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John McCabe

Publisher: Novello & Co

Les Martinets Noirs (2003)
Novello & Co Ltd
Soloist(s) and Orchestra
Year Composed
20 Minutes
Solo Instrument(s)
2 Violins
Programme Note
John McCabe Les Martinets Noirs (2003)
Allegro scorrevole - Adagio - Allegro scorrevole

Les Martinet noirs was commissioned by the Amsterdam Sinfonietta and the Eduard van Beinum Stichting, The Netherlands. Its subtitle 'Concerto for 2 Violins and Strings Orchestra' indicates what kind of work it is, very precisely - the two solo violins never play separately, but always form a duo partnership, sharing their music material and their virtuosity. It is also, since it was written for a brilliant Sinfonietta (to whom it is dedicated), quite virtuosic for the string orchestra. There are three movements played without a break, the third being at exactly the same quick tempo as the first. The Concerto lasts for about 20 minutes.

Martinets noirs is the French name for Swifts, those acrobatic Pucks of the air, and one of my annual delights during the summer is to sit in the garden and watch them wheeling about in the stratosphere, and then swooping down to around the trees and chimney pots before returning again to the heights. Their screaming call seems to suggest their joy in movement. Their energy and command of space is something that has always appealed to me - it is a sad moment when, as the summer begins to wane, one looks into the sky for the swifts and realises they are there no more. This piece was written in the glorious summer of 2003, when I was fortunate enough to see them many times, and witness their vertiginous athleticism, and their calm supremacy of the heights.

Preview the score

  • Ensemble
    Orchestra Nova
    Angela Whelan, trumpet; Retorica
    George Vass
    Dutton Epoch:
Like the birds of the title, soloists David le Page and Cathey Leech soared and plunged through the sometimes busy, sometimes sultry, atmosphere to demonstrate McCabe at his best.
John Rushby-Smith, The Hereford Times,20/08/2009
Obviously a succes were John McCabe's other persuasive large scale and smaller premieres: particularly the UK premiere, the very next afternoon, of Les martinets noirs, a brilliantly conceived Concerto Grosso for two violins - David Le Page and Cathy Leech - and orchestra delivered in an increasingly satisfying concert by the Orchestra of the Swan under its musical director David Curtis, who has pioneered an utterly admirable policy of commissioning new work and prising out the almost totally neglected old. Following some rather too stolidly legato Handel came an in all respects pleasing reading of Finzi's Romance for strings...a terrific Les martinets noirs ('swifts'), or as the composer puts it, 'Pucks of the air', almost as airborne as their previous night's fellows refused to levitate. McCabe writers, engagingly, of the 'vertiginous athleticism' of the swifts he daily observes during the Kentish summer in his garden at home. In the playful causerie of the two keening violin soloists , and their striking interplay with the various elements of orchestra, he constructs a kind of fascinating aubade on a grand scale. Les martinets noir feels as masterly in construction as it is airy and joyous to listen to.
Roderic Dunnett, ,14/08/2009
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