Peter Cabus took his first music classes at the municipal conservatory of his birthplace Mechelen. His coursework included harmony and counterpoint, taught by the then director Godfried Devreese. Initially Cabus studied the violin, a choice mainly determined by his parents. After four years he switched to the piano, which became his favourite instrument for a long time.
In the same period Peter Cabus joined the St Rombouts’s Choir. There he familiarized himself with Gregorian plainsong and with the great polyphonic works of Johannes Ockegem and Philippus de Monte. These early musical discoveries imparted to Cabus a first stimulus with a view to exploring his own musical talent; his first teacher, the gifted composer Godfried Devreese, also played an inspiring role in this process.
In 1940 Peter Cabus started his higher music studies at the Lemmens Institute in Mechelen. He took organ classes with Flor Peeters and counterpoint with Marinus de Jong. Because the focus at the Lemmens Institute was mainly on the organ and because Cabus considered himself more a pianist than an organist, he switched to the Royal Conservatory of Brussels after two years. There he was taught by Charles Scharrès (piano), André Gertler (chamber music) and Jean Absil (fugue). Like Godfried Devreese before him, Jean Absil, by whom Cabus was later also privately tutored in the field of harmony, had a considerable impact on the musical choices of the young composer.
In 1946 Peter Cabus graduated at the Brussels Conservatory. Having earned several distinctions, he ventured his first steps in music life as a concert pianist: he gave several recitals and performed mainly in the framework of chamber music. Together with violinist Louis Thienpont and cellist Jan Maurer he performed as a trio that specialized in classics such as Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms. However, Cabus opted for a career that was broader than that of a mere pianist because of a physical handicap, a neuritis in the right arm, and also because of his very wide musical interest.
For a long time Peter Cabus was active in the field of music education. In 1946 he started as principal teacher of solfège and piano at the Municipal Conservatory of Mechelen. In 1947 he started also as a piano teacher at the music academy of Mortsel. Concurrently Cabus served as music teacher at several secondary schools: from 1950 to 1954 he taught music education at the Royal Atheneum of Keerbergen, as well as serving at the State Secondary School of Antwerp from 1954 to 1959. Besides he was affiliated with the Royal Conservatory of Brussels for a long time as well as teaching harmony, counterpoint and fugue at the Chapelle Reine Elisabeth in Waterloo.
Cabus’ pedagogical concern was evident not only in his busy agenda as a teacher of music, but also more generally in his conviction that music education plays an important role in the development of music and culture in our country. As director of the Conservatory of Mechelen he expressed an outspoken opinion on the how and why of music lessons: "A music school has to fulfil a cultural task as well, a task that is of great, if not overriding importance for music life generally: the education of solid amateurs, who make music for their own spiritual enrichment, while concurrently constituting the best and most loyal concert public."
It is only logical that works with a pedagogical intention loom large in the oeuvre of Cabus.
Throughout the years Peter Cabus was also very busy as a composer. Composing was a core business for him from early on. At age nine already he composed some small works and at age fourteen his first orchestral work, Orkestvariaties (Variations for Orchestra, 1938) was executed in public. Gradually Cabus was commissioned with important compositions by the Belgian Radio and TV (Het jonge jaar / The young Year, 1986), the Ministry of Culture (Symfonie voor strijkers / Symphony for Strings, 1986) and the Festival of Flanders (Muziek voor orgel, kopers en percussie / Music for Organ, Brass and Percussion, 1978). Altogether he wrote about three hundred works for diverse strengths. Besides works for orchestra he also composed a considerable amount of chamber music. Furthermore he wrote a series of vocal works, based on Dutch, French, English and even Latin texts. His oeuvre also includes stage music and music for puppet plays. Remarkable is his overwhelming partiality for instrumental music and particularly for brass.
Peter Cabus’s personal style can be contextualized in the framework of twentieth-century modernism. He is a typical representative of neo-classicism, albeit with an eclectic style. Most of his works have been conceived with a sense of a balanced shape. In his symphonies and other big orchestral works he often falls back on the traditional forms of the sonata and the rondo. Also the many repetitions of themes and motifs in his work reveal his admiration for the great classics such as Beethoven and Mozart. His cherishing of stable values and his great respect for his predecessors is, according to his own views, connected to his Christian education. However, on the other hand Peter Cabus also shows a certain curiosity for the innovations of the twentieth century. Even though his music is fundamentally tonal, there are several passages in his work that have been developed in an atonal or dodecaphonic way.
His impressive oeuvre and his many pedagogical activities testify to a deep-rooted dedication and love for musical craftsmanship. The commitment of this composer from Mechelen went far: in 1972 he was involved in the founding of the Festival of Flanders-Mechelen, and during the last twenty years of his life he vigorously supported the development of the arts in our country as a member of the Royal Academy for Science and the Arts. Peter Cabus managed to conquer an important place in the music landscape of Belgium as a talented composer and an inspiring music pedagogue.
© Studiecentrum voor Vlaamse Muziek vzw - Kim De Brabander (translation: Joris Duytschaever)