We are saddened to learn of the death of John Joubert (1927-2019) this week. South African by birth, John and his wife Mary have lived in Birmingham since the 1960s when John took up a post in the music department at the University of Birmingham.
The vast majority of our audiences will have heard us perform John’s music, probably on several occasions. Most choirs around the world have performed the Christmas carol Torches, and a great many will also know the carol There is no rose and the anthem O Lorde, the Maker of Al Thing.
These pieces have been a regular part of our repertoire for many years. Torches lends itself perfectly to candlelit processions as our singers move around the church during Christmas Music by Candlelight and was included this year, whilst we performed There is no rose at the York Early Music Christmas Festival last month as well. Our Academy of Vocal Music performed O Lorde, the Maker of Al Thing in Stratford-upon-Avon in summer 2017 with the spine-tingling impact that has made it such a successful piece.
These are the pieces for which John is best known.
But the connection we feel runs much deeper. Jeffrey has always liked to work closely with a small number of composers, and the relationship with John was the prototype that helped shape this process. The association dates back to the early 1980s.
In 1983 we were invited by John to give the world premiere of Three Portraits at the Cork International Choral and Folk Dance Festival. It was Ex Cathedra’s first overseas engagement and some of the stories from that trip became Ex Catheda folklore! The three portraits are of his daughter Anna, his wife Mary, and his sister Margaret. We most recently performed these pieces in our Summer Music by Candlelight concerts in 2016 and they will undoubtedly return soon.
The commission of the South of the Line followed in 1986 for the opening of the Adrian Boult Hall at Birmingham Conservatoire (demolished last year). It is a setting of five poems by Thomas Hardy, written at the turn of the 20th century in response to the outbreak of the Anglo-Boer War. The poems contain some of the most powerful expressions of anti-war sentiment to be found in English literature. They pre-date the World War I poetry of Wilfred Owen and although specifically about the South African conflict, John wrote that “they are an indictment of war in general, throwing its inhumanity into high relief with the ‘advanced’ stage of our civilisation (‘this late age of thought’) and our two thousand years of Christendom (‘brought in by that Man crucified’)”.
We went on to give the London premieres of South of the Line and the Rorate coeli Christmas motets during John’s 60th birthday year, and released a tape cassette recording of both pieces.
The largest work was the full-length oratorio Wings of Faith which was commissioned as part of the “Towards the Millennium” festival curated with the CBSO and Sir Simon Rattle. In the event Part One was premiered at Birmingham Cathedral in March 2000 and the full premiere was given at the Birmingham Oratory in March 2007. Both concerts were performed with the CBSO.
Wings of Faith continues where Bach’s St Matthew Passion ends, telling the biblical story from the Acts of the Apostles with a libretto by Stephen Tunnicliffe. The full premiere in 2007 formed part of a ‘Joubertiade’ celebration across the Midlands for John’s 80th birthday, with an extensive programme of performances curated by ourselves, the CBSO, Birmingham Chamber Music Society and the Birmingham Post’s Christopher Morley.
During the year we were able to perform several of the works listed above, including South of the Line and the Rorate Coeli motets in a special birthday concert at the University of Birmingham.
2007 also brought the premiere of This is the gate of the Lord for our first concert as an Associate Artist at the newly reopened Town Hall, a fitting contribution to a concert that celebrated Birmingham’s choral heritage past and present in that iconic building.
It is no coincidence that our popular Christmas CD Joy in the morning takes John’s Christmas carol – setting a text from the Wind in the Willows – as its title track, a piece that also has featured regularly in our Christmas concerts over the years.
John’s 90th birthday was celebrated in 2017 with the release of several recordings, including a CD of South of the Line and Three Portraits made by the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire chamber choir, and of his opera Jane Eyre made during its Birmingham premiere.
Of course, the works mentioned here represent a fraction of John’s output, which total 171 works published by Novello/The Music Sales Group, including symphonies, several operas and much more.
“John’s music reflected his character. It combines strength and conviction with sensitivity, dignity, awareness and thoughtfulness. John had an impressive knowledge of music tradition and an impeccable command of musical techniques. The influence of Elgar, Handel, Bach and Britten can be heard in the melodic shapes, in the ability to capture an idea in a single musical phrase and in the use of familiar tunes. His knowledge of poetry and the power of words was equally impressive and John was clearly inspired by words. His music has a distinctive and personal style which can with ease express powerful ideas. John was comfortable on a large canvas and has a symphonic ability to develop themes. The music is challenging and complex but always accessible and rewarding. It is tuneful, melodic, harmonic, performable(!) and beautifully written for players and singers.”
All of us at Ex Cathedra send our love and best wishes to his wife Mary, his daughter Anna and the rest of the family. It has been a privilege to have shared a small part of John’s musical life, and we will miss him greatly.