Obituary: John Joubert

by
18 January 2019

Graham Boulton

Kenneth Shenton writes:

COMBINING rare musical insight with remarkable resilience, John Joubert, who died after a short illness, on 7 January, aged 91, was part of that vibrant émigré community who contributed immensely to the broadening and enrichment of British cultural ideals throughout the latter half of the 20th century. While perhaps best known for his contribution to Anglican church music, nevertheless he was regarded by countless connoisseurs of contemporary music as the most naturally gifted and least doctrinaire of that immediate post-war generation of composers.

Of French Huguenot descent, John Pierre Herman Joubert was born in Cape Town, South Africa, on 20 March 1927. Educated initially at the diocesan college, he came to England in 1946 on a Performing Rights Scholarship to study at the Royal Academy of Music with Theodore Holland, Howard Ferguson, and Alan Bush.

A lecturer at the University of Hull from 1950 until 1962, he then moved to Birmingham University as a senior lecturer and later reader in music, and retired in 1986. During 1979, he spent some time as a visiting professor at the University of Otago in New Zealand.

Much of what he taught, Joubert practised in his own compositions. This was never truer than in an early Symphonic Study which, in 1949, was awarded a composition prize by the Royal Philharmonic Society. Three years later, his setting of “O Lorde the Maker of Al Thing won the Novello Anthem Competition. His early reputation was further enhanced with the appearance of two Christmas carols that have since become staples of the repertoire: “There is no Rose of such virtue” and “Torches”. The latter was written in 1951 for a primary-school choir in Hull, directed by the composer’s wife, Mary.

Joubert’s subsequent output of anthems, canticle settings, and motets has ranged widely, everything from the unhurried simplicity of “All Wisdom Cometh from the Lord”, to the idiomatic intensity of “O Praise God in His Holiness”. Choral works on a more expansive canvas, more than ten in number, include the challenging 1960 cantata, Urbs Beata and the more recent St Mark Passion. Of his small but significant output of hymn tunes, Moseley, featured in The Church Hymnary, remains firmly in the repertoire, its title a touching reminder of the composer’s enduring love of his Midlands locality.

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If there is one thing that makes an immediate impression about Joubert’s vocal writing, it is the close bond between emotional sentiment and musical content. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the song cycle Crabbed Age and Youth, commissioned for the centenary of the Royal Musical Association in 1974. Taking its title from Shakespeare, the work is scored for countertenor, recorder, viola da gamba, and harpsichord.

The five songs for soprano and treble recorder, set so effectively to words by the Birmingham poet Edward Lowbury in The Hour Hand, all relate to time.

Likewise, the directness that pervades so much of his music remains a prime feature of his extensive instrumental oeuvre, dominated in part by his three symphonies. The First, traditional in outlook, was premièred by Hull Philharmonic Orchestra in 1955.

More ambitious, the second, while full of African drumming, remains a mix of unbridled exuberance and deeply felt melancholy. It is prefaced by a quotation from Alan Paton and dedicated to those who fell in the Sharpeville massacre in South Africa. No less challenging are solo concertos for piano, violin, bassoon, and cello.

Forming the central core of Joubert’s extensive output are his works for the stage, eight operas in total. These begin with Antigone, four scenes from Sophocles, first broadcast on the BBC Home Service in 1954; and five years later he completed In the Drought, a tragedy in one act, first performed, like the later Silas Marner, at Sadler’s Wells. In both this and Under Western Eyes, there are extended instrumental interludes in which the orchestra explores and expands the music of preceding scenes. Stage works specially designed for young performers include The Quarry, The Prisoner, and The Wayfarers. His last major operatic work, Jane Eyre, Op. 134, still awaits a full stage-production.

Regularly associated with the Three Choirs Festival throughout his long career, for the 2010 event held at Gloucester, Joubert served as composer-in-residence. Three of the five works heard that week — Jubilate, a revised and updated Temps Perdu, and An English Requiem — received first performances.

The Requiem, a six-movement setting for soloists, chorus, and orchestra of updated biblical texts chosen by Nicholas Fisher, was elegantly shaped by Adrian Partington. Intimate in detail, expansive in outlook, and sophisticated in execution, An English Requiem brings together the many disparate elements in his technique, all handled with the skill of a master craftsman.

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