John Joubert and his piano music

Album notes for The Piano Music of John Joubert by Duncan Honeybourne

The spring of 2017 offered me a heartwarming opportunity to revisit the piano music of a composer who has been highly significant in my musical life. John Joubert celebrated his 90th birthday in March, an occasion I marked by playing the complete cycle at the Birmingham and Midland Institute. One of our best-loved and most distinguished senior composers, Joubert remained at the forefront of the British musical scene for seven decades, producing a steady stream of masterpieces in a plethora of genres. He was born in Cape Town on 20th March 1927, into a family of French Huguenot and Dutch extraction long settled in Cape Province. Having attended the Diocesan College in Rondebosch – where his Director of Music had been Assistant Organist to Ivor Atkins at Worcester Cathedral and had assisted in rehearsals of Elgar’s music under the direction of the composer himself - John Joubert progressed to the South African College of Music, coming under the influence of William Henry Bell, an English composer who had emigrated to South Africa and played an important role in invigorating music education there. Another prominent musician in Cape Town, the Scottish-born Erik Chisholm, was instrumental in awarding Joubert a Performing Rights Society Scholarship to study at the Royal Academy of Music in London. The 19-year old composer boarded the Winchester Castle, a vessel of the Union-Castle Mail Steamship Company, and arrived in Southampton on 14th September 1946. At the RAM Joubert studied with Theodore Holland and, after Holland’s death, with that erudite musical polymath Howard Ferguson. Following the award of a Royal Philharmonic prize Joubert was, in 1950, appointed a Lecturer in Music at the University of Hull. In 1952 his anthem O Lorde, the maker of al thing won the Novello Anthem Competition, whilst in the same year he composed the carol Torches, which was quickly to make him a household name. Prolific compositional endeavour ensued in every imaginable genre, whilst Joubert maintained and developed a formidable academic and teaching profile. In 1962 he was appointed Senior Lecturer (later Reader) in Music at the University of Birmingham, relocating to the city which has been his home ever since. After retirement in 1986 Joubert devoted himself entirely to composition and his 80th and 90th birthdays were marked by major celebrations of his life and retrospectives of his work.

A creative artist of trenchant expressive power, finely tuned eclecticism, visionary intensity and refined craftsmanship, Joubert, over some six decades, enriched the solo piano repertoire with a sequence of personal and dramatic essays: each of them with a distinctive individuality, yet charting a compelling and logical narrative when presented as a whole. The three piano sonatas constitute in themselves a major cycle, charting an instructive journey through different seasons of his career and musical mindset. Most striking for me as an omnipresent juxtaposition throughout the triptych is the irresistible coalescence of the violent and the consoling, the heart-stoppingly lyrical and the menacingly unsettling, the sumptuously tender and the bracingly aggressive. Rarely, if ever, have the percussive and the song-like attributes of the piano fused more organically, or to more dramatic - and beautiful - effect. The jagged rhythms of the irresistible early Dance Suite and the warm lines of the operatic Lyric Fantasy complement the cycle of sonatas very effectively.

It was at his 90th birthday concert that Joubert suggested I might record his complete piano music. I was determined this should happen and, thanks to the zeal of Steve Plews, the project was brought to joyful fruition by Prima Facie in August 2018. The composer was delighted with the test pressing and received his pre-release copy in time for Christmas. On 31st December, wishing me a good new year, he wrote:

“I feel I must write again to thank you for embarking on such a major undertaking and achieving such remarkable results. The playing and recording quality are both outstanding and justify to the highest degree all the hard work you and your colleagues must have put into it. It deserves every success, and is already one of my most prized possessions.”

It was to be John Joubert’s last letter. The next day he suffered a serious fall at home, and he died in hospital a week later. The disc is dedicated, with affection and gratitude, to the memory of John Joubert (1927-2019).

The Piano Music of John Joubert is available on Prima Facie Records PFCD097, released February 2019