'The Ballet Music of McCabe'


Dance Now,  Winter Edition 2002


Few people are blessed with one talent let alone several, or at least several that they could use professionally. One such however is musician John McCabe. As a composer he has produced works in most musical forms, he is a virtuoso pianist (famous for his recording of the complete Haydn Piano Sonatas), a writer and an administrator (for seven years he was director of the London College of Music). McCabe, was born in Huyton, Liverpool, in 1939 and trained as a musician at Manchester University and the "old" Royal Manchester College of Music which he entered in 1960 as a piano pupil of the late Gordon Green and a composition student with the late Thomas B. Pitfield (himself something of a polymath). He was at the college after the so-called ‘Manchester School’ of avante-gardits –Harrison Birtwistle, Alexander Goehr, John Ogdon and Peter Maxwell Davies. From the RMCM he spent a year at the Munich Hochschule für Musik, where he first heard the music of Karl Amadeus Hartmann, which would have a profound influence on his own music. He made his name early in his career when in 1963 the Hallé Orchestra, with Martin Milner (whose daughter was the LCDT dancer Charlotte Milner) presented his the First Violin Concerto (1959). In 1964 Maurice Handford conducted the work that put McCabe on the map, the Variations on a Theme of Karl Amadeus Hartmann and this led to a Hallé Orchestra commission for a symphony (No.1, Elegy, 1965) which Sir John Barbirolli conducted at the 1966 Cheltenham Festival. What was obvious to listeners, was that here was a composer who was in touch with the major trends of 20th century music (including jazz) but had not jumped on the avant-garde bandwagon and ignored his listeners.This ability to assimilate many styles into his own highly personal, yet accessible vocabulary, as well as the marked dramatic element that underlines all McCabe's music, should have made him a favourite with choreographers seeking new music for dance. Yet the British Ballet world and particularly the Royal Ballet monolith buried its head in the sand in the post de Valois era, and commissioned pitifully few new scores. There are (to date) only five original ballet scores by McCabe;1973: The Teachings of don (sic) Juan. Text by Monica Smith. Choreography Suzanne Hywell. Premiered by Northern Dance Theatre, May 30th 19731975: Mary Queen of Scots. Choreography Peter Darrell. Premiered by the Scottish Ballet, My 3rd 1976.

1995: Edward 11. Choreography David Bintley. Premiered by the Stuttgart Ballet, 15th April.

1999: Arthur Part 1, Arthur Pendragon. Choreography David Bintley. Premiered by the Birmingham Royal Ballet, 25th January 2001.

2001: Arthur Part 2, Le Mort d’Arthur. Choreography David Bintley. Premiered by the Birmingham Royal Ballet, 9th May 2001.

Ballets have also been created to existing symphonic works:

1968: Danse Macabre, using the Symphony No. 1. Choreography by Sir Peter Wright. Premiered by the Western Theatre Ballet. (McCabe was most amused that the title could be seen as a pun on his name).

1976: Notturni ed Alba, using the score of the same name. Premiered by the Munster State Ballet, April 1976.

1978: Shadow-reach, using the 2nd Symphony and music from the Hartmann Variations. Choreography by Domy Reiter-Stoffer, to a scenario based on Henry James ‘The turn of the screw’. Premiered by the Irish Ballet Company, June 19th.

1980: Die Fenster, using ‘The Chagall Windows’. Choreography by Rosemary Hellewell. Premiered by the Stuttgart Ballet, February 16th.

McCabe has had an interest in viewing ballet throughout his life. He still vividly remembers being taken as a small child to performances of ‘A Wedding Bouquet’ and ‘The Judgement of Paris’. But he had never had any interest in writing a ballet for most of the reasons that successful composers do not. Mainly that, the music is treated with little respect, the composer has little control over tempi, that it is seldom a collaboration and that the music is second to the dance.

His introduction to the dance world was almost through the back door when he was approached by the Northern Dance Theatre to write what was not strictly a ballet but a music-theatre work. This was to be based on the magic realist book ‘ The teachings of don (sic) Juan’ by Carlos Castenada, choreographed by Suzanne Hywell. The choreographer was not the only other artist involved here since the work had a text derived from the book by McCabe’s wife Monica Smith. In that sense McCabe does not see the work as a true collaboration, since his music was dictated to some extent by the text sung by a baritone onstage and the shape of which dictated the choreography. Incidentally, and somewhat curiously, the ballet was premiered in a programme that also included Fokine’s La Carnaval and Joos’ The Green Table. British dancers were obviously versatile in the 70’s!

The work is scored for a small ensemble of baritone, flute doubling piccolo, clarinet, horn, trumpet, 2 percussionists, violin and cello and lasts about 35 minutes. The teachings of this don (sic) Juan, have nothing to do with Don Giovanni, but the magical mysteries of Yaqui Indian wise men explored through the properties of hallucinogenic drugs. This all may seem like a perfect piece for the end of the Hippy generation and indeed the production included the passing round of reefers, strobe lighting and back projections. The inclusion of characters such as the ‘crow spirits’ and Mescalito ‘ a plant- green man, his skin green and warted, his head pointed on top’, should give some idea of the type of work it was.

McCabe however did not allow his music to get bogged down in 70’s collage effects, and he produced an economically worked out score. As with his later work with Bintley, the music here is mainly derived from the opening material. Here it is a melody on solo flute based on the interval of the fourth. Much play is made in the score of the augmented fourth or ‘diabolus in musica’, which contributes an unsettling feel to the music, a sense of other worldliness and difference. It must have been problematical for the choreographer to find any sense of freedom to create movement to this score since the baritone sings almost throughout and the vocal line is so rich in imagery that the dancers could do little else but to interpret the words. This could also have been limiting for the composer, but McCabe managed to write some effective and atmospheric music. The writing for the brass and woodwind is successful in the dance of the Crow Spirits, where the spacing of the chords, contrast of timbre and rhythm are particularly dynamic. He holds one trick up his sleeve towards the end the work, for the for the moment of the pupils ‘enlightenment’ when the baritone slides up to a high falsetto, to a highly dramatic effect.

McCabe’s next work the full scale ‘Mary Queen of Scot’s was in his view a true collaboration between himself, the choreographer Peter Darrell and the critic Noel Goodwin, who devised the scenario. McCabe and Darrell had already had discussions about the ballet before it was decided to ask Goodwin to arrange the scenario. This proved quite a difficult task particularly in terms of its time line and the three would meet regularly to discuss the work. The ballet was a grand affair with two acts lasting over an hour each. There were a great many characters and it was to the development of these that McCabe devoted much of his time. He did a great deal of historical research on all of them and in his creation of the music he allowed what he saw as their essential characteristics to dictate the development of the music. Extra-mural characters also found their way into the music and McCabe admits that his sound portrait of Mary has strong characteristics of his own mother.

One thing absent from the music are any authentic Scottish tunes; early on McCabe made a conscious decision no to use any folk music, opting instead to create his own material with a Scottish flavour. A key feature in this is his use of the ‘Scotch Snap’ rhythm so characteristic of Scottish folk music. Although McCabe had input into the scenario his relationship with Darrel – who although very intuitive about music could not read a score- was much like that of Petipa and Tchaikovsky. Darrell would give McCabe a minutage of each scene with requests for duration, dynamic, speed etc. which McCabe would work to. Although even here McCabe would make suggestions if he did not think something would work dramatically.

The scenario, although a little turgid in its attempts to document so many parts of Mary’s life, (writing in Dance and Dancers, Peter Williams felt that there was enough material for ‘five ballets’), did provide many opportunities for grand ensemble court dances, as well as intimate pas de deux, trios and solos. McCabe’s music is wide ranging in its colour and invention, and most importantly its drama. His abilities as an orchestrator are challenged throughout to find the right sounds to match the emotional needs of each scene. The music depicting Mary’s flight into England is particularly beautiful and Riccio’s lute dance is a perfect portrait of the misshapen courtier. In real life he was something of an elegant monstrosity, charming and intelligent, but with a slight physical deformity; in the ballet this appearance was something Darrell built into the choreography. The music of this dance is by turns elegant and quick witted but with a deliberate asymetrical phrasing.

Key to McCabe’s conception of the music were a number of orchestral interludes, which like the Sea Interludes in Britten’s opera ‘Peter Grimes’ were central to the development of the whole work. In the theatre they caused some problems for the critics and the audience who could not cope with a period with no action on stage. Peter Williams felt that they fragmented the ballet rather than being able to understand them as moving it forward. McCabe remembers somewhat bitterly that the audience would talk during them.

The ballet was moderately successful at its premiere although most critics felt that the fragmentary, cluttered nature of Goodwin’s scenario eliminated any sense of mounting drama- the first act had three murders alone! Goodwin for his part in his booklet ‘A ballet for Scotland’ (Cannongate 1976) felt that it was the fault of the music and ‘that the musical conception prolonged the narrative and slowed up the dramatic pace, as well as allowing no breathing space for an audience to absorb an unfamiliar subject’. McCabe for his part recalls ‘writing the music that I was asked for’. After the first run it was decided to make some drastic cuts which McCabe was not consulted about and which in his opinion damaged the musical cohesion of his concept. Almost first to go where the orchestral interludes; this Peter Williams had suggested in his review, but he had also suggested that they should be recorded so that their musical worth could be recognised, this has never happened. In all about twenty minutes were removed from the ballet and not with McCabe’s approval as his wife has noted ‘it was not an entirely satisfactory musical experience’.

There is much highly effective music in the ballet, atmospheric, dramatic and colourful and it is a great pity that most of it has not been heard in years. In the 1980’s he made two orchestral suites from the ballet but they have not made much ground into an orchestral repertoire, suspicious of new music and doubly so of music derived from ‘ballet’. More has been heard of the ‘Paraphrase on Mary Queen of Scots’ the study no 5 for piano solo that McCabe wrote in 1979 on material from the ballet. And anyone wanting to hear a small section of the orchestral music should invest in Manchester Accents, a CD ( ASC CS CD45) from the Northern Chamber Orchestra which includes two Dances from the ballet arr. for harp and strings.

Nearly twenty years would pass before McCabe was persuaded back into the ballet world, and then it was largely due to his wife. She realised in the intervening period that her husband’s music was eminently suitable for the stage. He wrote no specific stage works during this period although as well his ever successful concert music, he did provide the music for a wide range of television programmes from Hammer House of Horror to Michelin Tyre adverts! One day his wife hit upon writing a scenario based on ‘The once and future king ‘ by T.H.White and said she was going to send it unannounced to David Bintley, a choreographer they both admired but did not know. This she did and received a reply saying that the choreographer never felt able to work with other people’s scenarios. Nothing happened, but some years later Bintley was looking for a composer to work on a project and the late Paul Reade who had had a great success with his music for Bintley’s ‘Hobson’s Choice’ recommended McCabe.

The two artists met and talked in a roundabout fashion about various topics but Bintley played his cards close to his chest. A while later a scenario – based on Marlowe’s play- arrived that would form the basis for the ballet Edward 11 that would be such a huge success in Stuttgart in 1995. The scenario was to be only the beginning. In a way that his other ballets had not been McCabe sees this as a true collaboration, all of the contributors, choreographer, designer, lighting designer had regular meetings a, and all contributed to the shape of the work. But it was McCabe and Bintley who worked closest together.

Unlike the late Peter Darrell,- indeed unlike most dancers- Bintley can read music and could respond not only instinctively but musically to the composers ideas. He is able – as were Balanchine and de Valois- to articulate in technical terms what he thinks of a piece of music. And also he can convey his requirements in words that a musician can understand. This is a rare gift. Even rarer is Bintley’s ability to sit through a piano play through of the composer’s ideas and imagine for himself what they will sound like on a full orchestra. McCabe also found Bintley unusually sensitive to his tempi. Most choreographers are indifferent to this aspect of music, which to most composers is central to their conception of the music. One has only to look at say MacMillan's ‘Concerto’, or Ashton’s ‘Rhapsody’, to see how great music can be destroyed by ignoring the composer’s tempi. But as McCabe is happy to note, ‘with David, if he accepts a piece of music he accepts the tempi’.

The two men did huge amounts of research on the subject and would share their thoughts not only on the musical material but also on the characters. Here they looked into not only the historical characters but discussed at length the psychological motivation of the players and the intricacies of their emotional relationships. The intricacies of the relationships are mirrored in the intricacies of McCabe’s score. Justifying the omission of Stravinsky from the Pelican book, The Symphony (Harmondsworth 1967), Robert Simpson wrote that in symphonic music, ‘the internal activity is fluid, [and] organic, and that it has an ‘interpenetrative activity of all its constituent elements’. This –according to Simpson- being unlike the ‘episodic and sectional’ balletic works called symphonies by Stravinsky. What McCabe manages to do in this ballet is to reconcile the episodic and the ‘interpenetrative’, and it should come as no surprise to learn that in 1998 he fashioned a 40 minute symphony ‘Edward 11’, on material from the ballet.

The ballet is conceived on a symphonic scale and from the first, McCabe decided that the works harmonic progress would follow Edward’s fall. So it is that the music becomes more and more chromatic, dissonant and harmonically more complex as the story progresses. Most of the musical material of the ballet is derived from the 13 bar plainchant like melody which accompanies the funeral cortege of Edward 1 that opens the work. I say plainchant like because the melody is McCabe’s own. He researched medieval music thoroughly before writing the ballet but used only two existing melodies from that period.

This symphonically organic development of his musical material links in a magnificent way the disparate elements of the work, which could have in lesser hands fragmented the ballet. To provide unity he even incorporates some of the classical forms, Act 2 for instance includes two passacaglia (a sort of variation form) based on four highly chromatic chords. He manipulates successfully the orchestral music and that of the small band of travelling players, the ‘Fauvel’ group. This group made up of piccolo, E flat clarinet, trumpet, trombone and percussion, provide the ballet within the ballet-based on the medieval tale of Fauvel- providing as Bintley says an ‘element of fantasy and comedy to the harsh reality…’. This fantasy element can also be seen in the orchestration, which requires a large orchestra. This unusually includes an electric guitar, which makes its presence uncomfortably felt in Act 1 scene 2 in the confrontation with the Barons. Ever the consummate professional McCabe has made a version for smaller orchestra to accommodate some of the orchestra pits of some of the smaller theatres.

The ballet moves forward not in its big set pieces but in its pas de deux, indeed that is how the ballet began, with McCabe picking out in single notes on the piano the first (of three) pas de deux for Mortimer and Isabelle. For me the highlight of the ballet is the pas de deux in Act 1 scene 2 in which Edward dances with Gaveston. Here there is a passion that is absent from any of the heterosexual pas de deux. Bintley seems to have reinvented the form in a way that is wholly masculine, neither character is the feminine part, and there is an egalitarianism not usually seen in ballet. (The male pas de deux in Lubovitch’s K622 comes close, but that is devoid of passion). Likewise McCabe’s music seems totally masculine, the sentimentality that can often be associated with the traditional pas de deux is absent. The intensity of the lovers relationship is encapsulated in a-to begin with- quietly ecstatic theme on the horns which is gradually embellished by the full orchestra. The same music will later be darkly transformed for Gaveston’s murder and also for the duo between Edward and his gaoler Lightborn.

The ballet was a triumphant success at its premieres in Germany and in the UK. And for once the ballet critics managed to recognise that the success was due in a large part to McCabe’s superb score, one which is surely the best British ballet score since Britten’s ‘The Prince of the Pagodas’. How to follow it?

Surprisingly, to Mrs McCabe at least, the story of Arthur came back into the frame, though not in the format that she had suggested. Bintley had originally thought to have the story set in modern times in business suits, an idea that was quickly dropped. The composer and choreographer however began reading voraciously around Arthurian legend. And as they read the story became not one of historical and political event but rather the interplay of couples and love triangles. So in Arthur Parts 1 and 2, the key players are Arthur and his half-sister Morgan le Fay and the key triangles being Ygraine, Gorlois and Uther Pendragon; Guinevere, Arthur and Lancelot; and the love/hate relationship between Morgan, Arthur and their bastard child Mordred.

As well as reading to stimulate his musical imagination McCabe and his wife visited areas associated with Arthurian legend. They battled their way through postcards and junk at Tintagel, finding inspiration in Merlin’s Cave and Dozmary Pool, home of the Lady of the Lake. They visited Roman ruins at Viroconium, and on the Welsh Marches, Caerwent and Caerleon, being stopped by a barbed wire fence from approaching a lonely lake said to be the hidden Isle of Avalon. All of these excursions fed into McCabe’s imagination and over three years he wrote nearly five hours of music. One of the major problems in writing a work of this length is the time scale. An idea, thought of near the beginning of the project needs to be in some way recorded and documented so that it is not lost in the millions of notes that may appear before it is needed. With the large orchestra involved pages covered in thousands of notes may last seconds. And of course amongst all of this McCabe was involved in other projects not least his performing career, which necessitates hours of practising other peoples music. And on a purely mundane level the composer and his wife had to move home during the composition of the ballets.

By now however McCabe and Bintley had developed an unusually close working relationship. They trusted each other’s judgement and if they disagreed over anything they could settle their differences amicably. There were however very few differences. McCabe was well on top of the score and the dancers would generally be rehearsing one act of the ballet while McCabe was working on the next. Although Bintley is able to realise a piano score in terms of orchestral sounds, the dancers in the company were not. It was therefore fortunate that McCabe was able to provide them with not only a piano score but a digitally realised orchestral tape that they could use until such time as the full orchestral score was completed.

In the Arthur ballets, McCabe built on the success of Edward 1, and extended his vocabulary in this massive work. There are alarums and fanfares aplenty, indeed if this music is anything to go by McCabe would be a perfect candidate for the currently vacant post of Master of the Queen’s Musick. What is so impressive about the score is McCabe’s ability to hold together the musical material in a convincing way over such a long period of time. Also is his ability to write convincingly violent music and to be able to contrast this with painfully tender music.

This can be seen in the beautifully melded in the finale of Arthur part 1. Here Arthur and Guinevere are married, but at the same time there is great violence and brutality in the massacre of innocent children, an act by which Arthur hopes to eradicate his bastard child by Morgan le Fay. The lush writing for the strings conveys the feelings of Guinevere and the woodwind by touching on modality suggest a church like quality. Encroaching onto this the rototoms tattoo soon joined by the rest of the percussion and the brass in aggressively dissonant fanfares cinematically portray Arthur’s horrific, Herod like actions.

So as not to lose the music completely McCabe has arranged from Arthur Part 1, a 25 minute suite of dances. This thrilling tour de force first performed on 28th October 2000, comprises four movements. The first is based on the opening street fighting, the second on the pas de deux for Ygraine and Uther, the third the tournament music, and the finale is based on the pas de deux for Lancelot and Guinivere, leading into the wedding scene from the end of the ballet.

The ballets for Bintley comprise some of the most significant ballet music written at the end of the twentieth century. McCabe’s scores are wonderfully successful when performed with the dance steps, but also stand well on their own as orchestral music. It can only be hoped that the Edward 11 Symphony and the Arthur Pendragon Suite will enter the orchestral repertoire so that the music can be heard by a wider audience. McCabe has shown that ballet music can be not only satisfying from a dance point of view, but that it can composed to rigorous musical standards as well. In so doing he has set a hard act for any other composer to follow. Who will take up the challenge?