A special Meet the Artist interview on the occasion of the 90th birthday of composer John Joubert
Who or what inspired you to take up composing, and pursue a career in music?
As far back as I can remember I’ve always wanted to do something creative. At first it was painting. I got quite far in this, partly because we had a marvellous art teacher at my preparatory school but also because my father was an accomplished draughtsman. In my early teens music began to take a more central part in my life largely because my mother, who had studied piano in London with Harriet Cohen, saw to it that music was integral to our domestic and educational background.
Who or what were the most significant influences on your musical life and career as a composer?
Two names occur to me – W.H. Bell and Claude Brown. Bell was a distinguished composer who had emigrated to South Africa in 1912 to become Head of the newly-formed Faculty of Music in the University of Cape Town. Having played an influential role in South Africa’s musical life he was living in retirement when I was first introduced to him by my mother. She had taken it upon herself to show him some of my first juvenile attempts at composition. What he saw in them I can’t imagine, but he must have recognised some potential as he offered there and then to take me on as a pupil. For the next three or four years until his sad death in 1946 we would meet as and when we could. During that time he gave me a thorough grounding in compositional technique which was to stand me in good stead as a basis for further development towards my then fixed goal to become a professional composer.
Claude Brown, my other main musical influence was the music master at my school. He came from an Anglican Cathedral background, having previously been Sir Ivor Atkins’s assistant at Worcester. The school had a strong musical tradition and it was here that I absorbed the influence of both Elgar and the the Anglican musical repertoire which Brown had experienced in England. Here again my mother played a part, as during a period of ‘straightened circumstances’ in our family, she insisted on keeping my brother and me at school despite strong pressure from other family sources for us to leave and get jobs to ease our financial situation.
Following my entry to the Royal Academy of Music in 1946 my ‘significant influences’ became the three composers I studied with there, namely Theodore Holland, Howard Ferguson and Alan Bush. Each had their own contribution to make on my development as a composer.
What have been the greatest challenges/frustrations of your career so far?
A big challenge was getting acclimatised to a new country (the terrible winter of 1947 was my first winter in England). I had no English relatives to turn to and for a long time my closest social contacts were the fellow South African students I had travelled over with on my 3-week voyage aboard the Winchester Castle (then still in its war-time adaptation as a troopship).
What are the special challenges/pleasures of working on a commissioned piece?
The pleasure of receiving a commission is having the sign that somebody out there likes your music and wants more of it. The pressure of meeting a deadline is of course a challenge, but challenges can be a stimulus that keeps you on your toes.
What are the special challenges/pleasures of working with particular musicians, singers, ensembles and orchestras?
As a practising musician my principal activity apart from composing has been conducting whether choral or instrumental, professional or amateur. One of my most congenial tasks as a University Lecturer was to conduct the University of Birmingham Motet Choir. With such a group one could tackle quite demanding music, and we quite frequently did so, including some of my own.
Of which works are you most proud?
It is difficult from a catalogue of over 180 works to pick personal favourites but I think I would have to include the following: my Octet, the opera ‘Jane Eyr’e, song-cycle ‘Six Poems of Emily Bronte’, oratorio ‘The Raising of Lazarus’, Second Symphony, Sonata No 2 for piano, Pro Pace motets, String Quartet No 2, Temps Perdu (string orchestra), ‘South of the Line’, Piano Trio, ‘Landscapes’ (song cycle), oratorio ‘Wings of Faith’, ‘An English Requiem’, St Mark Passion and Concerto for Cello and Chamber Orchestra.
How would you characterise your compositional language?
I try to achieve a personal voice based on traditional classical principles and carrying as lucidly as possible a strong emotional message.
How do you work?
Most mornings I am at my desk – which doesn’t mean I compose only in the mornings. I compose most of the time away from my desk whether consciously or unconsciously. I don’t compose at the piano, but I need a piano in order to try out different ways of seeking the clarity of expression I always strive for.
Who are your favourite musicians/composers?
I love all the great classics up to and including Wagner. After him I love Mahler, Strauss and Elgar and after them, Stravinsky, Bartok, Walton, Britten and Shostakovich.
What is your most memorable concert experience?
Seeing (and hearing) Richard Strauss conducting his Sinfonia Domestica (a greatly underrated work) at the Albert Hall during the Strauss Festival of 1947.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
I think it was Eliot who advised aspiring writers to ‘work out your salvation with diligence’. I reckon the same goes for composers too!
John Joubert was born in Cape Town in 1927. Aged 19 he won a scholarship to study at the Royal Academy of Music in London and has lived and worked in England ever since. Joubert’s long composing career encompasses all genres from symphonic, operatic and chamber works to the ever-popular choral miniatures, Torches and There is no rose. The two Symphonies, three String Quartets, Oboe Concerto and Cello Concerto are recent additions to a growing catalogue of recordings from across his work list. Commissions of the last few years include An English Requiem for the 2010 Three Choirs Festival and Concerto for Cello and Chamber Orchestra for Raphael Wallfisch as part of the 2012 Cultural Olympiad. Joubert was featured composer at the new music wells 73-13 festival in June 2013 which included a new mass setting and anthem for the choir of Wells Cathedral. 2016 saw two major premieres: Joubert’s substantial St Mark Passion at Wells Cathedral and his opera ‘Jane Eyre’ – recorded live for Somm as one of several new releases to mark his 90th birthday in 2017.