John McCabe - composer and pianist

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The composition of John McCabe's Cloudcatcher Fells

The composition of John McCabe's Cloudcatcher Fells

The composition of John McCabe's Cloudcatcher Fells

Cloudcatcher Fells was commissioned by Boosey and Hawkes Band Festivals, with funds provided by the Arts Council of Great Britain, as the test piece for the 1985 finals of the National Brass Band Championships. The title comes from the poem Cockermouth by David Wright, which I found in The Lake District: An Anthology, published in 1977 by Robert Hale and subsequently reprinted by Penguin Books. The fourth verse runs:

 "And Derwent shuffles by it, over stones.
 And if you look up the valley toward Isel
 With Blindcrake to the north, cloudcatcher fells,
 Whose waters track past here to Workington."

The work is associated with various places, mostly mountainous, in the Lake District which have particular personal significance for the composer. The emphasis is on the Patterdale area, which I grew to love and know intimately when I spent three months there (on doctor's orders) in 1948 and to which I have returned regularly since. Other parts of the Lake District are also referred to, and the work falls into a series of sections which group themselves into larger units, so that it becomes almost a four-movement work, played continuously:

 Great Gable; Grasmoor; Grisedale Tarn
 (quick) Haystacks; Catchedicam (Catstye Cam)
 (slow) Angle Tarn
 (quick) Grisedale Brow; Striding Edge; Helvellyn

Thematically and harmonically, Cloudcatcher Fells forms almost a set of free variations on the opening theme and chords - the opening plainchant-like melody clearly forms the basis of the tunes throughout the work, and some of the patterns and accompanying figures, while the chords are used to provide harmonies at crucial points such as the opening of Angle Tarn (the centrepiece of the composition, and my own favourite "movement"), and the final climactic ascent of Helvellyn.

In terms of the handling of the brass band medium, my approach was similar to that I had adopted in Images, my first brass band work, a few years earlier, namely to regard this as a kind of orchestra, to try and avoid the constant massed sound of the band which, with repetition, can become wearying, to my ears at least. So there is much use of solo lines, groups of instruments (e.g. cornets, or basses, who by the way have a lot more agile work to do than was common in band music when this was written) treated as a single unit, and also much use of mutes - even the basses are muted at the start, which caused a good deal of commotion among the bands when the work was produced as the test piece (many of them didn't have mutes for the basses, though I'm glad to say they now have!).

As is my usual practice, I wrote away from the piano (which I always find a distraction when composing), merely going to the keyboard to check that I had got the chords right. I also produced first a score in C, i.e. as sounding - I find it virtually impossible to read a score in which almost every instrument is transposed and in the treble clef (even the basses). After (hopefully) getting that right, I then produced a transposed score. I have been asked on numerous occasions if I'd considered being a contest adjudicator, but have refused firmly - I often think brass band adjudicators, while doing their work with admirable persistence and knowledge, are looking for different qualities in the performance than I. It is very gratifying that this piece has been so successful, and that band players and conductors seem to enjoy it. I made no attempt to write a "traditional" contest piece (whatever that means), but it seems to have filled the bill - I simply wrote the work I wanted to write in response to my feelings about a landscape and part of the world that I love. The work is dedicated to the memory of my father, with whom in my childhood I enjoyed a number of hill and country walks in the Patterdale area.

© Copyright 2006 by John McCabe
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