Christopher Morley speaks to composer John Joubert about death and following in the footsteps of Elgar.
The composer John Joubert, resident in Moseley for the best part of half a century, is completing an amazing cultural link.
Claude Brown, his music teacher at school in Cape Town, South Africa, previously an assistant to Ivor Atkins, long-time organist at Worcester Cathedral, had been one of Elgar’s rehearsal pianists at Three Choirs Festivals.
And Elgar himself had been the first professor of music at Birmingham University, where Joubert had a long and distinguished career as senior lecturer and reader.
And now, like Elgar a century ago, Joubert, 83, is composer-in-residence at the Three Choirs Festival, contributing no fewer than three premieres to the week’s activities, as well as hearing performances of some of his older pieces. One of the latter is Temps Perdu, inspired by an ancient family farm-house in South Africa.
But the three premieres are excitingly forward-looking, even if the major one, An English Requiem, is a substantial contemplation upon death. The other two are a celebratory setting of Psalm 100 for the opening service on Saturday, and Preces and Responses for the Festival Service next Wednesday which will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3.
I ask him how the invitation to be composer-in-residence come about.
“I honestly don’t know. I should think it probably had something to do with Nick Fisher. Most of these things can usually be traced back to him in some way or another.”
Nick Fisher is Birmingham’s answer to Inspector Morse, a high-ranking police officer, now retired, with an awe-inspiring passion for the arts – he is an international authority on the works of the Earl of Rochester and member and former chairman of Birmingham Bach Choir.
“No, I think the main work, The English Requiem, the actual idea of writing it came from Nick, and he managed to find the funding for it. And he actually selected the text.
“It all came about really through his hearing a performance of the Brahms German Requiem in New York. He came back very full of this, and said, we ought to have an English Requiem: would you like to write one?
“So I said, yes, I think that’s a very good idea: would you like to put together the text? And it sort of went on from there. He put together what I thought was a very well thought-out text, entirely biblical texts, in a modern translation, and I thought he made a very good job of it.”
There were heartening celebrations of Joubert’s 80th birthday three years ago, with CD releases of his music, broadcasts, performances and premieres nationwide. Has this resurgence of interest in the music of such a modest, unassuming composer had an impact upon his current profile?
“Well, I think it’s been given a great boost because of the 80th birthday,” he says.
I comment to Dr Joubert (my final-year tutor more than 40 years ago in the music department of Birmingham University – and if it weren’t for his recommendation, I wouldn’t be writing for this newspaper) that I don’t really like the idea of his contemplating death as much as he’s done in the English Requiem.
He laughs. “Well, you know, when you get to my age it’s something which one has to confront. I’ve no immediate intentions of dying, but it can’t be all that long a delay. It’s not something I think about, though I’ve thought about death itself a great deal, because of the work.
“But I don’t look upon it as a Requiem for myself, or for anybody else, for that matter. It’s really just about death itself, and as a sort of inevitability.
Unusually for Joubert, the work has no dedicatee. “There is no dedicatee. I did think of various people, but I wanted to get away from the idea of it being a work for, well, anything to do with a liturgical requiem, or a requiem for anybody in particular.
“I just wanted it to be a personal thing, involving my own reactions to the thought of death. So they really are a series of meditations on death itself, and I didn’t want it to be looked upon as a kind of monument to somebody.”
Carolyn Sampson, who sang so memorably as soprano soloist in Joubert’s Wings of Faith, premiered by Ex Cathedra in Birmingham Cathedral during the 2000 millennium celebrations, is one of the soloists here (Joubert’s line-up mirrors exactly that of Brahms’ German Requiem, but with the addition of a junior chorus).
“They asked me if I had any preferences for soloists, and I gave them one or two names – and hers was one – and she was approached, and I was very glad she was able to do it.”
Is English Requiem the kind of work that amateur choral societies could take on?
“Yes. Well, I mean, I hope so,” comes the decisive response. “Not all the numbers are choral, there are two entirely solo numbers, but I would certainly hope it could be taken up by choral societies.
“But nowadays they find it so difficult to afford an orchestra. It is a large orchestra, triple wind and all that, but in other ways it’s perfectly normal. I thought, well, we’re going to have the Philharmonia in Gloucester, and I thought I may as well throw caution to the winds!”
* John Joubert’s English Requiem is premiered by the Festival Chorus, Philharmonia Orchestra and soloists, Adrian Partington conducting, in Gloucester Cathedral on Monday (7.45pm). Details on 0845 652 1823.