John McCabe (b. 1939
Underneath Edge Hill in Liverpool lies an extensive network of underground passages. The Williamson Tunnels were excavated between 1805 and 1840 at the behest of Joseph Williamson, an eccentric entrepreneur. Quite why he built them is not known for sure. Rumours spread at the time that they were intended to shelter a religious sect that believed that the end of the world was imminent. But it is quite possible that they represent nothing more sinister than a rich philanthropist’s desire to provide honest work for unemployed men returning from the Napoleonic Wars. Williamson himself declared that his workers “all received a weekly wage and were thus enabled to enjoy the blessing of charity without the attendant curse of stifled self respect.”
In the 1830s, Williamson’s path crossed both figuratively and literally with George Stephenson: the great engineer bored his own tunnel through the area to carry trains to and from the new railway station at Lime Street. Over a century later, the young John McCabe’s imagination would be fired by the thought of Williamson’s labyrinth as he rode the trains. Occasionally he would catch a glimpse of a bird in flight in a small patch of sky seen through a ventilation shaft in the tunnel.
That childhood memory provided the impetus when he came to compose a work for the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra to perform in celebration of his home town’s 800th anniversary in 2007. “Labyrinth” is John McCabe’s seventh symphony, and like Sibelius’s seventh is cast in a single movement. It has no programme, although McCabe concedes that the bird glimpsed from a train can be heard in the piccolo that begins the symphony, while the sinewy lines that soon emerge in the cellos and basses perhaps suggest the darkness of the abandoned caves beneath Edge Hill. From this darkness, the symphony strives towards light, a struggle that reflects the turbulence of Liverpool’s history. A gradual, constant acceleration leads to a driving climax, which then evaporates, leaving the opening idea subtly transformed, as though we are now in the clouds with the bird we glimpsed at the outset.