John Joubert: A composer for today and tomorrow – An appreciation by Kenneth Woods

Written by: Kenneth Woods

Published 10 January 2019

John Joubert

When John Joubert passed away this week (on January 7) at the age of ninety-one, he left behind a vast body of work, reaching to nearly 200 opus numbers, including seven operas, three Symphonies and four Concertos. If it is a source of frustration for those of us who knew and admired both the man and his music that most of this vast output remains regrettably neglected and seldom performed, we can take comfort in the fact that composers as iconic as J. S. Bach were also similarly misunderstood and neglected in their own lives.

Born in South Africa, Joubert settled in the UK after completing his studies at the Royal Academy of Music in London in 1949. In 1950, he took up his first academic post at the University of Hull, later moving to the faculty of Birmingham University in 1962, where he taught until taking early retirement to focus on composition in 1986.

I first came into contact with Joubert’s music when his daughter Anna, a fine cellist and at the time my colleague at the Orchestra of the Swan where I was Principal Guest Conductor, gave me a copy of the recording of his First Symphony under the baton of Vernon Handley. Like many musicians in the UK, I had seen Joubert’s name around since my arrival, but it wasn’t until I sat down and listened properly to the First Symphony that I realised what a remarkable composer he was.

A few years ago, Siva Oke, founder of Somm Recordings, approached me with the idea of premiering and recording Joubert’s magnum opus, his opera Jane Eyre, a work begun in 1987 which had been languishing without a professional performance for years. Our goal was to make Jane Eyre the focal point of the celebrations of John’s ninetieth-birthday. Jane Eyre was to become the work through which I would get to know John and his music.

Whatever our expectations were for the scope of this project, nothing could really prepare us for the enormity of the task. In spite of the exceptional quality of the work, John’s advancing age and the obvious interdisciplinary appeal of a major new operatic setting of one of the most popular novels in the English language (during the Charlotte Brontë bicentennial, no less), raising the money needed to bring this huge work to life proved a truly Herculean task. In its original three-Act form, Jane Eyre is almost Wagnerian in scale. In order to make the premiere a more manageable task, John cheerfully and pragmatically adapted the work into a two-Act score, excising the wonderful entr’actes and cutting some scenes. If the original version has an epic quality, the two-Act revision has a directness and intensity not far from scores like Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle or Richard Strauss’s Salome. Throughout this whole process, John’s approach to his beloved score was always eminently practical. He managed a process of revision that many composers would resent in such a way that the result was a very different but equally magnificent opera, and he was able to re-work the cut orchestral music into a Third Symphony.

John Joubert

When at last the premiere of Jane Eyre arrived on 25 October 2016 (review below), it was a blessed occasion. John was rewarded at the end of the concert with a standing ovation from both the audience and the orchestra, and both the premiere and the recording which was released a few months later have been greeted with universal praise. I am certain that in time, Jane Eyre will take its place in the repertoire alongside works like Britten’s Peter Grimes and Stravinsky’s Rake’s Progress as one of the greatest and most-beloved English-language operas. It is a remarkable work of music theatre, a sublime vehicle for singing and a profound and moving response to a literary masterpiece.

How long it takes Jane Eyre, and John’s other major works, to earn its rightful place in the repertoire remains an infuriatingly open question. In his review of the premiere, Richard Bratby wrote in The Spectator: “At the end of the performance the audience rose and, applauding, turned to the 89-year old Joubert. I was left with the unhappy thought that this one-off outing in a suburban school hall was in all probability the only time that the composer will get to hear his vital, warm-blooded creation performed live. We tut disapprovingly at the way Victorian Britain forced its composers on to a treadmill of oratorios. But in Joubert we’ve taken a born musical dramatist and pigeonholed him as a composer of Christmas carols. Barring a David Pountney or a James Conway throwing the resources of a national opera company behind it, the odds of Jane Eyre receiving the full professional staging it begs for are vanishingly small. And there’d still be the problem of attracting an audience that’s long since learned to run a mile from an unfamiliar name. This, reader, is why we can’t have nice things.”

In the end, in spite of monumental efforts by all those involved in the premiere and others to organise a full production of Jane Eyre while John was still with us, Bratby’s grim prognostication proved all too true. John never heard the work live again. I have hardly ever seen a negative review of a performance or recording of John’s music. It is music which commands the respect of performers and the affection of the audience. That more persons at the helms of our most well-resourced opera companies, festivals and orchestras seem reluctant to programme his work can only be attributed to the last remnants of regrettable mid-twentieth-century mind-set which held that it was more important that music be good for you than that it be good.

Fortunately, progress has been made in making some of the major works of John’s vast catalogue available through recordings, thanks to the efforts of labels like Somm, Lyrita and Resonus. All three of John’s Symphonies are now available in quality recordings, as are his Cello and Piano Concertos, many of the choral works and his complete music for piano.

While John’s music is grounded in tonality and deeply connected to tradition, it is music that overflows not only with mastery of technique, but with originality, passion and personality. John is one of the most accomplished and individual orchestrators I know. Jane Eyre, which has not a single special effect or extended technique in it, is overflowing with textures, sounds and timbral combinations I’ve never seen anywhere else, always at the service of the drama and the musical ideas. Scored for remarkably small forces, John manages to generate everything from huge symphonic sweep to a spikier, more modernist soundscape to the most intimate pianissimos. By having each of the four woodwind players double, he’s able to create a huge range of sounds. I’ve never heard anything quite like the duet for contrabassoon and bass clarinet John wrote near the end of Act One of Jane Eyre.

John’s writing for the human voice is challenging and exposed, but he understood it, whether in opera or choir, to perfection, and his ability to set texts is second to none. John’s response to Kenneth Birkin’s excellent libretto in Jane Eyre is so natural that one forgets, for once, how difficult it is to set English clearly and naturally in music. Listening to almost any other English-language opera after Jane Eyre will make one appreciate John’s understanding of both the sound and the meaning of the words.

And while John’s music is tonal, his harmonic language is distinctive and original. Although critical responses to Jane Eyre have often rightly suggested the influence of operatic masters like Janáček and Richard Strauss, I challenge anyone to find a chord in Jane Eyre that anyone else would have organised and orchestrated as John has. Of course there are evocations of past masters in John’s music. As a composer who takes part in the ongoing struggle to re-invent, renew and revitalise our precious tradition, he invokes the work of his forbears just as Strauss did Wagner or Brahms did Beethoven.

Gustav Mahler’s famous statement “my time will come” could just as well as come from John, except for the fact that, as far as I could tell, this quietly confident master was utterly without bravado or ego. But his time will come and his music will endure. Eventually, listeners who have fallen in love with the Symphonies and the operas in recording will demand proper productions and performances of his major works on the world’s great stages.

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