John McCabe: Cloudcatcher Fells


Commissioned by Boosey and Hawkes in 1985, John McCabe’s Cloudcatcher Fells was used as the test piece for the National Brass Band Championship in the same year. Set into four continuous movements, McCabe was inspired by David Wright’s 1977 poem Cockermouth, which the composer came across during a stay at the Lake District. The title of the piece was taken from the fourth verse of the poem, which reads:


And Derwent shuffles by it, over stones.

And if you look up the valley towards Isel

With Blindcrake to the north, cloudcatcher fells, 

Whose waters track past here to Workington.


The four continuous movements represent different areas of the lake district that are either mentioned in the poem, or mean something to the composer. These include:


I. Great Gable; Grasmoor; Grisedale Tarn 

II. Haystacks; Catchedicam; Castle Cam 

III. Angle Tarn

IV. Grisedale Brow; Striding Edge; Helvellyn


McCabe goes on to explain his choices in the programme note for the piece:


“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 referred to, and the work falls into a series of sections which group themselves into larger units.

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.” – quoted from John McCabe’s website


The Music

The opening plainchant-like melody is a crucial part of Cloudcatcher Fells as it lays both the harmonic and melodic foundation for the whole piece.Throughout the work, this opening motif returns time and time again in different forms, creating a very loose sense of form and variations. As all of the movements are interlocked, the structure of the work is slow/quick/slow/quick – which keeps the excitement aloft. 

McCabe makes good use of solo players, with there being many solo and soli sections heard during the 18-minute duration. The composer also makes use of pairing up different sections, such as the basses and cornets, to create interesting timbres and colours throughout the work. McCabe also writes in lots of mute changes, especially for the upper band. Even at the beginning of the work, the basses are muted showing that McCabe was considering the shape of the timbre and texture. 

The pastoral feel from the two slower sections is made obvious through the rich chorale sounds. The opposing muted sections add interest and build tension, with the glorious open sections oozing class and sophistication throughout the band. The more chaotic atmosphere in the faster sections come to a rousing conclusion at the end of Cloudcatcher Fells, when the bombastic percussion and rumbling bass end drive the band forward. The bold chords paired with the technical interludes from the cornets builds the tension before the piece comes to its thrilling finale as the ascent to Helvellyn is reached. 


Final Thoughts

Packed full of exciting twists and turns, John McCabe’s Cloudcatcher Fells is a descriptive work for brass band that takes you on a journey through the Lake District.


Ⓒ Alex Burns

Happy Reading!

Image Source (Gareth Arnold)


You might also enjoy… Gustav Holst: A Moorside Suite


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