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Poorly composer John McCabe's delight as his music features at Proms

By Hayley Robinson
Composer and pianist John McCabe wrote Joybox while undergoing treatment for a brain tumour
Composer and pianist John McCabe wrote Joybox while undergoing treatment for a brain tumour

A composer who wrote a piece of music while battling a brain tumour says it was “a bit like winning Wimbledon” when it was played to a full house at a BBC Proms concert at the Royal Albert Hall.

John McCabe’s Joybox was brought to life by the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra on Thursday, July 25.

Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 was also featured in the concert, along with a complete performance of de Falla’s flamenco ballet The Three-Cornered Hat, and Ravel’s Bolero.

Mr McCabe, who was there on the night along with his wife, Monica, a former head of the Sittingbourne Music Society, said: “It was a wonderful evening – the orchestra were marvellous.

“The conductor [Juanjo Mena] came off the stage and climbed up into the stalls to congratulate me as I couldn’t get down to the stage to take a bow. I don’t think this has happened before – it was a like winning Wimbledon.”

The 74-year-old Sittingbourne resident, who has worked with Julian Lloyd Webber, had just started working on his commission for the Proms when he was diagnosed with cancer in December.

Despite undergoing six weeks of intensive chemotherapy and radiotherapy to manage the inoperable and incurable growth, he continued to write Joybox.

Much of it was sketched during the early hours, when he was unable to sleep due to the drugs he was taking.

There were just 40 bars to be orchestrated when he collapsed at home from a seizure on April 24. It was so severe he was unable to walk or talk for two weeks.

The pianist said: “I was like a zombie. It was very frustrating. I did no work at all for a while but I knew it had to be with the BBC by June and my publishers needed it before then, so as I got better I slowly increased the amount of time I was working.”

The music, described as a lighthearted entertainment piece, was inspired by a “jangle of sounds” heard by Mr McCabe at an amusement arcade during a visit to Japan in 2003.

He added: “It was absolute chaos. But I was so fascinated by the sound I stopped and listened and noticed there was a musical pattern emerging from it. It stuck with me and I stored it away.

“So when the BBC said they wanted a seven-minute orchestral piece, it seemed to be the ideal opportunity to use it.”

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