over by it.  You think it’s wonderful, and you listen to it a few more times, and you think, no this is pretty predictable.  I thought I was going to enjoy recognizing that bit again, but actually I’m getting tired of it!

mccabeBD:    Is this what makes a masterpiece
that it will hold up after repeated performances?

JMcC:    Oh yes!  It’s one of the things, yes. 

BD:    Are there some pieces in the so-called standard repertoire which really shouldn’t be there?

JMcC:    There are a lot of pieces not in it which deserve to be!

BD:    That’s the other half of the question!  [Both laugh]

JMcC:    I was trying to evade the first half!  There are so many really marvelous neglected pieces.  It’s criminal, and I blame the artists and the management to some extent.  But the artists will do what they can if they really were committed to pieces, to looking around and really giving them a chance
like Koussevitzky did, for example.  He is a great example of somebody who came here to the U.S. and said, Show me your American music, please!

BD:    Are there pieces that are missing from the repertoire, or are there composers that are missing from the repertoire?

JMcC:    Both.  Take [Robert] Schumann, for instance.  One of the piano works I played a lot is the Intermezzi Op 4, which is a very early piece and is hardly ever played.  It’s never played in standard recitals.  It might get played on university campuses by fine players at some universities who are prepared to maybe have time to look around and find best pieces that would interest them.  But on the regular Carnegie Hall, Queen Elizabeth Hall, whatever hall in Berlin circuit, pieces like that don’t get played.  Yet it’s a wonderful piece that audiences love hearing.  There are many, many in any medium which audiences deserve to have the chance of hearing, and there are composers who are not necessarily producers of great masterpieces.  It would be nice occasionally to hear the symphonies of Berwald (1796-1868)
particularly two of them which are wonderful pieces and fully deserving to be played alongside the Scottish Symphony of Mendelssohn, for instance.

BD:    Where’s music going today?

JMcC:    [Pauses a moment, then laughs]  This is another question that one has to ponder from time to time!  I think it’s all coming together, but then of course I would say that because my natural instinct is to integrate.  But I do really believe that it is coming together, and because styles are so fragmented and there are so many schools of thought, I do seem to detect the basic move towards unifying what’s happened in this century instead of continually shooting off at a neo-fashion.  Also there’s this very self-conscious and very understandable attempt on the part of minimalist composers to write music in which actually they’re trying to get back to the audience which has been lost, and one can only respect that kind of thinking.  I might not like all the music, but I respect the thinking, and there are certain composers I do admire.

BD:    Are you optimistic about the future of music?

JMcC:    Yes, very.  I’m extremely optimistic because I don’t think it can get worse in some ways.  [Both chuckle]  But I am optimistic because composers are, after all, you know, the most important people in the process.  Without the composers there certainly wouldn’t be the musical culture we have.  I’m sure there would always be some kind of music because it’s essential to human beings.  But we’ve got a particular kind of culture because of the composers, and that’s why I say they’re the most important.  I don’t want to downgrade the performers or the listeners by saying that because they are obviously vital, but composers have the ability to think all the time about what they’re doing, and from them come ideas that will substantiate my optimism.  They’re always thinking about the problems, and after a number of years going off on one direction, they realize that direction
for all the valuable things it didwas something of a cul-de-sac, and they’ve got to find another answer to the problems.   If the composers find answers to the problems, then they can lead the way, and that’s why I say I’m optimistic.  I’m sure if that happens, the artists and the managements and the agents, and everyone will have to co-operate.  I don’t see how they can actually go on existing with an ever-smaller number of works.  As an example, I can think of a one very famous pianist a few years ago, who was booked by a British orchestra to do a date at the Royal Festival Hall, and they were told this pianist’s repertoire for that season was Beethoven’s Fourth Concerto and Fifth Concerto.  Now I cannot conceive of such a boring existence of going round the world playing two concertos.  It doesn’t matter what they are or however wonderful they are, I cannot see that it can be good, and I’m quite sure that whole approach will have to change.

BD:    Is this laziness on the part of the performer?

JMcC:    I’m sure they would say that they were devoting themselves exclusively to those pieces in order to get out of them every drop of the greatness of the music, and I don’t believe that’s true.  I really don’t.  That sort of thinking results in the kind of rather extreme interpretation one sometimes gets from pianists whom one admires.  Suddenly they will give a performance which is so eccentric you can’t believe it.  I’m sure they’re actually tired of playing the piece; they really are fed up.

BD:    So they’ve wrung it dry?

JMcC:    They’ve wrung it dry, and they try to do something different to make it fresh again.  I’m sure that’s a result of this particular thing.   It might sound like a crazy line of thinking, but having talked to pianists, for instance, and violinists and conductors too, when they say they have found a new way of playing this piece they are full of beans.  Yes, maybe they’ve found a new way of playing it and thereby got new insights which they will communicate, but it may just be that they’ve found a way of refreshing themselves in the piece, and there’s no new insight at all.  In fact, it may be an
out-sight, if you know what I mean.  It might be something damaging, but they’re working so hard on this one piece to try and do something with it, and it worries me when they talk like that.  I’m sure there is a problem, and I really do think this attitude will have to change.  Pianists will have to look around more, and find pieces that they are more committed to.  The international star name should do a great deal more to assist this process, and I’m quite sure they will eventually have to.

BD:    All this has to do with a matter of selecting repertoire, but for what they are playing, are performers getting better technically?

JMcC:    I don’t think so.  I was a child in Liverpool and I remember the late ‘40s, early ‘50s we had piano recitals by Cassedesus who was wonderful.  We had Cortot who played wrong notes left, right and center but was still wonderful, and Gieseking who I recall was very accurate.  José Iturbi gave a wonderful recital which I remember to this day.  It had the little A Major Sonata of Schubert and was a wonderful performance.  Rubinstein’s technique was phenomenal.  I don’t think people are more accurate technically.  Actually one of the oddest things these days is that quite often you get slower performances, it seems to me, and I really can’t understand that.  I mean it’s got nothing to do with technique.  Most of them have got the technique to play anything twice as fast as anybody else, but you get slower performances and I can never understand why that should be from young musicians.  Maybe they’re trying to show that they’re music-thinkers as well as technicians, which is understandable, but it’s very odd.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    What’s next on the calendar for you?

JMcC:    After this recital on Wednesday, I’ve got a lecture at Vandercook College on Friday, and then I go back to New York and do one or two lectures there.

mccabeBD:    What is the lecture on?

JMcC:    Ah... you’ve got me there!

BD:    [Mildly shocked]  You haven’t prepared it yet???

JMcC:    I shall find out tomorrow.  I think it’s about my music, but they also want me to play some Haydn, all in forty minutes or so!  [Both laugh]

BD:    The Worlds of John McCabe and Franz Joseph Haydn!

JMcC:    Yes, that’s right, a quick tour!

BD:    Is there any intertwining of them?

JMcC:    Well, I’ve written several
Haydn works.  There’s my Third Symphony which uses the slow movement of one of his quartets.  It’s not exactly an analysis; it’s a musical commentary on it.

BD:    Do you acknowledge that in the program notes?

JMcC:    Oh, yes, absolutely.  I like it very much, and I wish it would be done over here because I really do think it’s a good work.  There’s a work called Haydn Variations for piano which is not ‘variations on a theme of …’ but is does use a theme, which is sort of quoting, but in the middle.  It uses Haydn’s alternating variation technique, and carries it a stage further, so you have two variations alternating within one variation
a bit of one then a bit of the other, and so on.  And there’s a string quartet which uses something of the same idea, so Ive used him as source material in some way or other quite consciously.

BD:    Are you looking forward to meeting Haydn in Heaven?

JMcC:    Well, I hope I get there, yes!  I’d love to talk to him.

BD:    What’s the first question you’d ask him?

JMcC:    The first question would be about his love-life!  [Both laugh]  The second question would be,
Now, come on, Joe, you’ve been up there listening to all this.  What do you think of your music being played on modern instruments?  [Huge laugh from both]  Actually I’m quite serious.  That is what I would ask him.

BD:    Do you think he’s happy?

JMcC:    Oh, I hope so.  I’m sure he is, yes!  He had a lot of sadness in his life, a lot of illness.  The C Minor Sonata was after a very serious illness, and the deeper emotion in that piece is partly due to the stylistic influences and partly I’m sure to his own problems.  He had a very unhappy marriage that went on and on and on, and he worked so hard.  The question of being happy in your work didn’t arise, but he must have been very tired.  It amazes me what those blokes did; it absolutely amazes me. 

BD:    With the lack of ease and lack of technical resources?

JMcC:    Yes.  No photocopiers, no word processors... absolutely amazing.  But they were employed in what must have been a rewarding job, and I think he probably had a pretty good life.  He certainly was happy at the end after the London visits and triumphs.  It was nice to think of him at the age of sixty-odd having a great triumph in England.

BD:    Are there any composers you’re looking forward to really getting your teeth into that you haven’t yet?

JMcC:    There are certain works.  I play quite a lot of Schubert, and I want to play the B Flat Sonata.  I’ve been waiting to play that since I was about eight, and I’m still saying I’m not quite there yet but I will be in a few years.

BD:    Why are you saving it?  Are you afraid of it?

JMcC:    No, I haven’t quite worked out how I’m going to play it, what my response to every detail is, and I need to know instinctively that the piece is part of me before I can start learning it.  But one of these days...  I did this with the D Major Sonata which I played a lot, and suddenly put it on a program.  I’d like to do that with the Diabelli Variations.  I don’t play much Beethoven, and that’s one I’m not ready for yet.  As for other composers, I’m working pretty well on the last Ravel that I shall play, which is most of Le Tombeau de Couperin.  I can’t do the Toccata.  There’s one bar that I simply cannot manage and I can’t fake, and it would be ruined if I were to spread that particular chord.  The work is not difficult, I don’t think, but I just can’t do it.  So I’m playing the others.  I’ve done the Sonatina and the Miroirs and a few other things.  Gaspard I will never be able to play because my hands can’t play Le Gibet at all.  I’d have to spread every chord.  Can you imagine what that would be like?  It would be dreadful!  So I’m now learning the last Ravel piece that I can hopefully do, so that’s Ravel under my belt!  I would like to do a little more Debussy, but it’s a question of time.

BD:    Do you have any dealings with ‘old music’ such as Monteverdi and Heinrich Schütz?

JMcC:    No, I don’t, not much.  There’s a certain amount of William Byrd, and some Tallis...

BD:    Any Purcell?

JMcC:    I’ve started to get into those a little bit.  I don’t really know Purcell much, I’m ashamed to say.  I should do.  I know one or two things.  We did the Funeral Music for Queen Mary in my college.  We had an American Music festival year last year, ranging from Charles Tomlinson Griffes to more recent stuff.  A lot of relatively old fashioned stuff, but some great pieces, so why not!  This year there’s a lot of Scandinavian stuff.  This is my fourth year just starting.  It’s rather an interesting job.  It’s really artistic direction plus quite a bit more than that.  Of course there is a lot of administrative stuff, but it’s supervisory rather than active.

mccabeBD:    [Looking at a page which has his official titles]  CBE, does that mean you’re a Sir?

JMcC:    No, it’s the one below that!  [Both laugh]  It actually means Commander of the British Empire, which is very grand indeed.

BD:    [With a gentle nudge]  What do you command?

JMcC:    [Smiles]  Well, I’m not quite sure.  It’s restricted to about 4,000 people.  There are about 240 at any one time, but I don’t think I command anything specific like a ship or even a taxi. 

BD:    Thank you for being a composer.

JMcC:    Ah, well, I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.  [Laughs]

*     *     *     *     *

We now move forward eleven and a half years, to our second interview held on May 10, 1998.  As mentioned before, we had stayed in touch, and when he was about to come to Chicago again, I received the letter shown at left.  Since I was on the air on Sunday evenings, we arranged to have the deep-dish Chicago Pizza delivered, and our dining and talking was done in the WNIB Control Room while the Sunday Evening Opera was being broadcast . . . . . . . . .

BD:    Do you think that you will compose anything a little bit differently now that you’ve had Chicago Pizza?

JMcC:    Well, I might do.  It would be a bit weightier and slower perhaps.  [Both laugh]

BD:    Seriously about that... does the pace of your music reflect either your internal clock or your outward calendar, or is it something that comes completely from your heart?

JMcC:    I hope it comes from the heart.  I can’t say whether it reflects anything external or not, but I doubt it.  I don’t think that the pace of my music has changed particularly.  Other things have; it’s become more inclusive I think.

BD:    But you try not to let outside influences dictate what you’re going to put down on the paper?

JMcC:    Absolutely.  I usually have a very clear idea of what the piece is going to be and how it’s going to develop as I’m writing it.  Also, because I know how it’s going to end I know where I
’m going, so external things really can’t influence that much.  There is one exception to that, which is if there is a series of eventswhether personal or entirely external to me, but nevertheless where I’m involved in some waywhich make me angry, I think that has been reflected in a few works.

BD:    Anger rather than love and passion?

JMcC:    Yes, anger.  I wrote a twenty-minute piece for pianist Barry Douglas called Tenebrae three or four years ago, and I do think it’s one of the best pieces I’ve done, but that is a very angry work.  I was extremely angry in general about what was happening with society at that particular time, and I still am.  Also it was written around the time my mother was dying, and the relationship with my mother was very close in many ways.  But it was also one of those relationships which really never worked.  I was angry about all of this, and I know I was angry.  I felt very disturbed about the fact that it was simply not possible to get through.  This was not entirely her fault, of course.  It never is just one person’s fault.

BD:    But not entirely your fault either?

JMcC:    No, no, it certainly wasn’t.

BD:    So you were really angry at circumstances?

JMcC:    Yes, whether family circumstances or things around me in society.

BD:    Did the problems resolve?

JMcC:    No, I don’t think so.

BD:    Does the music resolve?

mccabeJMcC:    Yes, absolutely.  The problems with society are still there, but the piece enabled me to come to terms with one thing at least.

BD:    I just wonder how much writing the piece is simply therapy for you.

JMcC:    Oh, I’m sure it is, and it was always with my First Symphony, which is subtitled Elegy.  That was written at a time when I was deeply involved in an emotional situation which was quite difficult, and although that piece actually ends rather depressively, it nevertheless it was a catharsis writing it.

BD:    Should it then be a catharsis for those who listen to it?

JMcC:    Oh, I don’t think so necessarily, because everybody interprets music so differently that I really don’t think one can generalize.  First of all, I don’t think you can set out to write an angry piece
or a melancholy piece or a disturbed piece.  I didn’t in any of these instances.  I just wrote what I had to write, and it happened to be that looking back I can see these things.  Actually my wife pointed out about Tenebrae that it was an angry piece.  She said, You’ve never written anything so angry in your life!

BD:    So it’s not really an angry piece, but a piece by an angry man?

JMcC:    Yes, that’s right.  I don’t think you can actually set out to do that; it happens.  Music takes a long time to write.  How do you sustain deliberately a mode of anger because you’re not angry all the time?

BD:    Some people are!

JMcC:    Well, that’s true!  That’s very true.

BD:    I’m glad to hear that you’re not!

JMcC:    No, no, I’m quite sort of equable most of the time.

BD:    Now, to turn the whole question around, does it hit you differently as a performer?  Do you play a piece differently if you’re angry about something, either specifically or in general?

JMcC:    I think you do, but what makes you angry as a performer sometimes is the most ridiculous things.  Perhaps it will be something somebody says just before you go on the platform, and you think what a really stupid remark that was, and you go on and you play with a lot more fire.  But if you’re starting off with one of Haydn’s more delicate sonatas, I don’t think you do that.  I don’t think you suddenly play it in an aggressive way, but if there is something on the program where you can use that fire, then I think you do.  But it doesn’t need to be anything very serious.  It can be something which is probably the last straw, such as if you had a bad day or a bad week, or England have just lost a cricket match.  Anything!

BD:    Have you been involved in performances where you’ve had to compete with the cricket match, or some other big sporting event?

JMcC:    No, no, I haven’t.  [Laughs]

BD:    Here in Chicago, when the Bulls are in the Championship, at the intermission there are little huddles of people listening or watching tiny televisions.

JMcC:    Oh yes!  Well, I have been known to take a transistor radio into the Green Room during a concert if it’s during the daytime, and as soon as I come off the platform, I put the cricket commentary on the radio.  The string quartet goes and plays its piece, and I sit there listening to the cricket! [Both laugh]

BD:    I hope you don’t go to the wings and flash updates for the quartet players...

JMcC:    No, no, no … no, no … [Both laugh]

BD:    On this topic, how much is concert music really supposed to get involved in the everyday life of people?

JMcC:    Well, I think … I think that’s one of its values … that it can release people, or it can … it can act again as therapy for people.  There’s a famous instance during the Second World War.  This is true story apparently... I have to say ‘apparently’ because I wasn’t there obviously.  I was alive at the time but I wasn’t actually on board the ship.  And there was a ship which had been involved in a tremendous night-time battle at sea, and part of a convoy and several ships had been lost.  In the morning after the whole thing was over, and everybody was absolutely exhausted, and really distraught, they played the slow movement of Brahms’s Violin Concerto over the Tannoy.

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Apparently it had the most tremendous effect of releasing people from anguish of this awful experience.

BD:    Just the peace that it had brought to them?

JMcC:    Yes.  Anything that can do that has to have a social value, really.  You can extend that analogy and say The Blue Danube is just mere entertainment
that glorious and very condescending phrase — but actually the beginning of The Blue Danube opens up the whole world of German Romanticism for me.  It’s a great piece of music.  It’s got this great depth to it, but it is simply entertainment.  However, because it’s entertainment with that particular depth to it, then it refreshes people.  It calms you down if you’re angry. 

BD:    When you’re writing a piece, are you conscious of putting this kind of depth into it, or is it simply there or not?

JMcC:    It’s there or not.  There’s nothing you can do about it. 

mccabeBD:    Nothing at all?

JMcC:    I don’t think so.

BD:    You’re not in control of your piece?

JMcC:    You’re in control of every aspect of writing the piece, but the piece is really in control of you.

BD:    Is it a struggle?

JMcC:    Sometimes!  Yes, the struggle is that there are certain things which are danger spots for me in writing a piece.  It’s not for everybody
at least I don’t suppose it is for everybodybut there are certain danger spots.  The danger of finding something too easy to write is that it will go on too long, and you have to exercise great self-control.  There are danger spots like the bread and butter of orchestrating a piece.  You write in the principal lines and the interesting themes and the little flecks of color which are carefully calculatedlet’s say, the horn with the harp harmonic doubling it, which has a particular ‘frissons’.  But what you don’t do is put all the bread and butterthe string tremolandos, and so forthwhatever it happens to be.  You put those in later because you know what that’s going to be, and that’s relatively simple.  The danger is that it’s not as simple as you thought, and you might be careless and just not think about it.

BD:    So you have to be careful that it doesn’t muddy up the texture?

JMcC:    Oh yes.  Balance is one of the technical things that you always have to be aware of.  But supposing you give it your full attention instead of saying this is just bread and butter and it is dead easy.  Then you might do things in it which are a little more interesting, which are actually far more suited to fulfilling the idea of the piece than if you just write a straightforward string tremolando.  You might think of dividing the strings into sixteen parts
instead of just having five partsto produce a richer texture.  Then you might have the first violins divided into four, with one solo unmuted and another solo muted playing the trill, and then the others divided into two parts doing tremolos.  That is when you’re taking it seriously.  Then there are other times when you wouldn’t want to do that.  You’d want to do something very simple, but the danger is taking for granted that it’s easy.

BD:    Are you always right in these decisions when you put them down on the paper?

JMcC:    Oh, that’s really for other people to say.  I’m not being modest!  That is a genuine answer.  I think I’m always right, yes.  At the time I’m writing, I think I’m right
— once I’ve sorted out what I’m doing and what I’m going to do.  Very seldom do I go back to a piece and wish I’d done anything radically different.

BD:    Are you ever surprised when you hear it?

JMcC:    Not a lot, no!

BD:    That’s the mark of a great composer
that you know what you’re putting down is what you want, and have it come back to you the way you thought.

JMcC:    It’s a technical thing.  Your technique ought to be good enough for that to work most of the time.  It doesn’t always.  There are things you have to adjust
, such as miscalculations in balance between the solo instrument and the orchestra.  You might have to mute the strings instead of not muting, and so on, but on the whole, that sort of thing you ought to get right.

mccabeBD:    Do you ever change things while you’re writing because of the ensemble that’s going to perform it first?

JMcC:    No, never. 

BD:    They had just better be able to do it! 

JMcC:    Yes!  [Has a huge laugh] 
If I’m writing for a particular ensemble, you know what they can do so your expectations are very precise, and you write to those expectations.  In fact, that doesn’t really apply very much to me because most of the stuff I write is for full-time professional orchestras and soloists and virtuosos.  I find it very difficult to write music for amateursschool kids and so on.  I’ve done a certain amount of it.  I did a children’s opera called The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.  It’s just been done again.  Actually it’s been done over here last fall, and it was done in England just recently.  That piece I like very much, and on the whole it works.  It lasts an hour and twenty minutes, and it’s four acts.  The people say for school kids it’s much too long, but of course it isn’t too long!  They can do difficult things.  What they can’t do is very easy things professionally.

BD:    So it’s just you don’t want them to be bored?

JMcC:    Yes, that’s right, and the difficult challenge of getting the right sort of ideas for that.  I think I got it more of less right with that opera, but the other pieces I’ve done have been probably less successful.  I find it very difficult to write music which is easier.

BD:    Easier to perform or easier to understand?

JMcC:    Easier to perform, because the temptation is to write in easier style, which of course goes along with being easy to listen to.

BD:    Is your music easy to understand?

JMcC:    The answer to that is the quotation that I make...  Somebody came up to me and said,
I enjoyed your piece very much, and I said, Thank you very much; delighted to hear it.  Then they said, I didn’t understand it, but I enjoyed it.  So I said, Well, if you enjoyed it, you understood it.  As to the understanding, I couldn’t care two hoots whether people know all the technical and analytical details of how the music is built up and so on.  It might be very interesting to tell people and show them, and you can do that very simply so that audience can still appreciate something of how a piece is built.  But it’s really irrelevant.  All that matters, really, is that the audience should enjoy the music.  That doesn’t mean enjoy in a light sense, necessarily.  They might be provoked by itI don’t mean in a negative way, but provoked positively.  They might be excited, they might be moved or whatever it happens to be, but a response is what you want, and if they respond, then they are understanding it in their own way.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    We’re kind of dancing around it, so let me ask the question straight out.  What’s the purpose of music?

JMcC:    It varies a lot.  There are various ways of putting it.  One of them is to enrich people’s lives, and The Blue Danube does that, and the Matthew Passion does that.

BD:    Will The Chagall Windows do that?

mccabeJMcC:    [Laughing]  I hope so!  Yes, it seems to!  Various ways of enriching people’s lives depend on what kind of piece it is, who’s listening, and on what level they’re listening to it.  It depends whether they’re willing to come towards the composer and say,
“Let me hear what you have to say.  I’ll try and listen to it and try and take part in it.  Music belongs as much to the audience in one sense as it does to anybody else, and that sense is that the audience becomes part of it.  This is less true of listening to records than it is of live performance.

BD:    Are they becoming part of the performance, or are they becoming part of the music?

JMcC:    Both because you can distinguish between various elements very clearly.  There’s a clear physical distinction between the composer who probably isn’t around at the time, the performer or performers who are there on stage, and the audience who are sitting there listening.  But there is a process which is going on, which is very mysterious.  I’m hedging around a bit because this whole thing is so mysterious, but there is a process going on which is a direct line of communication from somewhere through the composer.  It doesn’t just start with the composer thinking,
I’ll write a piece which people will like, or even just, I think I’ll write a piece.

BD:    So you’re the second or third in line from the beginning?

JMcC:    I think so.  Music is in the air, and you sort of get it out of the air.  Stravinsky said about The Rite of Spring that he was the vessel.  

BD:    But you don’t feel you’re just the transcriber, do you?

JMcC:    Oh, no, no, no... but that is part of your task.  You’re taking out of the atmosphere something that hopefully needs to be expressed, and the purpose of expressing is to enrich people’s lives.  To say ‘enriching people’s lives’ is the fundamental point, even though it sounds like a portentous statement.  I’m very fond of Bruckner symphonies.  They enrich my life whenever I hear them at a very deep level.  It doesn’t have to be that kind of thing.  It can be very light and apparently ephemeral, but it takes people out of themselves.  It illuminates human nature in some curious way, and yet while we’ve got all this going on, the individuals listening to the music are interpreting it in their own way.  I remember years ago writing a piece for a youth orchestra
not a very good piececalled Summer Music.  It has a slow, lyrical section and a quick dance-like, lyrical one to finish.  I thought this was very nice to do, and made sort of an entertaining piece.  A lady came up to me after the first performance and said, Mr. McCabe, I did so much enjoy your Summer Music.  I thought it would make a splendid overture to Macbeth!  [Laughs]  That’s when I learnt that you can’t actually set out to mean a particular thing to people because they will interpret it whatever way.  She enjoyed the piece, and therefore she understood it.  So that must have been in the piece.

BD:    But it wasn’t at all what you set out?

JMcC:    No!  It goes back to what I say so often, which is I don’t think you can actually set out to write into the music a particular extra-musical meaning or a particular emotional leaning.

BD:    Is it different if you have a text to work with?

JMcC:    I suppose it is, yes.

BD:    You haven’t written very much with text?

JMcC:    Not a lot, no.  I’ve written some songs for one or two vocal pieces, but it’s a fairly small percentage of my output.  The most recent thing has been a set of Irish songs.  I’ve been fascinated with Irish poetry, which I think is very direct, and very economical.  Even the most apparently flowery is actually very economical, and I found it very moving and exciting.  But there, you see, I’m responding to what I understand in the texts.  They use words which are specific and concrete.  They mean certain things.  A combination of words is a little more arguable perhaps, but it still has got some fair significance.  Still, I’m finding in it things probably that somebody else wouldn’t, and they would find things that I wouldn’t.

BD:    Is the music that you write for everyone?

JMcC:    Probably not!  No music is.  I’d like it to be!

BD:    Should it be?

JMcC:    No, I don’t think it should, and I don’t mean that in an elitist sense.  What I mean is that if my music or that of anybody else is for everybody, and everybody gets something out of it, that would mean we’re all getting very much alike, and I do like the diversity of human nature.  I would hate to think of us all getting alike.  I can’t actually see it happening, but human beings do have so much in common from one country to another.  They basically want the same things.

BD:    Peace and happiness!

JMcC:    Peace and happiness, yes... and food is quite useful.

BD:    Having just had some nice food, I guess I don’t think about it for a while.  [Both have a huge laugh]

JMcC:    No, no, me too!  But it would worry me if everybody liked the same music, even if given they still interpret it a slightly different way personally.  What is also nice is when somebody says,
I didn’t like twentieth century music, but I’ve gotten to like it because of this work and that work.

BD:    So you are bridge then?

JMcC:    Yes, you’re a bridge, and you’re changing people’s lives
not by interfering with them but simply by enriching their lives.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    How do you divide your career between composing and performing?

JMcC:    With great difficulty, and it gets more difficult.  As we speak, I have just done quite a lot of playing and some recording, and I’m stopping for a while.

mccabeBD:    To go back to composing?

JMcC:    To go back to composing.  I’ve got a lot of compositions to do in the next couple of years, and in order to do it I have to concentrate on that purely and simply.  I will do a tiny bit of playing.

BD:    Does this mean you have a lot of deadlines to meet, or a lot of ideas in your head?

JMcC:    A lot of deadlines.  I may have ideas, but there are those deadlines.  I’ve got two full-length ballets to write for the Year 2000, and that is a lot.  That’s four hours of orchestral music.

BD:    It’s a lot of notes.

JMcC:    It’s a lot of notes, yes.  I have already written a certain amount, and I’ve got sketches galore all over the place for these things.  And they are two ballets on the same subject.  It’s like a mini Ringlet of the Nibelungettes, as I call it.  [Both laugh]  So in order to do that, I simply can’t cope with a month away from composing in order to do a few concerts.

BD:    You should clone yourself!

JMcC:    [Laughs] Yes, yes.

BD:    Would you want to clone yourself so that you could go send yourself out on tour and yet stay home?

JMcC:    No, I wouldn’t!  I like touring.  I wouldn’t like my clone to have all the fun.  [Both laugh]

BD:    Is composing fun?

JMcC:    Yes!  Oh definitely, yes, I love it, particularly now that I’m doing it on computer.  I don’t play it in on a synthesizer-type keyboard or anything like that, because I never worked at the piano.  I don’t actually want to hear the sound.  I can feel the sound anyway.

BD:    Just by looking at it?

JMcC:    Yes.  I’d rather get on with writing it down.  If you’re playing it, you can’t see the structure.  If you’re just simply writing it, it’s much easier to see the structure as it takes shape.

BD:    So is the computer just a shortcut for you?

JMcC:    Yes, it’s quicker, and I love working on computers.  I’m not computer-literate.  I do what I do on the computer very well, but outside of that I’m totally lost.  There are all sorts of facilities on the computer that I’ve got, all sorts of program I put in and facilities I could use, and I haven’t the faintest idea how to use them.  But, I can use the music program very well.

BD:    Do you encourage younger composers to get started with this, or do you encourage them to start with the pen and paper and then maybe use the computer for ease?

JMcC:    I would actually encourage people to start with the pen and paper for two reasons.  First of all, music written on a computer is then printed out and it looks jolly good.

BD:    Too good to change?

JMcC:    Too good to change, yes.  Then you’ve really got to learn not only just in the early stages to assess the music in its own terms, and not by how professionally it actually looks.  It’s very misleading.  That’s one reason, and the other reason is that you’re more in touch with the feel of the music when working with pen or pencil and manuscript paper than you are on the computer.  I always use a pen, and although I use the mouse as a pen and the computer screen as the piece of paper, the mouse and the computer keyboard I suppose together make the pen and the screen is the manuscript paper.  So there’s a fairly precise correlation between the two types of writing.  Writing with a pen is like the potter working with the clay in the way that working on the computer isn’t, and once you got that feel, then I don’t think you will ever lose it, and you can go move onto computers.  But it’s the feel of working with the music and having to think about things, because on a computer you can correct so easily.  If you’re writing a neat copy of a score and you put a wrong note in, you have to eradicate it in some way, which can take quite a bit of time, and it’s very irritating.  You get a knife out and scratch it out, or liquid eraser or something.  But it takes time and forces you to think.

mccabeBD:    Here you just ‘click, click’ and put in new one, and then it’s done.

JMcC:    That’s right.  Once you’re used to thinking, it’s okay, it’s fine.

BD:    But we as a society are getting away from thinking!

JMcC:    There is a lot of danger with that actually.  I get very worried about the lack of interest in politics.  That might surprise you because there’s an awful lot of politics of various kinds around all the time, but I’m talking about party politics and government and so forth.  That sort of politics has always been something I’ve been very interested in.  I haven’t had any particular strong views, although I think I’ve got a bit more radical in recent years.  But for instance, in Australia, it is illegal not to vote.  You have to vote in the big elections, and I think that’s right. 

BD:    People should be forced to make a decision?

JMcC:    Yes, absolutely, because that is actually their decision and we all have to live with the results of an election, and I think people have to be part of that process.  It’s very difficult sometimes.  We’ve had an election quite recently having to do with an elected Mayor for London, which is a very important decision for a very big area.  At the same time, we had a local election with a long list of candidates, and we could vote for up to three.  I hadn’t the foggiest idea who to vote for, but I voted for a party that I have a lot of time for.  In general elections, I do actually think quite a lot before I decide which person or which party, depending how I feel.

BD:    But you’re interested in this.  Should we compel the people who really don’t care to actually influence the outcome?

JMcC:    Well, that’s dangerous, very dangerous, but it’s equally dangerous if they don’t.

BD:    Is it just as dangerous if people don’t enjoy music?

JMcC:    Yes, I think it is.  I’m biased, I suppose, but I do think music is the most important of the arts.  Probably if you broadcast that comment [or now print it on this webpage!], you’ll get a bag full of mail telling you what an idiot I am.  But I do think it’s the most important because it’s the most personal.  

BD:    Of course it’s the most important to you and me...

JMcC:    Yes, but to society it is the most important because it is in some ways at atavistic.  It’s absolutely primal.  The instincts of music are primal because of this business of personal interpretation.  People listen to music and they interpret it in their own way, and that is something that doesn’t happen to the same extent with anything else except, I suppose, abstract art.  But that’s only part of art.  Most art is fairly specific, and again you interpret it.  You respond to the character of the landscapes or whatever they happen to be, and you respond to the colors and the shapes in an abstract way as well. 

BD:    Is there anything special about the portability of music?  It’s always there in you
— the rhythm is in you, the melodies and harmonies can be in your head, whereas art really needs to be seen away from you.

JMcC:    Yes, I think that’s true.  You’re an observer, you’re not part of it.  But, as I say, I believe that the audience becomes part of the music, and the music becomes part of them.  It’s a fundamental thing.  It’s very, very important, and that is another reason why the variety of musical taste is very important.  I get very depressed about the narrowness of the repertoire which so many artists seem quite content to play, because I think they actually lose out
on an enormous amount of understanding of music, and therefore we all lose out.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    From your performance side, how do you decide which pieces you’re going to include in your repertoire?  Obviously there’ll be a lot of new pieces in there...

JMcC:    Yes, that’s true.  I decide on all sorts of reasons
the balance of the program, the flow of the program, various things like having a particular idea going.  If you doing a recital of variations, for instance, that immediately narrows the choice down.

BD:    Do you think about the balance of your life and the flow of your life, too?

JMcC:    Not particularly, no!  I just go with the flow!  [Both burst out laughing]  In some respects I’m a child of the 60s
and the 40s as well, but never mind that!  [Both flash each other the peace sign.  To see a photo of BD giving the peace sign, click HERE.] 

BD:    When you’re playing a concert, are you trying to touch the children of the 40s and the 60s, as well as the 80s?

mccabeJMcC:    Oh yes, yes.  But you see I’m trying to do that by playing music that I love, or find exciting
even if it is a piece which is brand new, like a first performance.  I haven’t actually given that many first performances, come to think of it, because I haven’t been particularly bothered whether it was a first performance or not.  I want to like the music I want to play, and I want to share that knowledge of the piece with people, and I like introducing people to repertoire that they might not know.  That’s also very important.  There are all sorts of very well-known composers who wrote some splendid pieces which are never playedSchumann’s Intermezzi, for example.  It probably pops up very occasionally, but it doesn’t appear on the big recitals series much.

BD:    What is it about any piece that makes you like it
or can you describe that?

JMcC:    It is the quality of the ideas.  If the ideas and the piece are strong, and the structure is satisfactory
that is to say the ideas are fulfilled properly by a composerthat’s the attractive thing.  All of this business about emotional content and accessibility and so on goes along with that really.

BD:    Have you approached all this because you are self an accomplished composer?

JMcC:    I’m sure that being a composer is part of it because all composers feel neglected.  So it’s nice to occasionally play neglected composers or neglected music and to say to people that this is an example of another part of the repertoire!  I used to play the occasional polka by Smetana as an encore.  In fact, I’ve played them as part of the regular program as well, but there was a little time when I regularly played one as an encore, and people were always coming up to me afterwards and saying,
That was a lovely piece.  Is it recorded?  Unfortunately at that time it wasn’t recorded, and that was disgraceful.  But they loved it.

BD:    You should have put it right, and put it out on record.

JMcC:    I should, yes, and I keep thinking of doing that.  Whether there’ll ever be time I don’t know, but that’s an example of something that worked and how people responded.

BD:    With the way things are now, you should be able to let people leave the concert and take the cassette of what they just heard!  [Both laugh]

JMcC:    Yes... I’m not so sure about that.  A friend of mine, who’s now dead, went on a lecture tour.  He was an academic, and I can’t remember whether it was here or Australia, but he was driving along from one town to the next, and he switched on the local radio station, and he heard yesterday’s lecture!  I’m not sure that I approve!  [More laughter] 

BD:    Do you like making records yourself?

JMcC:    Very much.  I enjoy it very much, though it is sometimes rather fraught.  There was a record which I made of what I felt was important repertoire, and the record has turned out quite well, but we spent three days recording in a very large hall in the hottest week of the year.  This was a couple of years ago.  [As he tells this story, both of us laugh
— often uncontrollably — at several points.One side of the hall was double-glazed without any formal covering for the windows at all, and that was the side that got the sun all day.  In addition to which I had very strong arc lights beaming down on me because the lighting in the hall was actually not very good.  We had just three daysTuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.  At Midday on the Monday, the bloke who owns the hall and was renting it to the record company, rang up to say there was building demolition work taking place in the building in the next block.  He was causing some noise, but the foreman had agreed that they would stop at 2:30 pm each day.  He was sure that I would prefer to record in the evenings anyway.  Well, I don’t!  I like to record in the morning and afternoon, and go home or to the hotel and relax in the evening.  So we turned up at 2:30 the first day, and they stopped.  When I say building demolition, this was whack-with-the-big-ball-on-the-chain and drills.  It was a very large building that they were tearing down, and we were finally able to start recording at 5 pm.  At 6 pm the local church started bell-ringing practice, and they were actually practicing a particular peal that lasted three hours.  They lock themselves in the church because of the area that it’s in, and they could of course not hear the phone.  The vicar was away on holiday, so we couldn’t contact him, and at 9 pm we did another hour and a half of recording.  We actually got one piece finished.  The next day we turned up at 2.30 pm and started recording again at 5 pm because we couldn’t record due to the airplanes overhead.  On the third day I said I’m not turning up until 4 pm since there was absolutely no point.  The third day we got more airplanes overhead, and at 8.30 pmbecause of the extraordinary weather conditionswe got an Easter European radio station on the tape.  But I managed to remain relatively calm through all of this.  Really you have to laugh.  It just becomes funny after a while, and I really rather enjoyed it.  It’s a challenge, though...

BD:    [Still laughing]  It makes a great story anyway.

JMcC:    It makes a good story, and it is perfectly true. 

BD:    Put it in the notes in the CD booklet!

JMcC:    Yes!   [More laughter]  But it’s a challenge to get over that and get your concentration back.  I would really rather not have the interruptions, but if it happens, then the challenge is a creative one in a sense.

BD:    So you’re able to make music
really make musicin spite of all this?


JMcC:    Yes, yes, that’s right.  I love recording.  I love the challenge of trying to create an audience which isn’t there.  I’ve only done it twice.  One was the Haydn C Minor Sonata in that complete set that I did.  Actually, in the first movement I did feel at one point that I was playing for an audience, and I’ve done it once or twice in other things.  It really doesn’t really happen much, but you hope that it will.

BD:    Does it please you when people come up to you and say,
I like such and such a recording!”?

JMcC:    Oh yes it does, yes, very much.

BD:    Do you ever get people who say,
Oh that recording is really terrible!  Why did you do it?

JMcC:    No, but I did do a concert in somewhere in England, and I played a couple of Haydn sonatas.  It was a mixed program of chamber music and sonatas, and somebody from the local music club came up to me afterwards and said he’d enjoyed my Haydn very much, and he said,
I noticed that you recorded them all.  If you’d done them on a fortepiano I would have bought them.  [Laughter]  I can’t remember what I said, but I smiled benignly and moved away sharpish!  It’s not the sort of thing you want to hear after you’ve just done a concert.

mccabeBD:    Have you ever thought about playing fortepiano?

JMcC:    Yes, I’ve played on one, once or twice. 

BD:    Obviously you don’t find it agreeable.

JMcC:    I don’t find them congenial to play.  There are certain things which come out in the music which you can’t do on the grand piano, obviously.  The color of the sounds is different, and it’s part of the reason I wouldn’t play CPE Bach for instance.  I’ve done a concerto on a modern piano, but it was one that worked very well.  I wouldn’t play the sonatas on a modern piano.

BD:    So you just let that whole repertoire go?

JMcC:    Yes.  I feel that the works of CPE Bach are so much of his own time.  They’re very fine works, but there is something about them which is so routed in their own time, whereas other works
like Haydn and Mozart and Bachhave so much beyond that, that one gets a much better sense of the history of music and their part in it if they’re played on a grand piano, funnily enough.  I can’t really justify it in technical terms; it’s just a feeling I’ve got.

BD:    Is the music that you write of your time, or it is of all time?

JMcC:    I suppose it’s of my own time.  I hope it’s for all time but I don’t actually think about that particularly.  I’m not bothered about posterity.  Posterity can look after itself really.  I get rather worried when composers say they don’t expect people to understand their music, but in fifty years’ time they will.  That rather worries me.  First of all, it’s an assumption that they actually know what music is going to be like in fifty years’ time.  If in 1945 you had been able to anticipate Philip Glass, you’d have been very clever!  It is taking an awful lot on oneself to suggest that one is writing for posterity.  It’s also an easy way out of maybe not getting enough performances as you would like.  We all suffer from that, and you say you’re not writing for this lot.

BD:    It is just an excuse then?

JMcC:    Yes.

BD:    Are you getting enough performances of your music?

JMcC:    No!  [Both have a huge laugh]  But who is? 

BD:    Would you want to be on every station all the time, and in all the elevators?

JMcC:    No, I certainly wouldn’t!  I detest background music.  That’s not strictly true...  I quite enjoy it occasionally, but the objection that I have to Muzak is that it’s an invasion of my personal space.  I don’t particularly want to listen to rock music.  I’ve got nothing against rock music, and in the ‘60s I was a great pop music fanatic.  I find it less interesting now.  That might be a generational thing, or it may be a very perceptive musical comment, but if I have to listen to it, I’d like it to be my idea.  I’d like it to be my idea to listen to a particular type of music or a particular piece of music, not somebody else telling me I have to!

BD:    So when people come to concerts, it’s their idea to come and hear your piece, or to come to hear what you’re playing?

JMcC:    Or at least be prepared to sit through mine in order to hear the Tchaikovsky concerto!  It disturbs me that people are prepared not to come to a concert because there’s something they don’t know.  I remember standing in a queue for drinks in the interval at the Royal Festival Hall years ago when Riccardo Muti did a concert.  He did a big one of the big Haydn choral works in the second half, and in the first half there was a popular concerto, preceded by a short piece by Ligeti, which I happen to like very much.  But anybody with any
nous’ [common sense], as we say in the North of England, would know that the Ligeti is bound to be short because the Haydn was well known as a major choral work, and the concerto was well known, and you’ll know roughly how long it lasts.  So the first piece is bound to be short, and there were people in the queue for drinks complaining about the first piece.  “I’m never going to go to another concert with a piece I don’t know in it”, somebody said!

BD:    They wouldn’t put up with it for seven minutes?

JMcC:    That’s exactly what I said.  If you’re prepared to sit, maybe you’ll find something you enjoy.  It doesn’t have to be a modern piece!  It might not be Ligeti.  It might be Copland’s Outdoor Overture, or Alan Rawsthorne’s Street Corner Overture, or some very accessible work.

BD:    Or a piece by Mysliveček!  [Both laugh]

Josef Mysliveček (9 March 1737 – 4 February 1781) was a Czech composer who contributed to the formation of late eighteenth-century classicism in music. Mysliveček provided his younger friend Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart with significant compositional models in the genres of symphony, Italian serious opera, and violin concerto; both Wolfgang and his father Leopold Mozart considered him an intimate friend from the time of their first meetings in Bologna in 1770 until he betrayed their trust over the promise of an operatic commission for Wolfgang to be arranged with the management of the Teatro San Carlo in Naples. He was close to the Mozart family, and there are frequent references to him in the Mozart correspondence.

JMcC:    Yes, that’s right!  Or a Schumann overture or something which is terrific!

BD:    But to completely ignore an unknown composer about whom they’ve no idea???

JMcC:    Yes, yes!   It’s an attitude which escapes me.  The extraordinary thing is it doesn’t happen in the theater. 

BD:    [Recalling our dinner, and his eagerness to sample the Chicago Pizza]  It also doesn’t happen in restaurants.  People are always dying to try new things and new combinations.

JMcC:    That’s absolutely right.  People will go to the theater to a modern play which lasts the whole evening.  It’s not just seven minutes, it’s the whole evening, and they won’t like it.  Maybe if they like one they will go next month to another one, and the month after that they’ll go to another one.

*     *     *     *     *

mccabeBD:    You’re about to hit 60.

JMcC:    Yes!

BD:    Are you at the point in your career that you want to be at this age?

JMcC:    Oh, I think so!  Yes, I think so.  There are some things I haven’t done which I would have liked to have done.  There are some works I haven’t played and have a sneaking suspicion they won’t get played, and there are things which just don’t happen.  For example, I’m not particularly considered by some of the critics to be an important composer.  Now, of course, I think I am an important composer.  I couldn’t compose unless I thought that, and I would like to have a bit more recognition of that kind.  But I’m getting a lot of performances.  I’ve got commissions ahead.  I’m doing quite well, and I think that I’ve reached a point in my music where I’m able to draw on a whole lifetime’s experience of writing music, which means that all the things I’ve tried in the past are there.  Do you know the book The Sword in the Stone?

BD:    I know of it, though I’ve not read it.

JMcC:    It’s about King Arthur, and is a very entertaining one which is often used for kids.  King Arthur is trained by Merlin in various skills, and in order to do this he becomes an owl for one night.

BD:    Just to understand?

JMcC:    Just to understand how they use certain qualities they have.  Then he becomes an ant for one little period of time, and learns certain other things.  Each day he’s back in his room, and then another adventure crops up, and eventually they find this sword in the stone, and it’s written, ‘Whoever draws this sword out of the stone, shall become the King of England’.  Various people have a go at it, and Arthur is nowhere in sight because he’s just a servant to the young Sir Kay, who is the son of the Knight, and it is expected that Kay will become the Knight, and Arthur will continue to be his servant because nobody knows his background.  He comes across this thing by accident, and tries to pull it out of the stone and fails, and tries to pull it out of the stone and fails, and then holds it again.  At that point all the owls and the ants who he met remind him of the skills that he learnt, and he pulls the sword out of the stone.  Now that is the kind of situation I feel that I’m in
not actually to become King of England exactly, but I feel that I’ve got that experience now which is able to tell me how to solve problems anew.  It’s able to tell me how to adjust my language if I want to incorporate some new element.  I know how to do thatI think — and apart from the technical experience, the imaginative experience is enabling me to enlarge my vocabulary, and possibly enlarge the emotional depth of the music.  I feel it has done that.

BD:    Are you still pulling, and is the sword still coming out of the stone, or have you completely extracted it?

JMcC:    Oh, I shan’t extract it until after I’m dead!  That’s when my work will be complete.  Now there’s a portentous statement, isn’t it?  [Both laugh]  This is posterity again, but I don’t mean it in that sense.   Any composer’s work is not complete until it’s complete, and then suddenly you realize the relationships between early works and late works which, at the time, one didn’t notice because there was another one coming along.

BD:    I was just going to ask if there is a relationship between each work and the next?

JMcC:    Oh, I’m sure there is, apart from obvious little things like a particular rhythmic tag which you use for a short while, and then you begin to recognize it and you start cutting it out because it’s becoming a mannerism.  But I’m sure there are connections, and there are also ancillary works to a big work.  For instance, the last big piece was a ballet called Edward II for the Stuttgart Ballet, and that has one or two satellite works which use material from it.  They’re not arrangements; they’re developments of the material, and they use it in a totally different way.  But they do derive from that material.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    I want to be sure and ask about Alan Rawsthorne.

mccabeJMcC:    Alan Rawsthorne lived from 1905 to 1971, and was born in a little wool town north of Manchester.  When he died he was highly regarded.  He wasn’t a major figure in the way that Britten and Walton were, but he was regarded as a very distinguished composer, and he had had a number of very popular works.  His Second Piano Concerto of 1951 had actually been performed 100 times in the first two years, and was very popular at one time.  He came to prominence in the 1930s, and he wrote in a style that is very chromatic.  It changes key.  Actually, it doesn’t have keys; it has tonal center, a key center of a traditional key, and it is constantly changing, which makes the music rather illusive.  I’ve always loved his music ever since I was a child, and when I was ten, I met him for the first time.  I studied piano with Gordon Green for seventeen years, from the age of eight to twenty-five.  He was in Liverpool and had been a fellow student of Alan’s at the Royal Manchester College of Music
as it then was calledin the 1920s.  So when Rawsthorne had a piece done in Liverpool, he would come and stay with Gordon.  I lived just around the corner, so was bound to meet him.  I was already a fan of his music, and we became friends.  I wouldn’t claim that I was a close friend.  He had a number of close friends.  He was a very reserved man.  He was extremely funny.  He was one of the wittiest people you could ever meet, and very generous.  He never — or hardly eversaid a bad word about any other composer.  He really was not at all bitchy about other composers.  He did drink too much.  That was his great problem.  He drank an enormous amount, which killed him actually, but his reputation dipped partly because his music did fall into mannerism.  Occasionally he would produce a rather duff piece because he was possibly drinking too much.  The energy just wasn’t there.  I’ve just written a book about him, which I’m very pleased to have done because it was a labor of love.  It wasn’t just a commercial enterprise.  I’ve played a lot of his music over the years.  I’ve probably played about twelve pieces, mostly instrumental music.  There are some vocal pieces.  There is a marvelous piece for soprano, chorus and orchestra called Carmen Vitale, which is quite a late piece, and he wrote a lot of film music.  For me the great golden age of film music was in the 1940s and early ‘50s in England.  I know people who’d be shocked at that, but I think that was the great golden age because people like Walton and Malcolm Arnold came in towards the end of that period with some of their best work.  Vaughan Williams’ Scott of the Antarctic music is a wonderful score, with such subtle understanding of the psychology of the whole thing, and the relationship between man and the environment.  It’s all there in the score, and Alan did write a number of very, very fine film scores.  The Cruel Sea was one.  Bernard Herrmann, the great Hollywood composer, used to say that Uncle Silas, which was one of Alan’s films, was one of the very greatest film scores ever written.

BD:    High praise, indeed!

JMcC:    It is, and Benny used to say that quite a lot.  He was a great Rawsthorne fan.  So here’s an interesting guy whose reputation dipped partly because he was overtaken by the avant-garde in the 1960s in England.  Post-Schoenberg became the way to go, and all the elders, the senior generation, were pushed aside except for people like Britten and Walton and Tippett, who were unassailable.  But anybody who was less firmly established in the international repertoire and in the critical hierarchy, was bound to suffer.  In some of Alan’s late works, his language achieved a remarkable enrichment emotionally.  He’s always thought of as somebody who is very urban because he was an extremely natty dresser.  He was very polished, vain, and very civilized, very intelligent, very articulate, a wonderful speaker when he could be persuaded to speak!  But in fact he was a countryman, and it had never occurred to me until I was reading his book.  I went up to the little town where he was born; it is moorland, really.  There were little valleys with trees, but it was basically sheep country.  It’s an industrial town, a very small industrial town, a wool industry town, and his family at the time when he was born owned a couple of farms and some land.  He didn’t inherit a great deal of money.  He struggled quite a lot through his life to make ends meet.  In 1953 he moved back to the country, and said to one of his friends
another pianistthat it was his escape to reality, which is a very good phrase.  He was, as I say, a very articulate man, and his music has great depth.  It’s got great wit.  Not all the pieces are really of the top class. The two Piano Concertosthat is to say the concertos for solo piano and orchestraare, with the Tippett Concerto, the three best piano concertos by British composers.  Alan’s two are absolutely brilliant. They are very witty, lively, and lyrical.  They Second and Third Symphonies are very different in emotional world.  The Third Symphony actually is a remarkable work.  It was written in 1964, quite late on in his career, only seven years before he died.  He had a sort of renaissance of compositional energy from about 1958 to just before he died, and he wrote a great outpouring of really first-class works.  The Third Symphony is an immensely powerful work but quite tough to listen to.  It is much tougher than a lot of his others, but has enormous emotional depth to it.  There’s a wonderful slow movement which is obsessively centered on the note E.  It goes right through it, and yet the symphony uses a serial technique in a way that is fairly individual.  But it is recognizably a rapprochement with serial technique of a far more profound nature than anything Britten or Shostakovich or Copland achieved in my view, because what he did was not in any way a damage to his own style.  He merely expanded it by this means, and that’s very courageous for a man of 60 in a climate where he was beginning to be neglected.  His chamber music was played a lot, but the big orchestral piecesexcept for one of the piano concertoswere no longer played so much.  He felt rather left out of things, and yet he was able to make this great imaginatively leap, though hardly anybody noticed that at the time.

BD:    You have to get away from it in order to notice it.

JMcC:    Exactly, exactly

BD:    So now you champion his music?

JMcC:    I’ve always championed it.  I’ve always played his music a lot, and when writing the book I had to listen to everything.  There are some very poor works, but there is a lot of very fine music, a lot of very good chamber music, splendid orchestral pieces, one or two good songs
and a number which aren’t so goodas well as some fine piano works.  I made a list as a yardstick of his stature to see just how many pieces belong in the first top drawer.  Not these which are not masterpieces because they’re too minorjust little works — but big works which I think are masterpieces, and there were about twenty-two of them.  That’s pretty good!

BD:    Sure, sure!  Now you’ve made a few recordings of his music.  Are you pleased with how they’ve come out?

JMcC:    Yes, I think so.  The only one I’m not pleased with is an old recording on LP of the Four Bagatelles for Piano, which is a marvelous piece.  But the third of them is rather lumpy.  I’m not really happy with that.

BD:    [With a gentle nudge]  Ahhh, but you’re just the performer!  What do you know?

JMcC:    Yes!  [Both laugh]  But he was there so...

BD:    Was he pleased?

JMcC:    He seemed to be, yes.

BD:    [Again, a gentle nudge]  But he’s just the composer!  What does he know?

mccabeJMcC:    [Laughs]  What does he know, yes!   He wasn’t somebody who’d say a great deal at a performance... except on one occasion when he was in the rehearsal for an orchestral piece.  The orchestra played the piece through, and the conductor turned round and said,
Is Mr. Rawsthorne here?  He looked around the hall, and Alan put his hand up rather shyly and said, Yes, I’m here.  The conductor said, Mr. Rawsthorne, is there anything you’d like to say? and Alan said, Well, I don’t think so, except possibly could you possibly play it a bit better next time!  [Both laugh]  So it must have been pretty bad because he normally wasn’t as blunt as that!  He was very helpful.  He was a marvelous pianist at one time.  He studied in the 1930s in Poland with Egon Petri, so he was good enough to study with one of the great pianists and teachers.

BD:    Are his scores littered with expression marks and indications, or are they fairly clean?

JMcC:    Oh, they’re fairly clean.  The piano Sonatina, which is a particular favorite of mine, does have a lot of indications of atmosphere and so on, but in most of them the directions are restricted to the most common sense ones.  He expected the performers to bring a certain tempo sensitivity to the music; that is to say if they wanted to relax the tempo for a more lyrical tune, that was fine.  But that was the sort of thing you can’t write down.  With any music, if you’re in sympathy with the music you’ll probably do that anyway, and he was sufficient of a realist not to be too dogmatic about that.

BD:    In your own compositions, did you learn anything about the writing of music or dealing with music from working with music of Rawsthorne?

JMcC:    He had a terrific influence on me when I was starting to write in my early university days and late high school days, and when I was starting to write again after many years of not writing.  I got back to it, and having got some grounding in theory, I learnt a lot about motivic development from Alan because he derived a lot of his music from very small motifs, rather as Haydn did.   Haydn was one of his two favorite composers; Chopin being the other.  In fact, there is a wonderful article he wrote on the Chopin Ballades, Scherzos and the F Minor Fantasy in a symposium called Chopin: The Man and His Music, edited by Alan Walker.  For anybody who can dig out that book, that article is an absolute marvelous piece of writing; very acute understanding of what Chopin’s doing.  Also it told you a lot about Rawsthorne himself, as any article of that kind is going to by a composer.  And it’s very, very witty.  It’s very elegant writing.  He was a remarkably nice man, and as far as I can tell, he had virtually no enemies.  I’ve only heard of one person who actually really disliked him, and that is remarkable in the profession like music.  He had a lot of support from William Walton who in fact recommended him to the publisher, and was a great supporter of his.  It’s a very interesting period because Rawsthorne was very left-wing politically in the 30s, and was very much on the anti-Franco side of the Spanish Civil War.  It was a very interesting time artistically in England.  As I worked on the book, I did research on it
not really as much as I would have liked to have done, but more would not have been relevant to the particular type of book I was writing.  But it occurred to me that there is virtually nothing about artistic life in general in England on that period which, as far as I know, properly reflects the various strands of political and social thought.  There was a period of time when the documentary film movement was really getting going, and there were very important documentary films made of the late 20s and through the 30s.  The film Things to Come introduced Arthur Bliss to the film world, and was the beginning, really, of the major composers in England going into the studios.  There were the various political involvements of people.  This was the first time the arts were really politicized, and the growth of social awareness eventually led to the Welfare State of post-War years, and the Education Act during the War, which made available high school education of quality to a much wider section of the populous.  All these things really stemmed from that period.  It was a fascinating period.  There was Noël Coward, George Orwell, Robert Graves, a lot of very fine poets including W.H. Audenalthough I must admit I tend of think of Auden as being over-rated, but that’s purely personal.  Louis MacNeice, who was a great friend of Rawsthorne’s, is an underestimated poet.  There were a lot of very fine painters, too.

BD:    It’s an interesting point to draw artists of many fields together.

JMcC:    Yes, and there were artistic colonies which formed exclusive groups.  People always do, but they didn’t become exclusively groups of one political leaning.  There was probably a predominance in one group towards the left-wing, but that did not preclude some people with fairly right-wing views being part of that group. 

BD:    [With a smile]  Very tolerant they are!  [Laughs]

JMcC:    Yes, yes, they were
mostly, but not all.  It was a fascinating period.  What has been interesting for me is talking to peoplefriends, fellow composers and so onthe younger generation of composers who had just heard one or two pieces, and they’ve all been interested in this.  They’ve all said, “Thank Heaven someone is doing it, because I heard a piece and I thought it was terrific!

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Without necessarily not mentioning names, are there people who champion the music of John McCabe besides John McCabe?

JMcC:    [Laughs]  Yes, there are quite a few, really.  One or two conductors have done a lot for me.  James Loughran did a lot.  There’s a young conductor in England called Christopher Austin, who has not been over here (in the U.S.) at all.  He’s a very young conductor.  He’s got his own orchestra in Bristol, and he is a marvelous talent.  He is very interested in doing contemporary music, and he does a lot of mine.  He also does music by Malcolm Williamson, Robert Saxton, Simon Bainbridge, quite a few people like that.  He’s got a group of composers he particularly champions.  Barry Douglas, the pianist, has done a couple of my works several times including a chamber work and Tenebrae the piano piece.  There are quite a few chamber groups who do things in Australia, and over here there are one or two people.  The William Ferris Chorale, for instance, have done quite a few things, including a concert for my 50th Birthday where we shared the program with Elgar, which was rather nice!  There are one or two other conductors...  Jésus López-Cobos has done The Chagall Windows just recently in Cincinnati, but that’s not the first time he’s done it.  He’s done it several times before.

BD:    I assume that it’s very important for a composer not just to get one performance, but to have something done a number of times over a number of years.

JMcC:    Absolutely.  It’s vital; it’s vitally important.  I’ve been lucky in that there are a few pieces
like that one, and a few other orchestral workswhich pop up from time to time.  They’re not standard repertoire of course, but they pop up, and you always think this will become standard repertoire because it hasn’t died yet!  [Both laugh]  We live in hopes!  But it’s important, not only simply for keeping your name in front of people, but also that earlier pieces are still alive.  It’s not just the most recent piece that gets done, it’s earlier pieces.  There are a few of them.  The most performances I get in England are probably chamber music and brass band pieces.  I’ve written five brass band pieces, but there are two in particular that get played an awful lot.


BD:    Can you be considered a brass band composer?

JMcC:    No!

BD:    [Gently protesting]  But you’ve written a couple of very successful pieces!

JMcC:    Yes, but I wouldn’t regard myself as such.  In fact, I stopped because I haven’t got any more ideas for brass band pieces.

BD:    So even if they come banging on your door, you’d say,
“No thank you”?

mccabeJMcC:    I have to, yes.

BD:    That’s too bad.

JMcC:    Not really!

BD:    It takes a great deal of inner-knowledge to be able to say,
“No, I don’t have any ideas for that.

JMcC:    Yes, I suppose it does.  The idea of sitting down to write something without having an idea for it is appalling because one does that when you’re learning.

BD:    When someone comes to you and says they’d like you to write a piece, how long do you take to decide yes, you have an idea, or no, you don’t have an idea?

JMcC:    Oh, it doesn’t take long!

BD:    Two hours?  Two days?  Two weeks? 

JMcC:    It varies a bit, but it’s quite often immediate.  I’ve been asked to write, for instance, saxophone quartets.  Every now and then somebody pops up and says,
“How about a saxophone quartet for us? and I’ve said no.  The first time it was offered, I said, “Sorry, it doesn’t do anything for me.  This is not to say that I don’t like the saxophone quartet, but that has got another sort of engagement with it creatively.

BD:    If all of a sudden you came up with an idea that you think would be a great saxophone quartet, would you call them up immediately and say,
I’m ready!?

JMcC:    Possibly!  If I had thought I had time, yes, I probably would do.

BD:    Have there been times when you’ve said or thought to yourself that you don’t have any idea, and either soon or much later you come up with an idea, and then are able to accomplish it?

JMcC:    I don’t honestly think there have been any of those.  I can’t remember one.  I know pretty quickly.  There are two kinds of ideas.  There are the ideas you already have for pieces, and you try to get commissions to do those, and somebody comes to you and says they’d like a piece and what they want to do is this.  Or somebody rings up and asks for a concerto for ophicleide and harmonica, and you say,
Yes, good heavens, that is a good idea!  I know exactly what I’ll do!  [Both laugh]  That does happen, but not with ophicleide and harmonica.

BD:    I was going to say, the first thing you need to do is find a player!

JMcC:    Yes, that’s right!  [More laughter]  Nearly always you get a buzz from something, and it gives you an idea.  If you have to think about it, it’s probably not a good idea.

BD:    Now you’re going to spend the next couple of years just writing some of these ideas down and getting them ready for performance?

JMcC:    Yes, basically, yes.

BD:    I wish you lots of success, and hope that they’re inspiring to you and inspiring to the audience.

JMcC:    Thank you.  I shall work very hard to fulfill the ideas as best I can, which is really what one is doing.

BD:    You have to be careful not to work too hard?

mccabeJMcC:    I do work very hard.  I don’t get enough holidays.  On the other handand I think this is very importantI have a lot of non-musical interests which I pursue at home, such as listening to cricket or watching it on television.  I very seldom even manage to get to a cricket match.  I enjoy watching golf on television, and I enjoy watching Wimbledon.  I find most tennis tournaments rather boring these days, but Wimbledon I still like because it’s on grass.  Do you know snooker?

BD:    It’s a billiard game with little red balls that are smaller than pool balls.

JMcC:    Yes, they are.  The table is much bigger, and there are fifteen reds and the six colors, and you have to get rid of the reds.  When all the reds have gone you have to take the colors in ascending order of importance.  It’s a wonderful game.  I have actually played snooker in a competition once, and like you have sets in tennis, you have a frame in snooker.

BD:    Do you have a snooker table at home?

JMcC:    No, I wish I did!  But I did win a frame off a guy whose handicap was much lower than mine.  It’s a very difficult game to play even badly, and the problem is that I have glasses.  When you’re playing snooker, you have a long cue, as you do in billiards or pool, and you have to hit the cue ball which then is made to hit the object ball.  If I’m looking at the cue ball through my glasses, the object ball is either on the top of the frame or just about, and I can’t see it anyway.  So it’s very difficult for me, and it is difficult anyway.

BD:    I have bifocals but I have managed to play pocket billiards without too much problem.

JMcC:    They are great games.

BD:    I suppose if you wound up with a snooker table at your home, you wouldn’t get any composing done at all!

JMcC:    No, I think I’d be quite good about it.

BD:    You have uncompromising self-discipline?

JMcC:    Yes, I think so.

BD:    That’s too bad!  [Both have a huge laugh]

JMcC:    The internet is something.  I
’ve got a website, but somebody else is doing that for me.  It’s got lots of information.  I’m not on the internet myself.  I simply daren’t be because I don’t think I’d be able to discipline myself and not just surf wildly.

BD:    Are there sound clips of your recordings on your site?

JMcC:    No, and we’re working on that.  We’ll have to get a move-on because they’re going to change the rules about royalties later this year, so there may be some illustrations for a short while.  But it’s all very exciting all that stuff.

BD:    Is it your job to keep your music exciting?

JMcC:    [Pauses to think a moment]  Not consciously, no.  It’s the same principle as writing deliberately angry music.  If it’s exciting, it’s going to be exciting.  If you’ve got something to say to people, you’ll say it.  If you haven’t, there’s nothing you can do about it, I’m afraid.  All you can do really is to make it as playable as possible so that the ideas are expressed through the performers as clearly and directly as possible.  That doesn’t preclude complexity of course.  You can be as complex as you like, but as long as the complexity is achieved properly, and is necessary to the expression of the ideas, then that’s what I call clarity.

BD:    Thank you for all the music so far, and all that’s yet to come.

JMcC:    Thank you.  Thanks very much.

John McCabe, composer - obituary  [The Telegraph, 6:15PM GMT 13 Feb 2015]  [Text only - photos and links added for this website presentation]

Composer-pianist in the tradition of Bartók and Rachmaninov, who drew inspiration from art and literature

John McCabe, who has died aged 75, was a prolific composer, a formidable pianist and an enthusiastic administrator. He was, wrote Michael Kennedy, a man of his time, who in his composition flirted with serialism, drew inspiration from rock and jazz, and latterly nodded in the direction of minimalism.

The public knew his virtuosic keyboard work (a recording of Haydn’s piano sonatas brought acclaim), while the cognoscenti recognised his distinctive style – “a mix of Vaughan Williams, Britten and Tippett leavened with Karl Amadeus Hartmann and serial procedures”, the critic Guy Rickards noted. In truth the performance and the composition fed each other. He was, said Gramophone, a musician in the composer-pianist tradition of Bartók and Rachmaninov.

There were few areas in which this musical polymath was not influential: he composed the theme for the 1970s ITV series Sam, lectured on Webern’s piano music and gave the British premiere of John Corigliano’s Piano Concerto. He wrote musical criticism and published guides to composers as diverse as Haydn and Alan Rawsthorne, his fellow Northerner. There were also academic posts, including principal of the London College of Music from 1983 to 1990.

McCabe’s influences were many. Gaudí and Mosaic, two of his piano studies, were inspired by Catalan architecture and Islamic art respectively. His third string quartet took its inspiration from the landscape around Ullswater, and his fifth from illustrations of bees by Graham Sutherland. He also wrote for individuals: a dissonant flute concerto for James Galway (1990), for example, and for the pianist Barry Douglas a meditation on mortality called Tenebrae. McCabe argued that the music of other English composers should be heard more often. “Why do we have to wait until Walton’s 75th birthday to hear his overtures?” he demanded. “Why do we not hear more Vaughan Williams?”


John McCabe was born at Huyton, on Merseyside, on April 21 1939, the son of a Scottish-Irish research physicist. His mother, who claimed multiple European ancestries, was a talented violinist. Badly burnt in a fire, John missed his early schooling – time he spent listening to records, learning the piano and writing 13 symphonies, which he later destroyed.

At Liverpool Institute, where he played the cello (“very badly – I was the principal and at times the only cellist in the school orchestra”), he was a contemporary of Paul McCartney and George Harrison. He yearned to be a cricketer but “I never even made the school 11”, although he became a walking encyclopedia on the sport and often composed with it playing on the television.

At the University of Manchester he was reputedly expelled from Humphrey Procter-Gregg’s class after playing his own music in a recital. He then studied at the Royal Manchester College of Music, followed by a year in Munich with Harald Genzmer, a pupil of Hindemith. Meanwhile, the Hallé Orchestra premiered his Violin Concerto (Martin Milner was the soloist), while in November 1962 he gave the first London performance of Elliott Carter’s Piano Sonata, “giving the impression of grasping [its] shape and sense of direction”, one critic wrote. In 1965 he joined the University of Wales as pianist in residence for three years.


His First Symphony, subtitled Elegy and influenced by jazz, was commissioned by the Hallé and premiered at the Cheltenham Festival in 1966 under John Barbirolli. Notturni ed Alba, a setting of Latin texts for soprano and orchestra brimming with vocal virtuosity, was heard at the Three Choirs Festival in 1970 and brought McCabe to wider attention. He also created an enchanting children’s opera from C S Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

McCabe the pianist was now touring extensively, once performing five different programmes on five nights in five cities across North America. “I was wandering around airports in a daze,” he recalled.

He began his Haydn marathon for Decca in 1975, and two years later still found pleasure in the composer’s music. “Even the simplest [sonatas] have tremendous variety and riches,” he said, and as if to prove a point wrote his own Haydn Variations in 1983. Unwilling to be pigeon-holed, he then recorded Hindemith’s fiendish Ludus tonalis for Hyperion in 1996.


In the mid-1970s McCabe dropped serialism – even though he had used it brilliantly in The Chagall Windows (1974), a 30-minute tone poem – and adopted a more melodic approach. International acclaim came in 1982 when Georg Solti championed his Concerto for Orchestra in Chicago. By the late 1990s ballet had come to the fore, with works such as King Arthur for Birmingham Royal Ballet. His last work was Christ’s Nativity, a setting of 17th-century poetry by Henry Vaughan for the Hallé Choir premiered in Manchester two months ago.

McCabe, who was appointed CBE in 1985, is survived by his wife Monica Smith, whom he married in 1974.

John McCabe, born April 21 1939, died February 13 2015

© 1986 & 1998 Bruce Duffie

These conversations were recorded in Chicago on October 6, 1986, and May 10, 1998.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB in 1989, 1990, 1994, and 1999; and on WNUR in 2006 and 2012; and on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio in 2007 and 2015.  This transcription was made in 2016, and posted on this website at that time.  My thanks to British soprano Una Barry for her help in preparing this website presentation.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.

Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.