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JOHN JOUBERT at Eighty-Five

John Joubert, September 2008
© Graham Boulton

The biography and recordings survey written by John Quinn for this feature have been updated for the composer's 90th birthday: you can read that here.
Four musicians who have known and worked with John Joubert provide personal tributes to him. The highly-regarded composer, John Casken, studied with Joubert at the University of Birmingham and was also a colleague of his for some time when he returned to the university as a lecturer in 1973. Gary Higginson, a composer and contributor to MusicWeb International, was a private composition pupil of Joubert. Adrian Partington, Artistic Director of the BBC National Chorus of Wales since 1999 and also, since 2008, Director of Music at Gloucester Cathedral has been an enthusiastic admirer of Joubert’s music for many years. For the first Three Choirs Festival that he directed at Gloucester, in 2010, he invited Joubert to be composer-in-residence and he commissioned An English Requiem, conducting its première on 9 August 2010. Jeffrey Skidmore is the founder and artistic director of Ex Cathedra in Birmingham. He has enjoyed a close association with John Joubert’s music and has conducted several of his works, including, in 1986, the première of South of the Line and, in 2007, the première of the oratorio, Wings of Faith. Both of these works were commissioned by Ex Cathedra.
John Joubert – a tribute by John Casken
I have known John Joubert as both a student and a colleague at the University of Birmingham, studying with him from the late 1960s and then when I returned to Birmingham as a Lecturer from 1973-1979. He was, and is, a large, kindly man, generous, patient and encouraging, with a quiet dignity, and these qualities I think also come out in his music. He has an enormous regard for tradition, be it Beethoven, Mahler, Stravinsky, Bartók, Britten or Shostakovich, although his enthusiasms and interests stretch far wider than that. I confess to having been surprised at how much he was excited about the music of John Adams, but of course Adams, along with the other composers cited here, continues to forge new ideas whilst working within a broad tonal language. I remember as a young composer having quite a strong disagreement with John about the importance of tonal thinking, I relishing the freedom of loosely atonal music, and John asserting that there was nothing more important than the strong foundation of tonality. He wasn’t talking about the need to write within the diatonic system but the need to create strong harmonic areas as points of departure and return. I soon came to realise how right he was.
As well as the importance of a strong sense of harmonic direction in his music, John’s works also have a singing quality, often of a brooding nature, the lines developing with a real sense of dramatic purpose shaped by a strong emotional need, for example in his String Quartet No. 2, Op.91 or the Piano Trio, Op.113. The rhythmic playfulness of some of his textures might owe something to earlier, 20th century models, but the fingerprints are always very personal. His passion for setting words to music, as with Britten, is always matched by a rare sensitivity to the poetry or libretto he has chosen, and not only is John one of the most sympathetic composers when writing for the human voice in both intimate and public works, his gifts as a lyrical composer place him alongside some of the major British composers of our time.
Recent works such as his An English Requiem (2010) and his Cello Concerto (2012) show a composer with his creative juices still running at full strength. The Requiem has both the inner strength and austerity of earlier works but balanced by a ravishing sensuality, while the Cello Concerto sings out confidently with all the passion and energy of a younger composer. In neither of these works, as with his entire career, does John Joubert show himself to be a follower of fashion, but rather he creates his own musical world, putting a strongly personal stamp on how the material is to be put together and how it is to behave as the structure unfolds.
It is very heartening to see that John is being rewarded with more performances and recordings, recognition of the music’s ability to connect with audiences through its strongly expressive qualities, and when the fashionable often holds sway, it is good to be able to thank a composer for something more deep-rooted and lasting. A short tribute such as this can hardly do justice to the musical richness of an output forged over a long and sustained career in which John has devoted much of his energies to teaching as well as to his own creative work. As a former student and colleague, and as a fellow composer, I hope I can speak for all of us in offering not only thanks and praise, but also sincere congratulations.
John Casken
JOHN JOUBERT. An Appreciation by Gary Higginson
I first met John Joubert in 1981 when I became a student at Birmingham University where he was Reader in Music. Later I became an informal private pupil, going to his home and taking my latest offerings for him calmly to pass his eye over. We also chatted about musicians and poetry; he would show me his own recent works and I might stay for a couple of hours or so. He would generously give up his time and all that he was willing to accept from me, and that I was able to pay him was by giving him a bottle of wine, sometimes one of our homemade efforts, which he happily accepted.
What I learned at that time I can’t quantify, but then that applies to so much teaching. But one thing was a greater belief in myself as a composer. He seemed genuinely to like my music although it stood quite outside the fashion of that moment and certainly outside the fashion of some music then being produced by university composers; but then he also stood outside those things. In addition I wrote vocal music, even church music and, of course, he had been prolific and successful in that very field.
I resolved somehow to get hold of as many of his scores, published and unpublished, as possible. John would often give me a few if he had some extras and I studied them and listened when possible to his vocal colourings and what I came to appreciate, especially in the symphonies, to be his acute ear for fascinatingly absorbing orchestration.
The BBC used to broadcast his pieces in the 1980s and into the 1990s and had even commissioned some, I recorded them and John himself would allow me to copy pieces from his own collection of live performances not generally available. In recent times the BBC has been a Joubert desert and what a loss that has been for the British musical scene, although he has continued to have performances around the world.
I said I got to know him personally in 1981 but musically he has been with me, like many choir boys and singers, since I was young through his early pieces such as Torches, There is no rose and O Lorde, the maker of Al Thing and sometimes in my own ideas I can hear something of Joubert coming through. Perhaps it’s the fingerprint rising fourths or the repetitive, almost African rhythms, which haunt his music and the spacing of the voices in an anthem. These are subtle things but aurally quite distinctive and I realise that I picked them up long before I set down a note of my own on paper.
We have continued to correspond and I always look forward to his handwritten letter at around Christmas time, telling me of his latest commissions or publications and recordings. Above all John is ‘gentle-man’ in the proper sense of the word, his music is fervent, his ideology is often clear. He never writes down to performers or listeners and everything lies beautifully for either instrumentalist or singer. Audiences feel emotionally involved with his world and carried along with the waves of sound and passion in it.
So thank you, John, both from me personally and for what you have achieved for students, and music lovers all over the world; those that have benefited from your experience and guidance; and from those both present and in the future who will benefit from the genuine power and beauty of your life’s work.
Gary Higginson

John Joubert – a few personal reminiscences and a word about An English Requiem by Adrian Partington
John Joubert’s music has been a part of my life since the late 1960s, when, as a chorister at Worcester Cathedral, I was thrilled by Torches, charmed by There is no rose, and haunted by O Lorde, the maker of al thing. I remember that all the boys enjoyed those pieces – they were each accorded the rare distinction of being spontaneously sung by the choristers outside our cathedral duties – that is, they were melodically appealing enough to have a life alongside “Yellow submarine”, and the other popular songs we sang at the time, on bus journeys and so on.
Forty years on (to quote Alan Bennett), those pieces still seem fresh and strong to me, with, yes, “catchy” melodies. The remarkable thing to me is that John is still writing bright and infectious melodies after a compositional career of more than sixty years. The themes of An English Requiem (2010) are every bit as engaging as those from the early miniatures which I mentioned. They are each easily singable and rhythmically-predictable - this is not a negative comment – Mozart’s themes are thus, as well - but also each is coloured by a distinctive bitter-sweet harmonic language which is easily recognized by all those who know a few of John’s works.
It was on a musical holiday in Europe in the early 1990s when I first had the privilege of getting to know John personally. I had been engaged by the Birmingham Bach Choir to accompany their concerts in Leipzig and Prague. In one of these concerts, we gave first performances of two of the works from John’s Rochester Triptych. These are wonderful works, which, like most of John’s music, deserve to be much better known. John seemed to me at that time to be - and I hope this doesn’t seem condescending - scholarly, gentle but intense, vague about practical matters, but extremely alert about intellectual ones, and, above all, very kind. I hope he won’t mind me recalling that within a few minutes of his arriving in Prague he had his wallet stolen by a pickpocket on an underground train. This was upsetting, of course, but John seemed to bear the matter with an air of cheerful resignation.
Shortly after I arrived at Gloucester Cathedral as Director of Music in 2008, I was approached by Nick Fisher – an acquaintance of mine from our shared days with the Birmingham Bach Choir. Nick is a scholar, an author, the world authority on the life and work of the seventeenth century poet Lord Rochester, a priest, a former policeman, and a Joubert enthusiast, with a gift for making things happen. He has commissioned, by raising money from private sources, many Joubert works, and I would not like his stimulating influence on John’s later compositional career to be ignored. Nick suggested that I should record a CD of a selection of John’s “cathedral” works, with the Gloucester Cathedral Choir. This I did with enthusiasm. I included music from all periods of John’s career, from the early miniatures mentioned above to commissions from the 2000s, including the wonderfully-beautiful Five Incarnation Songs, via the startling “Capetown” Magnificat and Nunc dimittis of 1968, which is surely one of the most original and thought-provoking settings of those texts of the twentieth century.
It was Nick Fisher, again, who planted in my mind the idea of inviting John to write a significant choral-orchestral work for the Three Choirs Festival of 2010. I was thrilled to be able to facilitate this commission. In the event, I was able to make John “Composer-in-residence” for the festival week, and he honoured us by writing other new works for the festival, including a brazen “Jubilate” for the Opening Service, which made a big impression on all those who witnessed it.
The Festival Committee enthusiastically agreed with John’s idea of writing An English Requiem, using texts selected by Nick Fisher from the New Revised Standard Version of the Old and New Testaments. The work was unapologetically modelled on Brahms’s German Requiem, being similarly scored for soprano and baritone soloists, with large chorus and orchestra; both works avoid using any of the liturgical Requiem texts. The Joubert Requiem includes one telling feature which the Brahms lacks, that is a children’s choir. This is used with wonderful effect in the final two movements. The fresh sound of the boys’ voices being introduced towards the end of this great work, to colour the change of mood from despair to hope, is one of the masterstrokes of the creation.
“Passionate, beautifully crafted and profound” is how The Times critic Richard Morrison described the Requiem, and John’s other grander compositions. He went on to write in his review of the first performance of the English Requiem:
“…one could easily imagine Elgar, VW, Howells, Britten and Walton nodding their heads with approval (and, perhaps, recognition) as Joubert’s majestic climaxes, astringent harmonies and poignant melodies echoed round the Gothic arches.”
Morrison’s review of the work was completely positive in tone, and encapsulated, as perhaps only an experienced and articulate critic can, the meaning and purpose of the Requiem in a few choice sentences. He paid particular attention, as indeed did Andrew Clements in The Guardian, to the poignant beauty of the solo movements, wonderfully sung in Gloucester by Neal Davies and Carolyn Sampson. He hoped that the work, like us, should have an “afterlife”.
The work should have an afterlife, unlike so many recent Three Choirs Festival commissions. It is in the style of the early miniatures, but on an epic scale. With its sweeping melodies, astringent harmonies within a tonal setting, marvellously colourful orchestration and sensitive setting of a beautiful series of texts, it will, in time, become popular with choral societies and promoters who wish for a more modern, classical English “oratorio” as half of a concert programme. (I paired it with Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, to save the Chorus’s voices for the next day; but it could easily be coupled with another standard English choral-orchestral work by Elgar or Vaughan Williams; or a continental work using similar forces.)
One of the many things which has remained in my mind since the performance of the English Requiem in 2010 was John’s meticulous attention to the preparation of the score and the parts, and his helpful comments about my interpretation of the score. All our correspondence was conducted by old-fashioned letter; and I shall treasure the many letters from John which I received in the months leading up to the performance. However, the clearest and strongest memory which I have is the reception accorded to John after the performance. A full cathedral gave John an ovation which I will never forget, and I hope he will not, too. The audience felt, as did the performers, that they had experienced for the first time a significant new work; and each applauded John, not just for An English Requiem, but for a lifetime of achievement and undimmed creativity.
Adrian Partington
John Joubert. An Appreciation by Jeffrey Skidmore
(An edited and updated version of a note written for the 2007 première of the oratorio Wings of Faith)
I have known the distinguished composer John Joubert for many years and his choral music for most of my life. In the early 1960s I sang Torches, not long after it had been written, as a member of my school choir in Bournville, just down the road from the university where John worked. As a teenage lay-clerk at Birmingham Cathedral I sang, for the first time, the award-winning anthem O Lorde the Maker and John’s most exquisite little gem There is no rose. At Magdalen College, Oxford, the chapel choir sang and broadcast much of John’s more ambitious choral compositions, including the impressive Evening Canticles and the large-scale anthem Lord, thou hast been our refuge. In 1983 Ex Cathedra was invited by John to give the first performance of Three Portraits at the Cork International Festival and over 20 years ago Ex Cathedra commissioned its first work, South of the Line, which was performed at the opening of the Adrian Boult Hall. We subsequently recorded it on our own label together with the first recording of the Rorate coeli motets. In 1987 we celebrated John’s 60th birthday with a concert in St John’s, Smith Square, London. To celebrate the Millennium Ex Cathedra commissioned the first part of a new oratorio, Wings of Faith. The second part of Wings of Faith was completed in 2003 and I had the privilege of conducting the world première of the complete oratorio in March 2007.
I wrote at that time that John’s music reflects his character. He combines strength and conviction with sensitivity, dignity, awareness and thoughtfulness. He has an impressive knowledge of music tradition and an impeccable command of musical techniques. In Wings of Faith – and elsewhere in his choral music - the influence of Elgar, Handel, Bach and Britten can be heard in the melodic shapes, in the ability to capture an idea in a single musical phrase and in the use of familiar tunes. His knowledge of poetry and the power of words is equally impressive, not just in Wings of Faith but also in his other vocal music. John is clearly inspired by words. He has a distinctive and personal style which can with ease express powerful ideas. He is comfortable on a large canvas and has a symphonic ability to develop themes. John’s music is challenging and complex but always accessible and rewarding. It is tuneful, melodic, harmonic, performable(!) and beautifully written for players and singers.
Why is his music so little known and so little appreciated? Joubert is, sadly, not a household name and even in the small world of classical music his music is not well-known, apart from a few miniatures. Not long before the première of Wings of Faith I was interviewed by a leading national music critic who had not even heard of him! I think Joubert was treated badly in the 1960s by the avant garde, and such a small amount of his work is available on recordings, though happily that situation has improved somewhat in the last few years. It is tempting to compare his neglect, for so many years, with that of Bach in his life-time! However, things have changed and our post-modern age has taken up new names, some of whom are great and some who have achieved popularity and have also helped restore an element of evolution through tradition. Few of these composers can match the profundity and power of John Joubert’s music which is part of a great succession - Elgar, Vaughan Williams, Britten, Tippett, Joubert, MacMillan … I hope I’m right. Time will tell.
© Jeffrey Skidmore, 2012


































































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