Renowned Composer Celebrates 90th Birthday Year

Monday, 9th October 2017

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John Joubert (Photo © Graham Boulton)
John Joubert (Photo © Graham Boulton)

Moseley has been home to composer and former lecturer John Joubert for over 50 years. He has been talking to B13 about his life in music, and the events surrounding his 90th birthday, in particular the premiere of his latest opera ‘Jane Eyre’ – described by composer Kenneth Woods as ‘the finest English-language opera written since the death of Britten’.
Before moving to School Road in 1963 John’s journey brought him from his native South Africa via London and Hull. Born in Cape Town, early musical memories included playing piano four-handed with his mother and enthusiastically composing his own music as a teenager on self-ruled manuscript paper.

Given a traditional British education, his school music master was a former pianist for Sir Ivor Atkins and Elgar at Worcester Cathedral. But it was actually his art teacher leaving to fight in the Second World War that caused music to gain predominance in his affections. Studying privately under English expat composer W. H. Bell and at the South African College of Music he later won a scholarship provided by the Performing Rights Society that enabled him to study in London at the Royal Academy of Music.

The sea voyage the 19-year-old Joubert took to Britain on a former troopship lasted three weeks and was to be the last time he saw the land of his birth, until he was able to combine a trip back to see family with the debut of his operatic adaptation of Silas Marner under the auspices of the Scotsman Erik Chisholm.

Described by Joubert as a ‘good all-rounder’, Chisholm was resistant to the looming apartheid system; the worry it caused has been blamed for his death of cardiac arrest aged 61. South Africa and her politics exerted an influence over several of Joubert’s works. His Symphony No.2 contains African elements and melodies and is dedicated to the victims of the Sharpeville Massacre. Additionally, ‘South of the Line’ – the last music played at the Adrian Boult Hall – and ‘African Sketchbook’ take as their subject the Boer War and African wildlife respectively.

Despite the challenges of being in a new country with a new climate Joubert won multiple prizes at the academy for composition and was able to have his scholarship extended for a further two years. John stresses how ‘lucky’ he was to have had such an education. He studied under Theodore Holland – himself a student of the prestigious Joseph Joachim – who gave him a ‘thorough grounding in traditional harmony’; Howard Ferguson, an easy-going, and affable Ulsterman whose lessons would sometimes simply involve playing piano and for whom Divertimento for Piano Duet, Op. 2 was written and Alan Bush, a workaholic communist composer whose work was banned by the BBC until Vaughan Williams intervened on his behalf. Joubert rates as a musical highlight of his time in London there the opportunity to see Richard Strauss direct his own music at the Royal Albert Hall.

Following London came lecturing in Hull where he lived in a flat in a university-owned house that would later be home to fellow university employee Philip Larkin. The property in which The Whitsun Weddings and High Windows were written also saw the composition of Joubert’s equally enduring choral settings of ‘Torches!’ and ‘There is No Rose of Such Virtue’. Larkin, Joubert remembers, particularly enjoyed when the trolleybus’s pantograph became detached from its overhead cable and would then have to be hooked back in an act Larkin would refer to as ‘aerial fishing’.

Joubert took on a lectureship at the University of Birmingham and it was musicologist Wilfrid Mellers who was then living on School Road that attracted the Jouberts to the area in 1963. Before retiring in 1986 to focus on composition Joubert spent over two decades at the university as tutor, lecturer, senior lecturer, reader and master of the Motet Choir. John is an Honorary Senior Research Fellow of the university and was given an honorary Doctorate of Music by them in 1997.

Now approaching 200 opus numbers Joubert mentions ‘Jane Eyre’ as perhaps the one with which he is happiest. The premiere performance of it last year by the English Symphony Orchestra at the Ruddock Performing Arts Centre at King Edward’s School must have been tremendous for all involved. Certainly that is the impression given.  The recording of that performance (on Somm records) is one of several CDs released in this anniversary year. An album of choral music (also on Somm) and one of organ music (on Toccata Classics) are others. Commentators online suggest that recordings of Joubert’s St. Mark Passion and his Third Symphony may follow.

I shall recommend that the choir of the Birmingham Buddhist Centre include one of this local luminary’s works in its repertoire for this special anniversary year. For additional commemorations of John’s 90th follow the Twitter hashtag #Joubert90.

Happy birthday, John!