CABUS Peter (1923-2000)

Peter Cabus (Mechelen, 1923-2000) began to compose through the encouragement of Godfried Devreese, the former director of the Municipal Conservatory of Mechelen. He began his post-secondary musical studies at the Lemmens Institute (organ with Flor Peeters, piano with Marinus De Jong), but with his eye on a career as a concert pianist he went on to the Royal Conservatory in Brussels (piano with Charles Scharrès, chamber music with André Gertler, composition and fugue with Jean Absil and Léon Jongen). He gradually made his name more as a composer and teacher than as a performing musician. In 1959, after a period teaching at the Municipal Conservatory in Mechelen and several other music academies, Cabus succeeded Devreese as director of the conservatory in Mechelen. In addition, he was active as a teacher at the Royal Conservatory in Brussels (harmony, counterpoint, composition) and at the Muziekkapel Koningin Elisabeth. In 1972 Cabus helped to set up the Mechelen section of the Flanders Festival. Over the last 20 years of his life, Peter Cabus was a member of the Royal Academy for Sciences, Letters and Fine Arts of Belgium.



“Tonality in music fulfils a uniting role like gravity in everyday life, whereas atonality belongs more to the realm of space travel.” This metaphor, which Peter Cabus used in a 1993 lecture on his second symphony, is typical of the vision that he developed concerning the musical world around him and the history of music in which he had carved out a place for himself. Cabus was primarily a classicist, a man with great respect for the composers who preceded him. For him, Brahms and Beethoven were still highly relevant. However, this did not prevent him from remaining open to the new. He carefully followed the evolution of the avant-garde over the course of the twentieth century, and occasionally tried to integrate new techniques into his own music (for example, serialism, in the Clarinet Quartet, 1962). His own stated objective was to try to find a balance between old and new. And yet it must be said that the ultra modern, the super-avant-garde was not his thing, and that he saw it rather as almost his moral duty to give it a place within his own music. His true roots certainly lay in tonality and the classical forms.

Peter Cabus wrote more than 200 works. Part of this oeuvre was produced in the context of music education: exam works, solfège exercises, works for the symphony orchestra at the Mechelen conservatory, piano sonatinas… These were compositions written for pedagogical purposes. Besides the many orchestral (including 6 symphonies and 10 concerti) and chamber music pieces (including 4 string quartets), which comprise the lion’s share of Cabus’s oeuvre, there are a good many vocal works, as well as works in which brass instruments play a leading role. The vocal works reflect a strong link with Flemish cultural heritage: this often takes the form of folksong arrangements (e.g., Vier weverkens, Four weavers, 1996) or settings of texts by Flemish poets (e.g., Drie liederen, Three songs, on a text by Paul Van Ostaijen, 1985, or Het jonge jaar, The young year, on a text by Guido Gezelle, 1986). The particular interest in brass instruments was a result of Cabus’s friendship with trumpet player Theo Mertens. Cabus wrote a number of compositions (e.g., Suite for brass, 1967) especially for the brass ensemble that bore Mertens’ name.

In his Second Symphony (1956/57), Peter Cabus looked for an answer to the problems that had been raised around this genre over several decades. Under the influence of Stravinsky, he consciously chose the “pure spirit of the pre-Beethovenian period”. The structure of this symphony is a model of balance. Around a central scherzo are 2 slow movements that make the transition from the opening movement and to and the finale respectively. Within this structure, Cabus opts for relatively tonal relationships. He often combines 2 keys that are a semi-tone or a minor third apart.

Peter Cabus liked to look to French music as his example – much more, for example than German. The French influence can be seen in his First Piano Sonata (1958), in which some passages are very close to the style of Debussy. The classically constructed sonata sounds atonal, but never in an aggressive way: a typically impressionistic “personance” (ambiguity between consonance and dissonance) dominates. Very different is his Second Piano Sonata (1974), which is much more tonally conceived and consists of a prelude with a series of variations. Cabus’s predilection for the variation is also seen in his Fourth String Quartet (1995, reworked in 1997/98), in which the sixth and final movement (i.e., the series of variations) lasts about as long as the other five movements put together. Cabus saw this late work as a personal summary of music history, as various styles are heard in it (organum, Classical, Romantic, polytonal, serial…). And yet he emphasised the fact that the tonal point of view always – to some extent – remains present.

Much of the music of Peter Cabus was published by Maurer in Brussels. Jean Maurer was a boyhood friend of the composer’s: the two played together in a piano trio for a time. CeBeDeM also published a number of his works. After his death all his autograph scores were, at his request, donated to the Royal Conservatory in Brussels.


List of works

Orchestra and concerti: Orkestvariaties (1938); 6 Symphonies (1947, 1957, 1961, 1986, 1987, 1993); Sinfonietta (1951); Concerto for trumpet, trombone and orchestra (1969); Ouverture in Oude Stijl for string orchestra (1972); Suite for brassband (1981); Concertino for fourhanded piano and strings (1984)

Chamber music: Klaviertrio (1956); 2 piano sonatas (1958, 1974); 4 string quartets (1959, 1974, 1983, 1995/98); Woodwinds quartet (1966); Clarinet quintet (1976); Sonatina per contrabasso e piano (1997)

Vocal: De waterlelie for middle voice and piano (1941); 2 psalms for baritone and piano (1963); Reinaert I (1966) en II (1974) for baritone, choir and brass, Minnelied for choir (1981); Jan Hinnerk for choir (1997)

Brass: Suite for brass (1967); Canto e ballo for horn and piano (1974); Hymne en all’Inglese for brass band (1978); Suite for double brass quintet (1981)



– P. CABUS, Vragen bij recente ontwikkelingen in het muziekonderwijs hier te lande, in Academiae Analecta, 48/1, Brussel, 1987, p. 57-65
– P. CABUS, Mijn tweede symfonie en haar plaats in het symfonisch landschap van België, in Academiae Analecta, 54/1, Brussel, 1954, p. 83-92
– B.-J. STEENS, Peter Cabus, biografie en oeuvrecatalogus (diss.), Mechelen, 1998
– Y. KNOCKAERT, Peter Cabus, in M. DELAERE, Y. KNOCKAERT en H. SABBE, Nieuwe muziek in Vlaanderen, Brugge, 1998, p. 110-111
– D. VON VOLBORTH-DANYS, art. Cabus, Peter, in S. SADIE (ed.), The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 2de uitg., 2001



– Vier etudes voor vierhandig klavier (Pianoduo Kolacny), MUSICA A QUATTRO MANI, Eufoda 1244
– Concertstudie nr. 1, Concertstudie nr. 2, Sonate voor fluit en piano, DWELLING OF MUSES, Conservatorium Mechelen, SBCD 1519 EMS/CNR
– Twee Geuzenliederen (Quatuor Arte Del Suono), HARMONIES NOUVELLES EN 12 MOUVEMENTS POUR L’EUROPE, Pavane ADW 7321
– Facetten voor saxofoon en strijkers, BELGIAN WORKS FOR SAXOPHON, René Gailly 87081



Maurer (Brussel)
CeBeDeM (from 1951 to 2015)



Biography at Studiecentrum voor Vlaamse Muziek


Texts by Joris Compeers
Last update: 2003