At the invitation of Monica, John McCabe’s widow, Colin’s Column is delighted to re-publish the composer and pianist’s memoir of Sir John (1899-1970)

Precisely how the myth grew, I cannot say, but towards the end of his life, and for a short period after his death, the myth certainly was spread that Barbirolli’s repertoire was very small.  A glance at his programmes for any group of three or four years would have dispelled this utterly false impression, and should also, with a bit of sympathetic understanding, have corrected the equally mistaken view that he seldom performed ‘modern’ works. It all depends by what you mean by ‘modern’ – when he was a young conductor, he gave the first British performance of Berg’s “Chamber Concerto”, then regarded as an exceptionally difficult and abstruse modern piece (and still so regarded by many people) and having done his duty to modern music, as many interpreters would have seen it, could easily have forgotten all about the piece. Instead of which, during his later years with the Halle, he revived this work a couple of times.

Indeed, his knowledge of the repertoire in general was vast, and included detailed insight into scores that he never himself conducted. When one very distinguished foreign conductor came to Manchester to do Bartók’s “Miraculous Mandarin” Suite, it was J.B. who prepared the orchestra for the rehearsals by taking the initial runs-through and, one gathers, displaying an intimate knowledge of the score even though, as far as I know, it never featured in his programmes.

Berg, Bartók, Shostakovitch, Hindemith, Vaughan Williams (one of the greatest glories of his repertoire was VW’s music), Nielsen, Sibelius (another particular speciality), Stravinsky – these were the contemporary composers when Barbirolli’s career was taking shape, and they remained to a greater or lesser degree part and parcel of his repertoire (or, in the case of Nielsen, a late addition) throughout his musical life. That he did so much for these composers, and others of their generations, and never allowed himself to fall into the extremely limited, over-specialising trap that many international conductors fall into these days, must be a source of gratitude to him.

But of course he was deeply committed to encouraging new music throughout his life, and particularly British music. Composers like Bax (who featured in his first programme as Principal Conductor of the New York Philharmonic), Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Delius he regarded as part of the general repertoire, not just local oddities to be produced (upon request to include ‘something British’) with an apologetic air – he believed in the stuff. Younger composers too benefitted from this commitment. The first performance of Britten’s “Sinfonia da Requiem” and Violin Concerto took place in New York under J.B.’s baton, and he conducted them many times as his career went on, along with other works by this great composer. One recalls many splendid Walton performances, including a swaggering, scintillating one of the “Partita”, which made more than the most of one of Walton’s extraordinarily few insignificant pieces. And when it came to more recent composers, including the post-war group, the story is still full of incident.

In this connection it may be recalled that for many years J.B. and his band visited the Cheltenham Festival, started after the war to provide a platform for new British music. Every year the Hallé would come and perform some new British work or works, and very often these would shortly afterwards appear in their Manchester concerts and perhaps elsewhere as well (this is a policy they still maintain, unlike some of their colleagues, who seem to regard a first performance as being simultaneous with a last performance). The works given valuable exposure in this way cover a wide variety of styles, from Finzi, Alwyn, Rubbra and Gardner, through Rawsthorne (whose works gained a large number of performances from J.B. in future years) to younger composers like Fricker, Hamilton and Hoddinott (the first performance of whose Clarinet Concerto remains, I believe, one of his happiest musical memories). Even when the style or technique of the music might have proved antipathetic to Barbirolli’s own musical preference (for, despite his wide range of sympathies, he would surely have been inhuman had he not had some preferences), he devoted himself to detailed study of the scores and tried to give the composer his very best work. But it was hardly surprising that he eventually felt that he was being asked to do too many works with which he felt himself out of sympathy, and for some years the Hallé’s regular visits to the Cheltenham Festival ceased.

When they were asked to return in 1966 and to bring a new work with them, the orchestra turned to me and invited me to write something for them. That they did so was the result of the performances they had already given of two earlier works (a Violin Concerto, now designated as No. 1, and the Hartmann Variations) under the baton of Maurice Handford, and they felt that they could safely entrust a commission to me. J.B., characteristically, consulted carefully with Handford and the orchestral management, and then, equally characteristically, took the plunge and asked me to write what became my First Symphony.

It was during the composition and rehearsal of this work that his devotion to music, and incidentally his courtesy to a young composer, made their greatest impression on my mind. He had, of course, always been a great idol of mine, and to be working with him was an enormous thrill – but to be treated as an equal was a quite unexpected bonus. He asked to see the work at every stage of composition – I played through the sketches to him, produced the score and went through the work in detail, and then we had another session of discussion and exploration. He devoted, in other words, a very large amount of time to actually getting to know me, getting to know my views on music, so that he knew better the basic standpoint from which I was working in order to better understand the music itself. This approach is unique in my experience, and it resulted not only in some very practical suggestions for orchestration and lay-out but in performances of spell-binding concentration and atmosphere. In fact he gave seven performances in a calendar year and very much took up the cudgels on my behalf in order to persuade people to give the work a hearing.

In an age when so many conductors have an extremely limited repertoire, and in some cases only conduct ‘modern’ music when it is either unintelligible, or Marxist (or both), the example of sheer devotion to the cause of music shown by Barbirolli shines out more clearly than ever. There are a few conductors who continue this kind of tradition (Previn is one, and incidentally is one of the few who also have something of J.B.’s courtesy) but there are not many – one’s gratitude to Barbirolli is thus all the deeper. He gave me an example of musical commitment which I hope I shall not forget.

John McCabe [1939-2015]

December 1979

© The Barbirolli Society


I came across this tribute to Sir John Barbirolli among John’s archive, in early August 2020 in a collection of memoirs by many different people, including I might say, André Previn. It was put out by the Barbirolli Society in December 1979, to mark the 80th Anniversary of his birth, in 1899. John was then 40. He adulated Barbirolli all his life, and I believe his commitment to the cause of music was as great in the end as J.B.’s had been.

Monica McCabe