Spielend for two violins was written during the summer and early autumn of 2003, and is based on the idea of the two instruments not only playing the instruments but also playing in the sense of sport, i.e. playing their themes off against each other and playing with the musical material. There are times, for instance, when they seem to be having a contest to see who can finish the themes first, or who can divert the other’s attention to a new texture or rhythm. The title, the German word for "playing", also refers in a way to the composer himself exploring the themes, harmonies and rhythms - particularly notable in this respect is the large central slow section, which contrasts two altered reminiscences of the Violin Sonata of Poulenc (a composer whose music is very dear to me) with the gradual expansion of a fugue from two parts to eight (four in each violin). Fugue, after all, is in a sense an example of a composer making sport, however seriously, with the themes.
So the work is a kind of extended musical pun, lasting about fifteen minutes in all and being performed without a break. Though the central section is slow, the outer ones are quick and energetic, emphasizing especially the idea of activity and vigour - the ending, however, may catch the unwary listener by surprise.
The first performance was given by Philippa Mo and Peter Sheppard Skærved in Leighton House, London, on 7th May, 2004.
"John McCabe's new 'Spielend' strikes me as a miniature masterpiece: a highly charged 15-minute piece in which the violins chase or echo each other in a thousand different ways, including a fugure in which, as with Bach, two instruments seemed to suggest a dozen voices."
- Richard Morrison, The Times, 11/05/2004