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John McCabe

Publisher: Novello & Co

Symphony No. 4 'Of Time and the River' (1994)
commissioned by the BBC as part of an exchange scheme with the Australian Broadcasting Coporation
Work Notes
first British performance 17/5/1995, BBC SO conducted by David Atherton at the Royal Festival Hall
Novello & Co Ltd
Sub Category
Large Orchestra
Year Composed
30 Minutes
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Programme Note
John McCabe Symphony No. 4 'Of Time and the River' (1994)
This Symphony, my fourth, was commissioned by the British Broadcasting Corporation as part of an exchange scheme with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, and originated from a continued, and deeply valued, association over the years with Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. The actual idea for the work, which was written in 1993/4, had been in my mind for a long time, and the basic premise which provided the impulse for it was the idea of a symphony in two parts, the first gradually getting slower and the second, starting with a complete absence of forward movement, equally gradually increasing in pace.

Thus, the music begins with fast music of forward dynamic thrust, which as Part One progresses gives way to slower tempi, ending in a bleak, slow section. Part Two reverses this process, starting in a state almost of suspension and gradually moving out of it to return, ultimately, to the music of the opening, and whirling outwards from it. This arch-like use of tempo is matched by the tonal scheme, which moves from the emphatic D of the opening to the bleak A flat at the end of Part One, and from the static A flat of the beginning of Part Two to a resumption of the forthright D major tonality after the fast tempo has reasserted itself. The work ends with the strings whirling away above a brass chorale, and, after the final climax, a collapse back into a brief, slow coda which, after all that has happened, gives the last word perhaps (but only perhaps) to the A flat. The arch-like form is also present in the idea of the onrush of energy at the start, the slow dissolution of it that occurs through Part One, and the gradual accumulation of energy once again, stage by stage, as Part Two progresses.

The title of the work derives from the magnificent novel Of Time and the River by the American writer Thomas Wolfe, who died in 1938 at the age of 38. It was pure coincidence that led me to read this book at a time when I was well into the composition of the piece, and there is no programmatic connection whatsoever between the music and the book. What impressed me was his sense of the passing of time, and the different levels on which it works. Who hasn't experienced that strange feeling of two different speeds of time happening concurrently - for instance, the sensation that, while sitting in a train passing another, the second train is moving backwards even when one knows it is going in the same direction as oneself? Trains, as it happens, are a recurrent leitmotif in the novel, and although the connection only occurred to me when reading the book (by which time my ideas were far too clearly worked out to be affected), the coincidence seemed almost magical to me.

The world premiere of Symphony 4 "Of Time and the River" was given by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, conductor Vernon Handley, at the Melbourne Concert Hall, Australia, on 16 March 1995. The British premiere was given by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conductor David Atherton, at the Royal Festival Hall, London on May 17th, 1995.

© 1994 John McCabe

  • Ensemble
    BBC Symphony Orchestra
    Vernon Handley
McCabe makes an impressive edifice by a process of gradual accretion…Nothing is wasted; there is a complete absence of gilt or gratuitous ornamentation. While various solo melodies emerge, chiefly for winds, the composer’s chief interest here in orchestral fabric lies in the organisation of contrasting blocks…This new symphony underlines his status as a master-composer.
Clive O’Connell, The Age,01/03/1995
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