• John McCabe
  • Desert III: Landscape (1982)

  • Novello & Co Ltd (World)
  • pfvn.vc
  • 22 min

Programme Note

John McCabe: Desert III: Landscape (1982)

Deciso Allegro Vivace

This work for piano trio was commissioned by Earle Page College and the New England Ensemble, of the University of New England, Armidale, New South Wales, and is dedicated to the College and the Ensemble, who gave the first performance at the University’s Concert Hall in June 1982. It is the third in a series of pieces inspired by desert country and its fringes, written for different types of ensemble and, in some cases, stems as much from the strength and complexity of the Australian desert fringe landscape as it does from the sense of a vast emptiness which is the impulse behind the beginning of the work.

Though other melodic and harmonic motifs play an important part in the development of the music (there are five main ideas), by far the most persistent is a cluster of five semitones, which become especially obsessive in the last of the four main "movement”. Played without a break, the work does divide into four clear sections, with the addition of a final section starting with a Maestoso statement of one of the main chordal themes on strings (accompanied by rushing piano scales) and gradually giving way to rapid, quiet figuration on the piano (the idea for which came from the sound of cicadas in the roadside trees) and brief reminiscences of themes from earlier movements in the strings, slowly returning to the harmonics with which they entered near the start of the Trio.

The opening Lento, after its almost static beginning, slowly moves towards a lyrical slow movement, though its preludial nature precludes full development of the ideas. It gives place to a scurrying, scuttling scherzo which in turn leads to a substantial, intense slow movement in which the instruments combine in different ways (for example, piano right hand and violin in flowering, lyrical lines against lurching, heavily accented phrases on cello and piano left hand). After the main climax of this movement, the "cicada music” makes its first appearances, and the music gradually narrows to a singe string harmonic. The finale, dominated by the obsessively circling semitones and highly rhythmical in style, bursts in suddenly, and in three waves of tempo becomes progressively faster as well as more and more rhythmical – the rhythms, it should be added, were influenced by Aboriginal didjeridu music. The headlong progress of the music is suddenly cut short by a pause, and the Maestoso section already described closes the work, taking it back to the vastness of the great, empty desert.

Copyright 1991. John McCabe