Vivo - Andante - Allegrissimo - Lento - Vivo
McCabe's Second Symphony was commissioned by the John Feeney Trust for the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. It is dedicated to the orchestra and its then Principal Conductor, Louis Frémaux, who gave the first performance during the Birmingham Triennial Festival in September 1971. The symphony is scored for full orchestra, including a large percussion section, piano, celesta, harp, and among the various woodwind doublings, an oboe d'amore.
Unlike the First Symphony (Elegy) of 1965, which is in three clearly defined movements, the Second Symphony (1971) is in one continuous movement, which gives an overall unity to its five sections. This approach is typical of McCabe's chamber music of the period, where he has attempted to achieve unity through contrast. Thus the five sections, though different from each other in character, cannot be called 'movements', being too closely interdependent and interlinked to have a separate individual identity.
The composer says of this symphony: "The main impulse behind the work came from seeing Sam Peckinpah's film The Wild Bunch, which to me is one of the most remarkable films I've ever seen. It was not the violence of the film which impressed me (this aspect of it was, I feel, greatly overstressed by critics at the time), but the extraordinarily satisfying, thoroughly musical shape of the work, with an exposition, lengthy development, and recapitulation. The way in which the opening part impelled the film inexorably forward through the various intervening parts to the final section - a powerful outburst - communicates to me the circularity of life. After the final culmination, there is the near-epilogue in which it is suggested that because life is what it is, and because human nature is what it is, it will happen again somewhere else. Naturally, in my music I've interpreted this feeling in my own way, so that in the long run the only really strong influence from the film that remains is the overall shape of the work, and more particularly the fact that it ends with the same phrase with which it began. It seems to me that this sounds both the same at the end as at the start, and yet different, which is what I wanted to achieve."
The first section starts with this crucial phrase on the flutes, and a further important element is introduced almost immediately in the rhythmic quality of the percussive comments that follow. It is very quick, and shortly builds up to a series of climaxes which increase in intensity. The music reaches its peak and then quietens down to lead into the second section. This is slow and basically static, almost an interlude of night music, highly coloured and atmospheric. The construction of the first section here gives place to something more relaxed and expressive. The third section is a kind of scherzo, mostly light and at first almost balletic, building up to an aggressive climax towards the end. The fourth section, which is one of the most substantial, begins with a quiet, expressive horn solo. Slowly the divided cellos and then also violins force it to an emotional climax. After this a quiet recapitulation of the horn tune on oboe d'amore leads to a sustained chords, and a widely ranging theme for violins takes the music into the final section. Again this is very quick, starting with intermittent phrases from earlier sections, recalled, as if searching for the right path with which to resolve the tensions that the music has sustained. Gradually, the textures becoming increasingly contrapuntal and forthright, the music builds up to the work's biggest climax and the final violent gestures, echoing the rhythm of the percussion's first comments at the symphony's opening. The three flutes state again their first crucial phrase, which brings the work to its close.