John Joubert, one of the most celebrated British composers of our time, died on 7 January at the age of 91. Born in South Africa, Joubert lived in England for most of his life, residing for nearly half a century in the city of Birmingham. He held professorships at the University of Hull and the University of Birmingham, numbering among his students the composers Ian Venables and Elaine Hugh-Jones. Joubert was a formidable voice in contemporary British music. His catalogue numbered over 170 works in all major genres, including three symphonies, seven operas, song-cycles, a requiem, three piano sonatas, several oratorios, and concertos for piano, violin, cello, oboe, and bassoon. British children will recognize his ever-popular Christmas carols, ‘Torches’ (1951) and ‘There is a Rose of Such Virtue’ (1954).
Joubert had a particular gift for vocal music, and his choral settings have become standards in the modern Anglican repertoire. In 2014, he was among a selection of England’s leading composers who were commissioned to write for the 750thanniversary of Merton College. I had the privilege of attending the world premiere of Joubert’s opera Jane Eyre in 2016 at King Edward’s School in Birmingham, an occasion which I will never forget – the love duet which closes the first act of this masterpiece (‘My love, lay your head’) is one of the most beautiful passages in contemporary British opera.
The size and variety of Joubert’s output is such that one hesitates to summarize. Nevertheless, in our supposedly post-romantic era, Joubert proved time and again that it was possible not only to write original music of overwhelmingly romantic sentiment, but also to write imaginative contemporary music that was nonetheless accessible for both performers and listeners. His music is a joy to play and a joy to hear. It deserves an audience.
One honours a composer by continuing to perform and to value their work after they are gone. It is hoped that readers will take this opportunity to familiarize themselves with the music of this extraordinary man. A number of his recordings are available on Spotify, and the following are all worthy pieces with which to begin:
- Piano Trio, Op. 113
- Autumn Rain, Op. 105
- Jane Eyre, Op. 134
- Six Poems by Emily Brontë, Op. 63
- Be Not Afeard, Op. 179
- Piano Sonata No. 2, Op. 71
- South of the Line, Op. 109
- The Instant Moment, Op. 110
Image Credit: John E. Morris