It was announced this time last week that composer and pianist John McCabe had sadly died aged 75.
McCabe was born in Liverpool on the 21st of April 1939 and he took an interest in music and composing from a young age. In an interview for M Magazine in 2014 he said “There was a lot of music in the house as I was growing up. My mother was a very good amateur violinist and there were records and printed music everywhere.”
John McCabe enjoyed a long and varied career in the classical music industry – his prolific compositional works spanning almost every genre. Although drawing influences from esteemed British composers such as Britten, Tippett and Vaughan Williams, his compositional style is very much his own. One of his most successful works is the ballet Edward II, commissioned by Stuttgart Ballet and premièred in the UK by Birmingham Royal Ballet, earning the 1998 Barclays Theatre Award. Among his other completed works, some 228, works of note are Cloudcatcher Fells and Salamander which have become classics the repertoire of Brass Bands.
Monica McCabe recalls how her husband was never a jealous man, he was a great champion of others and took delight in the success of his peers and colleagues. Although he never taught, he placed great importance on investing in the next generation of musicians, frequently giving masterclasses.
McCabe also enjoyed a career as a formidable concert pianist, indiscriminate in his tastes, playing works from pre-classical through to contemporary classical – he ‘championed composers he felt had been unjustly neglected’ and in particular British composers.
Unlikely to be forgotten is his mammoth Decca recording of Haydn’s complete piano sonatas – which has never been out of catalogue – it gained him critical acclaim and was hailed by gramophone as ‘one of the great recorded monuments of the keyboard repertoire’.
Here he is in an interview for BBC Radio 3 speaking about his respect for Haydn, and his own ballet compositions.
As a testament to his work, McCabe has been honoured several times for his service to music. In 1985 McCabe was appointed a C.B.E. by HM The Queen for his services to British music. In 2004 the Incorporated Society of Musicians presented McCabe with the Distinguished Musician Award in recognition of his ‘outstanding contribution to British musical life’. In 2006 he was awarded an Honorary Doctorate in Music from Liverpool University, and in 2014 he was awarded the Ivors Classical Music Award and the Iles Medal for contributions to the brass band movement.
McCabe continued to compose through his long battle with brain cancer, leaving several works unfinished. His most recent work, Christ’s Nativity, was commissioned by the Halle Choir and premiered in Manchester in December 2014.
Managing director of Novello & Company Limited and John McCabe’s friend, James Rushton, said: “With John McCabe’s passing we have lost a man of great wisdom, humour and integrity and a complete musician. A composer and pianist of the highest calibre, he shall be greatly missed…My abiding memory of John will be his acceptance speech when receiving the Classical Music Award at the Ivors last year. It was quite extraordinary – self-deprecating, loyal to fellow composer colleagues, and immensely humorous – leaving everyone on their feet, cheering. That is as it should be.”