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John McCabe

Publisher: Novello & Co

Tenebrae (1993)
Funding provided by Chandos Memorial Trust
Novello & Co Ltd
Solo Keyboard(s)
Year Composed
20 Minutes
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Programme Note
John McCabe Tenebrae (1993)
Tenebrae (using the word in the sense of "darkness") was written during 1992-3, with the aid of funding generously provided by the Chandos Memorial Trust, and is dedicated to Barry Douglas. It is the result of several diverse influences. One is the personal loss of three much-loved and admired musical friends during 1992, Sir Charles Groves and the composers William Mathias and Stephen Oliver - this particularly affected the tone of the work. Another, earlier impulse was the enormous opening section of Hermann Broch's novel The Death of Virgil, a description of the arrival of the dying poet at the port of Brundisium and the carriage of him through the crowded streets to the apartments in which he was to die.

Three musical impulses also underlie the work, the nature and form of Chopin's Barcarolle (though at about 20 minutes Tenebrae is much longer), a typical texture to be found in Beethoven's piano writing using the extremes of the piano (to be heard towards the end of the work), and perhaps above all my long-standing fascination with the world of Liszt's two late pieces entitled La lugubre Gondole (The funeral Gondola).

Tenebrae is a continuous single movement, arising out of a theme that is heard (following the short but important introduction) largely in the bass, with the accompaniment in the right hand - this format is used almost exclusively for each episode in which this theme is gradually unfolded. There are intervening episodes which slowly move the music to an increase in pace and a central section of rhythmic character and some degree of violence, and following the final climax (marked quasi Cadenza), the main theme returns, this time in both hands above an accompanying bass figuration, to move the music this time to a sense of greater peace and possibly acceptance. At the close, however, when the very opening returns, the calm is disrupted by echoes of one of the more agitated ideas, leaving the work in a mood of ambiguity and loss.

© 1993 John McCabe

  • Soloist(s)
    Tamami Honma (piano)
  • Soloist(s)
    John McCabe, piano
    Toccata Classics:
  • 28 NOV 2019
    St Bartholomew the Great, Smithfield, London
    James Kreiling, piano

“Tenebrae is as finely wrought an instance of abstract piano-writing as has emerged over the past half-century.”
Richard Whitehouse , The Classical Source ,07/11/2014
...[a] great arc of sadness and anger....
Stephen Pritchard, The Observer,11/01/2009
…partly inspired by Liszt’s late funeral works, Tenebrae was written as a musical response to the deaths in 1992 of the conductor Charles Groves and composers William Matthias and Stephen Oliver, all friends of McCabe. The work’s pounding pianism, suggesting the release of pent-up anger and grief, as well as its culminating sense of almost blissful resignation, were powerfully expressed in [Barry] Douglas’ playing.
Matthew Rye, The Daily Telegraph,01/12/1995
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