commissioned by the London Philharmonic Orchestra for its 50th anniversary season with funds from the Arts Council
Deciso - Adagio
Scherzino (Allegro vivo)
Largo - Allegro deciso - Allegro marcato - Pesante
Composer and pianist John McCabe has written music not only for the concert hall, but also for stage, television and film. Noted for his music's colour and rhythmic sense, his most successful works include Notturni ed Alba for soprano and orchestra (1970), The Chagall Windows for orchestra (1974), Cloudcatcher Fells for brass band (1985) and Red Leaves for chamber orchestra (1991). His most recent major works include Tenebrae for piano (1992-3), the Flute Concerto (1990), and the Fourth Symphony Of Time and the River (1993-4), which was an exchange commission between the BBC and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. His full-length ballet Edward II was created by David Bintley from Marlowe's play and premiered by Stuttgart Ballet to outstanding popular and critical acclaim in 1995. His most notable achievement as a pianist is the monumental 12-CD set of the complete Haydn sonatas for Decca.
Influences on McCabe include Nielsen, jazz and brass bands, '60s rock drumming and serialism. The latter has left its mark in McCabe's ability to work on a short theme and, by means of augmentation, diminution and variation, sow a musical seed which grows with carefully controlled pace throughout a work.
The 'passacaglia' idea is the basis of McCabe's Concerto for Orchestra. The work was written in 1982 and first performed by the LPO in February 1983, conducted by Sir Georg Solti. By choosing 'Concerto for Orchestra' rather than 'symphony' as its title, the treatment of form is freer and orchestration lays a special role in its development. As in much of his work the piece moves on two planes of tempi, having a slow-moving theme encircled by quicker, more complex decoration, all derived from a common origin - the passacaglia. Another notable feature is the prominence of brass throughout. McCabe has a special affection for brass and has composed a considerable amount of music for this medium. A distinctive feature of the orchestration is that the writing is confined to certain sections or groups of instruments at a time. It is only in the final movement that the orchestra plays as a whole.
The format of the piece was suggested by a piano work - Schumann's 'Faschingsschwank aus Wien' - having five movements, although the order of the inner movements in Schumann's piece is slightly different. The section preceding the first movement proper, consisting largely of a brass fanfare, was a later addition. The structure of the work is by and large an arch shape reaching its climax in the central 'Romanze'. Everything after this point is a reflection of ideas in preceding movements. The piece is continuous, and on a first hearing it may be difficult to detect the transition from one movement to the next, so landmarks need to be identified.
The introduction begins with an imitative fanfare motif in the trumpets. The augmented passacaglia theme is gradually introduced, the predominant intervals being the 2nd, perfect 4th and minor 7th. This section continues with shortened and lengthened versions of the passacaglia theme surrounded by the fanfare motif. The timpani reiterate the fanfare rhythm leading into the first movement proper, the arrival of which is announced by the tubular bell. Here muted strings enter for the first time with the augmented passacaglia subject. Again the slow-moving theme is complemented by secondary decoration. Celli enter with a rich haunting melody which acts as the principal theme in this movement, moving through the various sections of the orchestra.
The passacaglia subject is at its most distinct when it appears on glockenspiel accompanied by cellos and strings. The movement ends with flute and upper strings bringing the theme to an abrupt fortissimo halt, leaving only a fading dream-like ostinato on the piano.
The 'Scherzino' consists of scurrying muted strings in imitation with the theme mainly in the lower wind instruments. A precipitous descent in wind and brass marks the beginning of the 'Romanze', characterised by relentlessly moving quavers in 5/8. The high point of the movement, and indeed the turning point of the work, comes when upper strings emerge in a wonderfully luscious and melancholy melodic line. This is passed on to piccolo and flute when it takes on an eerie quality and fades in the 'Intermezzo'.
Strings are 'tacet' in this movement. Syncopation in duple time alternates with passages of triplets, and these are later combined to create conflicting rhythmic patterns. There is great similarity between the build-up to the final movement and the bars which preceded the first movement proper. Now the tuba sustains a crescendo on a single note, cut off by the dramatic striking of the tubular bell.
The final movement has arrived. The bell dramatically outlines the passacaglia theme. The movement is a grand culmination of everything that has gone before with all the ideas mingling in huge frenzied tuttis. An insistent and intense variation on the fanfare motif leads to a triple forte final chord. But was are quickly reminded that all is not over yet as, in a reflection of the end of the first movement, the piano, now joined by harp, emerges in a soft impressionistic ostinato fading into nothing.