The Piano Music of John Joubert

Pianist Duncan Honeybourne explores the complete solo piano oeuvre of the distinguished composer, who celebrated his 90th birthday this year

The spring of 2017 offered me a heartwarming opportunity to revisit the complete 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 presenting the cycle as an evening recital in Birmingham, where Joubert has lived for over half a century. Prolific in a plethora of genres, this creative artist of trenchant expressive power, finely tuned eclecticism, visionary intensity and refined craftsmanship has, 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.

John Joubert was born in Cape Town on 20th March 1927, into a family of French Huguenot and Dutch extraction long settled in Cape Province. His early education at the Diocesan College in Rondebosch was fundamentally English and specifically Anglican, embracing the full richness of the English choral and church music tradition. Not only this, but his Director of Music, Claud Brown, 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. Joubert progressed to the South African College of Music where he came under the influence of William Henry (“Daddy”) Bell, an English composer who had emigrated to South Africa and played an important role in invigorating music education there. Another immigrant from these shores, 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 in Music at the University of Birmingham, relocating to the city which has been his home ever since. Since retirement in 1986 John Joubert has devoted himself entirely to composition and his 80th and 90th birthdays have been marked by major celebrations of his life and retrospectives of his work.

Joubert’s earliest piano work is the Dance Suite of 1956, composed for the Port Elizabeth-born pianist Adolph Hallis (1896-1987) who, after studies with Tobias Matthay in London, remained in England for many years – playing piano duets with the young Benjamin Britten, among many other activities – before returning in 1939 to South Africa, where he became a revered pedagogue. The Suite’s five movements - their clean lines sharply and economically etched, their incisive rhythmic bite wittily conceived - contrast three quick dances with two slow ones. As a set, the sequence constitutes a compelling amalgam of primitive and sophisticated nuances, regular and irregular metres. What is more, each was written in just one day! The late John McCabe, who first recorded the Dance Suite in 1973, cites the twin influences of Stravinsky and Britten and makes particular reference to the use of the interval of an augmented fourth and to the tendency, reminiscent of Britten, for the composer to employ a second or fourth to colour major triads.

Joubert’s three piano sonatas constitute a major cycle, each being entirely different, but unmistakably the product of Joubert’s pen and, furthermore, the triptych charting an instructive journey through different seasons of his career and musical mindset. Most striking for me as an omnipresent juxtaposition throughout the cycle 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 First Sonata (the Sonata in one movement, op.24) was completed in 1957 in response to a commission from the South African pianist Lionel Bowman for a forthcoming Wigmore Hall recital. Joubert acknowledges the influence of Tippett, alongside the obvious, all-pervading one of Beethoven upon the work’s structural organicism. The composer also highlighted, in conversation with Christopher Morley in 2007, that “the interval of the fourth is important both thematically and harmonically”. As indeed it is, as it is so often in this composer’s work, from the very opening bars, in which a rising scale meanders its sinewy way to achieve release in a chorale-like oasis of serenity. All tranquility is swept aside in the whirlwind of the central tarantella, encompassing brutally driving octaves and cascading rhythmic torrents to erupt, writes Morley, in “clangorous chords covering the range of the instrument.” As the opening material returns a calm, golden glow suffuses the musical landscape, a transposed recurrence of the chorale-like melody being alternated with aspiring arpeggiation.

The Second Sonata, composed in 1972, is a large-scale utterance of devastating power and massive emotional range. The ideas are unmistakably handled by a mature composer here flexing his muscles, in his mid-forties, with absolute conviction and complete technical command and surety of artistic purpose. “By now”, writes John McCabe, “”Joubert’s style has become absolutely personal; one can see the influences at work, but there is not a note in the music which sounds like anyone but Joubert.” Written for the pianist Carl Hickman, who premiered it at Birmingham’s Barber Institute, the work is cast in three movements, each with its own distinctive character. The first movement states its intervallic and thematic interests at the very opening, and these – notably based around the intervals of a fifth and a minor third – are imaginatively and fruitfully deployed throughout the whole. This movement is colouristically evocative and imaginative, with extensive use of trills in a range of registers evoking striking bell-like effects. The whirling Scherzo flies by in a menacing shot of high-voltage electricity, aggressive, taut and rhetorical, framing a slower but only slightly less demonic central trio section. The last movement, which Joubert slightly revised after the premiere, is one of his finest passacaglias, this being one of the composer’s favourite forms. As Joubert himself commented, “it’s a more open-ended form than sonata or ternary – it can go on until infinity!” Plenty of fourths spice the texture as Joubert whips the calm of the opening into a tumultuous, ringing climax, utilising the whole span of the instrument to sonorous effect with block chords, bracing dissonances and elemental rhythmic insistence. Then, as John McCabe elegantly summarises the coda: “the final Lento steals in to take the sonata to its beautiful peaceful close, all passions spent.”

It is to the third sonata that I perhaps have reason to feel closest, having the honour of its being dedicated to me. Composed in 2005 at the composer’s own suggestion, and in response to a commission from the Weymouth Music Club on the occasion of its 60th anniversary, it received its premiere in April 2006. I well remember the thrill of the delivery of each of the three movements, which arrived one by one, upon completion. Joubert has always avowed his love of literature and painting, having in earlier years toyed with the latter as a possible career path, but the former has more often been a direct preoccupation in his compositions, and not only in his operas and song-cycles. Thus the thought of a premiere in Dorset – my home county – turned his mind to Thomas Hardy and to a theme taken up in his 1985 cantata South of the Line, which set poems relating to the 1899-1902 Anglo-Boer War. I loved this work from the moment Joubert first introduced me to it in his Birmingham music room, years before the sonata was composed. The march of the opening setting, Embarcation, powerfully evokes the scene at Southampton Docks as British troops sailed for South Africa in 1899, the action and associated dark resonances and musings set, in Joubert’s music as in Hardy’s words, against the timeless landscape of Hardy’s Wessex. It is this obsessive, relentless theme that Joubert chooses to quote in the third movement of the Third Piano Sonata, and this is in itself a powerful and masterly choice of musical cross-referencing.

The score of the Sonata is headed by another Hardy poem, We are getting to the end of visioning, whichrages against the futility of war and expresses, comments Joubert, not only the poet’s “adverse response to that particular war but to the horrors of war in general.” In conversation with Christopher Morley, the composer later remarked that the Sonata “can be taken as an attempt to express in musical terms the message of the Hardy sonnet – a message of outrage against war which remains as relevant for our times as it was for his.”

Joubert observes that “the first phrase of the opening movement in fact sets the first line of the poem. That’s the way literature can be a great help to me, even when I’m not composing a textual setting.” That first movement is rich in texture and unrelenting in character; indeed, as Morley comments, “the writing for piano is denser than in the preceding sonatas, both in terms of busy rippling figuration and rich, repeated chords.” The second movement, by far the longest of the three, is undeniably the emotional heart of the piece. In the visionary outer sections, block chords move in contrary motion astringently, provocatively yet lyrically, glistening as flecks of beauty across a broken world. The movement’s desolate, searing lyricism is played out across various textures and ultimately drives a torrential climax. The manic central section, fiercely virtuosic, exploits the extreme registers of the piano. This movement arguably contains the most transcendental writing in the cycle, each phrase replete with infinitesimal shades of dramatic nuance. The march-like Finale packs a ferocious punch as it hammers to its pounding conclusion.

The provenance of Joubert’s sole remaining solo piano work is, once again, literary. The Lyric Fantasy on themes from the opera Jane Eyre was composed in 2000 and was the first Joubert piece I played, in Birmingham and London, having been sent the score by the composer shortly after the first performance which was given in Cardiff by Adrian Partington. It is an irresistible fusion of themes that are, as the composer himself tells us, “associated with the eponymous heroine of my opera Jane Eyre”. Joubert, who had all but given up hope of ever hearing the complete opera - a veritable labour-of-love which was eventually brought to concert performance in 2016 - devised the Lyric Fantasy as an effective means of creatively utilising some of its most powerful and dramatic thematic material. This is a gloriously lush and lyrical work, requiring of the player a wide spectrum of sonorities and clear intentions in phrasing and voicing. Rather than immense digital dexterity, it demands musical integrity of a high order, in order that the climaxes be carefully weighted and set in suitable relief to the moments of more intimate rapture. As Paul Conway commented in Musical Opinion, the piece “is far more than a mere potpourri of tunes. It has integrity as a logically argued keyboard work in its own right”. It is undeniably the product of a master.

Joubert has enriched our contemporary solo piano literature with a cycle of invigorating works that span vast emotional and dramatic landscapes. It is a visionary collection of music that, I would fervently claim, touches greatness.


Conway, Paul: Duncan Honeybourne, Musical Opinion, July 2017
McCabe, John: liner notes to John Joubert: Piano Music (MaxSound MSCB33, 1973)
Morley, Christopher: liner notes to John Joubert: Chamber and Intrumental Music (Somm SOMMCD 060-02, 2007)

First published in Spirited Magazine 2017/18 (the journal of the English Music Festival)