Just the Joubert
After years of undeserved neglect, Birmingham composer John Joubert is back in the spotlight in his 80th birthday year. Christopher Morley went to meet him.
Today marks the beginning of a hectic month for the Moseley-based composer John Joubert, whose 80th birthday falls on March 20.
Though his Christmas carol Torches is sung all over the world, and was used by the BBC to open Radio 4's 2005 Christmas Day broadcast from St Martin-in-the-Fields, Joubert was seriously starting to think that people had forgotten about him.
But the huge amount of interest aroused by this special birthday, not only in the Midlands but throughout the country, has made the composer think again.
"The whole thing has been a delightful surprise," he beams in the elegant sitting-room of his Victorian home. And in fact he seems to be busier than ever, and is dealing with a gratifying waiting-list of commissions.
He has recently completed an oboe concerto for Stratford's Orchestra of the Swan, and is currently immersed in settings of poetry.
"I've just finished a setting of a Shakespeare sonnet for Jennie McGregor-Smith's summer English Song Series at Tardebigge, near Bromsgrove," he tells me. "The brief was, they wanted a Shakespeare setting for an all-Shakespeare programme, and I thought, well, there are so many Shakespeare sonnets which have been set so many times, so I'd go into less familiar territory - and found this one.
"Sonnet number 73: it's called That Time of Year, and it's about coldness and growing old, so it's quite appropriate. Marvellous words..."
And there are more poetry-settings in the pipeline, including one in memory of the late professor of music at Birmingham University, Basil Deane.
Though his home has been in Moseley for more than 40 years, John Joubert hails originally from South Africa, and is a scion of a long-established Huguenot family there, some of whom went into the wine-making industry. He was born in Cape Town, and as a teenager began to display a passionate commitment to the creative arts.
"I was originally hoping to become a painter. I did quite a bit of art at school, and I gradually changed round about the age of 15 to music, wanting to be a composer, not anything else such as being a performer. It was always going to be something creative.
"Oddly enough, the visual arts haven't been as great a stimulus as literature has. I was also interested in writing. In fact I was bored by everything at school except writing, art and music."
The inspiration for Joubert to become a composer came from Claud Brown, director of music at the Diocesan College where he was a pupil. Brown had previously been assistant to Ivor Atkins at Worcester Cathedral, and had played the piano at Three Choirs Festival rehearsals of Elgar's music conducted by the composer himself.
"Through Brown I learned all the Elgar choral works ever before I heard them properly in full orchestral performance. Not only that idiom, but the idiom of Anglican church music generally. Parry and Stanford, and all the usual blokes," he remembers.
Opportunities to hear such performances came when Joubert arrived in England in 1946 with the award of a Performing Rights Society scholarship to study at the Royal Academy of Music in London. At the Academy Joubert's teachers were Theodore Holland, Howard Ferguson and Alan Bush, and he was the winner of a Royal Philharmonic prize in 1949.
In 1950 John Joubert was appointed to a lectureship in music at the University of Hull, and in 1952 won the Novello Anthem Competition with O Lorde, the maker of al thing. The same year he composed Torches for his wife Mary's school pupils.
"I've even had carol-singers come to the door and singing it, without knowing the composer lives inside." he laughs.
In Hull the Jouberts lived in a flat in a fine Victorian house, later to become the residence of the University's librarian, Philip Larkin, and immortalised in Larkin's poem High Windows. But to John Joubert's chagrin, "there's now a blue plaque outside the place referring to Philip - but with no mention of me.".
This is not self-centredness on Joubert's part, but rather an example of his endearing self-deprecation. He seems continually amazed at the amount of interest shown in him.
Moving from Hull in 1962, Joubert became senior lecturer in music at the University of Birmingham, where he remained until his retirement in 1986.
"It was only at that point that I actually became a full-time composer", he points out.
Despite his academic duties taking up a large part of his life, Joubert has produced a huge corpus of work.
Although he is probably best-known for his many contributions to the English choral tradition in which he was schooled, John Joubert has been active in virtually every musical genre, and is anxious to underline the fact.
"I've never really wanted to be pigeonholed as a composer. I've always wanted to write anything that I was either asked to, or wanted to write. I've never wanted to specialise, although I have to a certain extent been pigeonholed already. I'd rather not be looked upon as sort of limited in that way."
Yet it would not be too fanciful to detect a love of opera as John Joubert's most vibrant inspiration. He has written many works for the operatic stage, the most recent being his great labour of love, a setting of Jane Eyre. In a departure for this sensibly pragmatic composer who almost always only writes to commission, Jane Eyre was something he had long wanted to compose, and he spent several years quietly getting on with its composition alongside more lucrative commissions. A professional staging of this beautifully lyrical and dramatically-structured opera would be the greatest 80th birthday present of all for Joubert.
At the heart of this celebratory year are several events taking place in Birmingham during the next few weeks.
A display featuring the life and work of the composer has been set up in the music section of Birmingham Central Library. There is also a dedicated website for what people are already calling a "Joubertiade" with up-to-date information on birthday events throughout the country: johnjoubert.org.uk, and a diary leaflet is available at various musical outlets.
On Saturday Birmingham Bach Choir's programme of British choral and organ music includes Joubert's Rochester Triptych and the premiere of Alexander Mason's A Torch for John, variations on Torches for organ (Birmingham Cathedral 7.30pm).
Jeffrey Skidmore's Ex Cathedra performs Joubert's Rorate Coeli and South of the Line, settings of Thomas Hardy's Boer War poetry on at the Barber Institute on Sunday March 18 (3pm), and joins the CBSO at Birmingham Oratory on Thursday March 22 for the premiere of the recently-completed version of Joubert's millennium oratorio Wings of Faith (7.30pm, free admission to a conversation between Joubert and myself at 6.30pm).
John Joubert served the Birmingham Chamber Music Society with distinction as chairman for 25 years, and the BCMS concert at the Adrian Boult Hall on Saturday March 24 sees the Altenberg Trio including his magnificent Piano Trio in its programme (7.15pm).
That concert is also the occasion for the launch of a double-CD on the SOMM label of some of Joubert's piano music and chamber music. Appearing alongside performers such as the soprano Patricia Rozario, pianist John McCabe and the Brodsky String Quartet are musicians from closer to home: pianist Mark Bebbington, Birmingham Conservatoire-trained violinist David Chadwick, and the composer's own cellist daughter, Anna Joubert.
And on John Joubert's birthday itself the city of Birmingham pays tribute to its most distinguished composer with a civic reception at Birmingham Council House, hosted by the Lord Mayor.