John McCabe was a prolific English composer whose pianism generally attracted greater attention than his many worthwhile compositions. Part of the reason public focus had been directed largely at his keyboard activity owed something to his enormous pianistic talent, a talent that allowed him to record the entirety of the Haydn sonatas with great acclaim, as well as to delve into 20th century works by Hindemith, Britten, Bax, Webern, and others with equal authority. His mature compositional style was conservative and generally tonal, not much further advanced in its expressive language than that of Bartók or pre-serial Stravinsky. Though McCabe did dabble in twelve-tone music early on, he cast it aside in favor of tonality and greater accessibility. McCabe composed in most genres, including opera, ballet, symphonic (including film scores), vocal, choral, and various instrumental. As a pianist McCabe recorded for a variety of labels, including Decca, EMI, Philips, Hyperion, Lyrita, and ASV.
John McCabe was born on April 21, 1939, in Huyton, Liverpool, Merseyside, England. He was a musical prodigy, composing symphonies and numerous other works in his childhood, despite suffering periodic illnesses resulting from severe burns incurred at age two.
at Manchester University from 1958-1960. This period saw one of his earliest surviving large works, the Violin Concerto No. 1 (1959). At Royal Manchester College of Music (1960-1961) McCabe studied piano with Gordon Green and composition with Thomas Pitfield. He also studied briefly (1964) at the Munich Hochschule with German composer Harald Genzmer.
By 1970 McCabe had already achieved a measure of success as a pianist, but from about that year he began garnering international notice, initially for his song cycle Notturni ed alba, for soprano and orchestra. From 1974-1976 McCabe recorded the Haydn piano sonatas for Decca. It was around this time that he more or less abandoned serial music. In 1983 he was given the title of Commander of the British Empire for his contributions to British music.
McCabe's imaginative ballet Edward II (1994-1995) was premiered with great success in 1995 by the Stuttgart Ballet, with choreography by David Bintley. In 2004 McCabe, who had served as President of the Incorporated Society of Musicians in 1982-1983, received a Distinguished Musician Award from the ISM. Among McCabe's later efforts was the 2005 Helios recording of Herbert Howells' Lambert's Clavichord, the work's first recording on piano.