Christopher Morley talks to composer John Joubert who is about to premier a major new work in his 85th year.
Sunday afternoon sees the world premiere of a major new work by the eminent composer John Joubert, who is rapidly approaching his 85th birthday.
This is a cello concerto written for Raphael Wallfisch, which is due to receive its first hearing at St Mary’s Church in Shrewsbury, with Wallfisch playing alongside the Northern Chamber Orchestra.
How did this commission come about? I ask John in the gracious Moseley home where he has lived for nearly half a century?
“Out of the blue,” he chuckles. “My daughter Anna takes all my emails – I’m totally computer-illiterate – and he got my phone number from her, and he rang me up and asked if I’d write him a concerto!
“So we talked about it a bit, and I went to hear him to get an idea of him – I’d heard him broadcast, but I’d never heard him ‘live’ before – and then I went ahead with it!
“It’s roughly 24 minutes long, and it’s only two movements. I thought I’d avoid my usual three-movement thing, slow-fast-slow, or fast-slow-fast, and try to think up a completely new kind of overall structure.
“The first movement is slowish, and the second movement is fast, and the second movement is like, in a way, a speeded-up version of the first!
“It’s like the first movement, but from a completely different perspective. Every theme is related to themes that arrive in the first movement, but further developed in the faster version.
“The orchestra, by the way, is a classical Mozart-sized chamber orchestra, two each of woodwind, horns and strings.”
The corpus of great cello concertos is relatively small – Dvorak, Elgar, Britten, Shostakovich – but John assures me that none of these were at the back of his mind whilst composing his own, not even those by his beloved Shostakovich.
The opus number of Joubert’s cello concerto is 171, which represents quite a corpus of work.
“I’m rather appalled, I have to say,” John laughs. “The trouble with opus numbers is, once you’ve begun you have to go on!”
He reaches for a well-thumbed, battered but vitally important ancient exercise-book, containing his own catalogue of his compositions (Mozart had compiled something similar), to reveal that the first piece he wrote after his retirement in 1986 from lecturing at Birmingham University, at last free to devote himself to full-time composition, was his Opus 109, his cantata South Of The Line.
And that work has so many connotations with the Boer War in Joubert’s homeland, South Africa.
Joubert has read extensively about that cruel conflict, and explains to me all the complex repercussions in his homeland concerning relations with the British back in the UK. They are not all as black and white (please forgive the expression) as people might think.
So these statistics from his catalogue book testify that, despite his teaching commitments, Joubert had already been extremely prolific as a composer.
“After retirement you have more time, and you do less work,” he grins. “On the other hand, I don’t think I could have carried on two professions.
“And in those days, of course, it was the Margaret Thatcher monetarist policy which encouraged people to go. They couldn’t afford the National Insurance!
“But then, of course, having more time, I was able to take more time, and didn’t have to cut corners anymore, and it was very nice to be able to take time. I like to think it shows!”
The celebrations for John Joubert’s 80th birthday – nicknamed a “Joubertiade” by Nick Fisher, high in the ranks of the police force, and Birmingham’s own answer to Inspector Morse – seem to have brought about a new lease of life, with people being reminded of the presence of a great composer still alive and kicking.
Many large-scale pieces have resulted since: an oboe concerto, the completion of his compassionate Wings Of Faith oratorio, and the wonderful English Requiem, premiered at the Three Choirs Festival, and “which is down to be done at the Barbican in London next year, along with the Berlioz Te Deum”, John tells me with relish.
He is currently involved in composing a sequence of Shakespeare sonnets, the result of the commission to set one a couple of years ago for Tardebigge’s delightful Celebrating English Song annual summer festival.
“I think that Joubertiade really made a difference,” John acknowledges. “All sorts of things came out of it, and I really got back on the map. It’s had a terrific spin-off.”
I dare to make a comparison between John Joubert and the great American composer Elliott Carter, still composing at the age of 103, whose music has softened over the years and become less gritty. Does Joubert discern any similar change in his own music?
“Well, it’s going in the same direction, actually, in the sense that it’s become less gritty. But I think it’s also got more tonal, in some cases almost diatonic! And I find myself using tonal concepts to build up large-scale structures. I always did, but I’m doing it now with more confidence, and without the feeling that I’m being terribly, terribly retro!”
How is John viewed back home in South Africa, a country he left behind more than 60 years ago?
“Well, I don’t think I’m viewed in South Africa at all. It’s been many a long year since I had any kind of professional contact with South Africa, though there was a performance of my Second Symphony there.
“That was largely due to Sir Richard Knowles, one-time Lord Mayor of Birmingham, who heard a scratch performance of it in Symphony Hall.
“He said, ‘I can’t believe it hasn’t been given in South Africa, so I shall write to Nelson Mandela (whom he’d entertained during a visit to Birmingham) about it’ – which he did! And it was done!”
* Raphael Wallfisch and the Northern Chamber Orchestra premiere John Joubert’s Cello Concerto on Sunday, March 4 (3pm), at St Mary’s Church, Shrewsbury. Details on 01743 281281.