Life & Music

Born in Cape Town in 1927, John Joubert’s compositional career stretched over 70 years. His catalogue includes over 180 opus numbers, ranging from operas, major orchestral works, concertos for oboe, bassoon, violin, cello and piano, chamber and instrumental music, through to short carols and anthems and a series of major choral-orchestral pieces that place him at the forefront of composers of the generation after Britten and Tippett.

Joubert’s father was a descendant of French Protestant (Huguenot) settlers; his mother’s ancestors were Dutch (she was a fine pianist and a pupil of Harriet Cohen), although Joubert’s upbringing and education was thoroughly English and Anglican, at the Diocesan College in Rondebosch. Claude Brown, director of music at the College, was a former assistant to Sir Ivor Atkins at Worcester Cathedral and so was truly sympathetic to his young charge’s musical enthusiasms. He introduced his pupil to the choral works of Parry and Stanford, and – of special significance – the oratorios of Elgar, all of which Joubert remembers learning before hearing them in full orchestral guise. Joubert has since described his teacher’s guidance to be ‘an indispensable foundation to my subsequent musical career.’ Although sure that he wanted to do ‘something creative’, Joubert put aside his original thoughts about becoming a painter, had private composition lessons with W.H. Bell (who taught at the Royal Academy of Music (RAM) in London until he emigrated to South Africa in 1912), and then won a PRS scholarship to study at the RAM in London, where his teachers included Theodore Holland, Howard Ferguson and Alan Bush. Of equal importance, Joubert remembers, was the chance for him to see and hear the greatest conductors of the time – Beecham, Furtwängler, Strauss and Walter – and hear regular orchestral, operatic and chamber music performances of the kind of calibre that he could not have hoped to hear in South Africa.


With William Mathias, Cheltenham Festival 1963

With William Mathias, Cheltenham Festival 1963

With wife Mary at the piano, daughter Anna (cello) and son Pierre (Violin) at the family home in Moseley, Birmingham

With wife Mary at the piano, daughter Anna (cello) and son Pierre (Violin) at the family home in Moseley, Birmingham

After leaving the RAM, Joubert took up a lecturing position at the University of Hull (where he remained for 12 years) and it is from around this time that some of his most popular choral works began to appear. These included two Christmas carols that have become staples of the repertoire: There is no rose of such virtue (1954) and Torches (1951), the latter written for a school choir directed by his wife Mary with words from an old Galician Carol – the composer recalls hearing it several times on his doorstep as carol singers came to call, unaware of course that its composer lived there. Further success came with the dark and mysterious anthem O Lord, the maker of al thing (setting a text by Henry VIII), which won the Novello Anthem Competition Prize in 1952. This was really the beginning of Joubert’s long and distinguished career as a composer of choral music. As he has written, ‘I’ve always wanted to write anything I was asked to do or wanted to write, never wanting to specialise, although I have to a certain extent been pigeon-holed’; but choirs the world over have taken his music to their hearts and despite notable contribution to so many other musical genres, works involving the voice account for a large proportion of his output.

Perhaps surprisingly for a composer that might once have been a painter, visual arts have been less of a stimulus than literature: Joubert is widely read, always trying to find a text that fits the particular circumstances of the commission and/or the performers. The long and varied list of writers he has drawn on (some notoriously hard to set to music) includes Emily Brontë, Donne, Lawrence, Shakespeare, Yeats, Hopkins, Hardy, Rossetti, Mandelstam, Ruth Dallas, Chesterton, and Crashaw, as well as Psalm settings and numerous medieval texts. In addition, Joubert has been inspired by libretti written especially for him, such as a text by Stephen Tunnicliffe for one of his most recent works, Wings of Faith, written for the Birmingham-based choir Ex Cathedra, who, with their conductor Jeffrey Skidmore, are among Joubert’s most devoted champions. The two-part oratorio (2000-03) is a striking evocation of the time between the Resurrection and Ascension, and later the period between Pentecost and Peter’s vision of a universal church. It is in effect a Passion: the choir – representing ‘the crowd’ – contrast with dramatic arias for the five soloists (soprano, alto, tenor, and two baritones); there is a poignant additional use of a youth choir; and Joubert manages to solve what can sometimes be the tricky problem of using a narrator. Quite apart from the perhaps expected accomplished choral writing, Joubert provides astute and assured writing for a chamber orchestra made up of wind quintet, piano, organ, percussion and string quintet. Described at its premiere as belonging to the ‘canon of English choral classics’ and ‘scintillating, urgent and bracing’, the work’s relatively modest forces make one hope that more frequent performances might be forthcoming.

With John McCabe, Presteigne Festival 2013

With John McCabe, Presteigne Festival 2013

With Ashley Riches (baritone) and Emma Abbate (piano) after song cycle That Time of Year at Celebrating English Song Festival, Tardebigge 2015

With Ashley Riches (baritone) and Emma Abbate (piano) after song cycle That Time of Year at Celebrating English Song Festival, Tardebigge 2015

Also commissioned by Ex Cathedra, South of the Line (1985) – for soprano and baritone soloists, chorus, two pianos and percussion – has been heard as regularly as any of Joubert’s larger-scale works. Setting five poems by another favourite writer, Thomas Hardy, the work consists of texts that were written as a reaction to the Boer War.

A good deal of public opinion at the time was very much against the war and these vivid, angry texts are among the most fervent anti-war poems in the English language. The result is one of Joubert’s most powerful utterances that explores not only a kind of short-lived euphoria, but also desolation, despair and bitterness. The central movement, ‘Drummer Hodge’, accompanied only by percussion, is a classic example of less is more – a spare choral description of young life cut short that is sadly as relevant today as it ever was.

Among recent ‘miniatures’, imaginative choral directors might like to investigate two Christmas pieces, both Rossetti settings – In the bleak midwinter (2013) for two-part choir and organ, and a particularly touching setting of Love came down at Christmas (2013) for SATB choir; the joyful Psalm 100 (2010) for double choir and organ; Locus iste (2013), and Five Songs of Incarnation (2007), which may be performed separately or as a cycle with solo tenor prefaces. All are within the capabilities of a good chamber choir and illustrate Joubert’s long held wish to ‘be useful and write music that people might want to use.’

Alongside smaller works Joubert has continued to write on a large-scale; An English Requiem was the culmination of his time as composer-in-residence at the 2010 Three Choirs Festival. Warmly and enthusiastically received and yet still unaccountably awaiting a London premiere, Joubert’s Requiem is a dark, brooding work, setting Old and New Testament texts chosen for the composer by Nicholas Fisher. Central to this Requiem is the message of hope: like the Brahms Requiem, it might be seen as a meditation on death rather than a setting of the liturgy – a journey from darkness to light, vividly etched in music.

More recently still was the result of another long-standing working relationship, this time with the Choir of Wells Cathedral and its director, Matthew Owens: Joubert’s St Mark Passion was premiered as part of a service on Palm Sunday on his 89th birthday last year. The economy of the scoring – for five male soloists (taking the roles of Narrator, Jesus, Judas, Pilate and a Centurion), SATB choir (commenting on events and leading the congregation/audience in hymns), cello and organ – makes for a kind of intimate chamber music, and yet none of the power of the message is lost. Particularly memorable are the cries of the choir at Passover after Jesus has prophesied that one of them will betray him – ‘Is it I?; Is it I?’ – and then the unstoppable momentum to the final inevitable outcome, as Jesus cries ‘My God, why hast Thou forsaken me?’, followed by a slow soprano solo, then the choir leading the congregation in ‘When I survey the wondrous Cross’ to the tune of ‘Rockingham’.

The Requiem and the Passion continue a long and distinguished line of large-scale choral works from Joubert’s pen that includes The Choir Invisible (1968); Raising of Lazarus (1970); Herefordshire Canticles (1979); Gong-Tormented Sea (1981); and For the Beauty of the Earth (1989). All warrant revival and reassessment, and as we celebrate the composer’s 90th birthday, there can be no better time to explore in greater detail the work of the man that has been described as ‘the unsung hero of English choral music.’

David Wordsworth

This article was first published in the March/April 2017 issue of Choir & Organ magazine. Used by permission of Rhinegold Publishing Ltd.