Composer and pianist John McCabe dies aged 75

A gifted artist, he had composed 13
symphonies by the age of 11, and his
recordings of Joseph Haydn's piano sonatas
are considered definitive.
His own compositions included orchestral and
chamber music, and he was director of the
London College of Music between 1983 and
Confirming his death, publishers Novello and
Company said he had "passed away
peacefully, after a long illness".
International renown
Born in Lancashire in 1939, McCabe was
badly burned as a child and was educated at
home for eight years, giving him ample time
to experiment with music.
"There was a lot of music in the house as I
was growing up," he told M Magazine last
"My mother was a very good amateur violinist
and there were records and printed music
everywhere. I thought that if all these guys -
Beethoven, Brahms, Schubert - can do it, then
so can I!"
However, he insisted, those early symphonies
were "absolute rubbish, and I have
successfully destroyed most of them".
McCabe wrote more than 200 works over
the course of his career
He studied at the Royal Manchester College
of Music (now the Royal Northern) and in
Munich with German composer Harald
In the 1960s, he was pianist-in-residence at
Cardiff University, after which he successfully
pursued a dual career as pianist and
He was prolific, producing a catalogue of
more than 200 works in a wide array of forms
and contexts, working on instruments from
the recorder to the organ to the penny
His first internationally recognised work was
the song cycle Notturni ed alba, for soprano
and orchestra.
Based around four medieval Latin poems on
the topic of night, Gramophone magazine
called it "an intoxicating creation, full of
tingling atmosphere and slumbering passion".
McCabe agreed it "really opened doors" for
his career, adding: "It was... taken up by all
kinds of people like Andre Previn and Bernard
Haitink - it brought me to a much bigger
Between 1974 and 1976, he recorded the
entirety of the Haydn sonatas for Decca, and
the discs have never gone out of print.
He also delved into 20th Century works by
Hindemith, Britten, Bax, Webern and others.
Services to music
One of his most successful works was the
ballet Edward II, created and choreographed
by David Bintley and premiered by the
Birmingham Royal Ballet, winning the 1998
Barclays Theatre Award.
He also received acclaim for his Haydn
Variations, written in 1983 to celebrate the
250th anniversary of Haydn's birth and
initially performed by fellow pianist Philip
According to McCabe, Fowke believed the
work "was one of the most difficult pieces he
has ever had to play".
"He liked it very much and he played it
wonderfully well," the composer told Seen
and Heard magazine - adding: "This is going
to sound very pretentious, I don't actually
find it difficult.
"One or two bits are very difficult, but on the
whole I don't think it's very difficult. And the
reason I think that is because it's written for
my hand, instinctively."
'Disruptive' influence
Despite his dual careers, McCabe said he
rarely composed at the piano, saying it was
"disruptive to my thought processes".
"What I like to do when I'm composing is see
the structure taking shape before me," he
told BBC Radio 3 last year. "But if you're
playing piano you can't do that - you're
concentrating on playing the right notes...
"Another reason for it is, when I was doing
the two activities concurrently, I found myself
being much too heavily influenced as a
composer by the works I was playing.
"If I was playing Copland, a few phrases of
Copland would suddenly creep into my
McCabe was appointed CBE by the Queen in
1985 for his services to British music. He was
also given an honorary doctorate in music by
Liverpool University and last year's Ivor
Novello Award for classical music.
He continued to work until his death, despite
a long battle with brain cancer, whose
devastating effects were chronicled in an
article by his wife Monica in a 2013 edition
of Musical Opinion.
She wrote how "his courage and will-power...
astonish me".
McCabe's most recent work, Christ's Nativity,
was commissioned by the Halle Choir and
premiered in Manchester in December 2014.
Paying tribute, McCabe's friend and colleague
James Rushton said: "We have a lost a man of
great wisdom, humour and integrity and a
complete musician.
"My abiding memory of John will be his
acceptance speech when receiving the
classical music award at the Ivor [Novello
awards] 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."