From the Sleevenotes: The Complete Solo Piano Music of John Joubert

Notes on the double-CD PFCD162/163 The Complete Solo Piano Music of John Joubert

An introduction to the new edition and to the early Rhapsody Evocations

“My recording of Joubert’s piano music was first released by Prima Facie in February 2019, a few weeks after the composer’s death. John, a friend for two decades, had enjoyed his pre-release copy of the disc, and the booklets – already prepared – were reprinted to include a dedication to his memory. I had studied the works with the composer, so the recording – and the timing of its release – had been for me a deeply personal and poignant experience. The disc charted a chronological journey through Joubert’s complete published solo piano music, from the bracing Dance Suite, written in John’s twenties, to the transcendental musings of the Third Piano Sonata, composed when he was almost eighty. All those performances are here, together with the original booklet notes and an essay by Christopher Morley, Chief Music Critic of the Birmingham Post and a former student and lifelong friend of the composer. This second edition also offers something extra: a remarkable work from Joubert’s years as a student at the Royal Academy of Music.

Late in John’s life I became aware that the South African pianist Lionel Bowman (1919- 2006), dedicatee and first performer of the First Sonata (as I was of his Third) had once included in his repertoire an early unpublished Joubert piece enigmatically entitled Rhapsody Evocations. Pianist John Ntsepe, who knew Bowman and has researched his life and work, had found evidence that Lionel Bowman had recorded the piece for SABC in Cape Town in 1950. I kept intending to ask John about this mysterious work, but somehow it never came into my mind at the right time.

Just before Christmas 2020, almost two years after John’s death, his daughter Anna was looking through manuscripts in the attic of her parents’ Birmingham home. I took the opportunity to mention the Rhapsody Evocations and to say that if she ever found such a piece I’d be fascinated to have a look. Anna promised to keep and eye out for early unpublished piano pieces, and to let me know if any surfaced.

The very next afternoon, Anna emailed me in great excitement. As she continued to make her way through her father’s treasures, she had discovered the manuscript of Evocations, a rhapsody for piano, on which John had worked between February and June 1949. He was 21 years of age when he had begun it, and 22 when he finished it, and he was still studying with Howard Ferguson at the RAM. Anna sent me a scan of the first few pages, and I was struck by the typical Joubertian gestures and intervallic fingerprints at the work’s opening. A few days later, Anna found a second copy, a handwritten working copy made by her mother, Mary Joubert. Anna put the manuscript in the post immediately and, a few days after Christmas, I was hard at work on the piece.

I was struck on several levels. The strong personality I knew so well from Joubert’s later work jumped vividly and unmistakably off the page. I was astonished at the maturity and assurance of the writing, the fluency of the invention and the technical ingenuity with which the one-movement structure was knitted together. I told Mary and Anna that I felt the piece should be heard, and I asked them whether they would allow me to perform and record it. To my gratitude and delight, they agreed without hesitation.

Mary Joubert, herself a former piano student of York Bowen at the RAM, remembered copying Evocations in the evenings when she was living in Bridlington prior to her marriage to John. “He was living in Hull,” she told me, “had finished writing it and was starting to make a copy.” Mary took the job over and finished it, but she doesn’t remember the work being performed, nor can she recall discussing her copy with John. The work, she told me, “disappeared from my life. I never heard any more about it.”

Joubert’s own memoir of his early years confirms that Howard Ferguson gave Evocations a public premiere at the RAM. Ferguson had taken over John’s instruction on the death of his previous composition professor, Theodore Holland, and Joubert writes that “Howard’s method of teaching composition was more laissez-faire than Mr Holland’s. Being a notable performer himself – he was a fine pianist – he was very helpful in practical matters such as tempo and dynamic markings.” In a reference dated 11th April 1950 Ferguson described the young Joubert as “a first-rate musician, and his compositions show a natural flair for writing backed up by an unusually well developed technique.

His grasp of theoretical matters is comprehensive and his knowledge of music wide and catholic.” Ferguson’s further observation engagingly sums up the same Joubert I came to know many decades later: “It seems likely that his quiet humour and warmth and friendliness of personality would make him as delightful and stimulating a teacher as he has been a pupil.”

With regard to the Evocations, Mary’s impression was that John had “not exactly forgotten about it”, but that he “didn’t regard it as a particularly notable work. He just looked upon it as a student work.” I was anxious not to perform it if Mary preferred me not to, but she was quick to reassure me that she didn’t think her late husband would have objected to my playing it, and she gave me her unequivocal blessing.

Recently, Anna Joubert discovered some letters her father wrote home to his mother in South Africa in 1949, and these reveal the 22-year old composer’s satisfaction with his Evocations: “I am very pleased with it and think it’s some of my best stuff – I think Alan Bush is quite impressed.” Another letter refers to “my piano piece – which I’ve decided to call Evocations.”

I felt that we should add Evocations to my existing recording of Joubert’s piano music, to offer a truly complete conspectus of this very distinctive composer’s writing for solo piano. This new set of two discs is the result.”
Duncan Honeybourne

John Joubert and his piano music
A personal note 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 that year, 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, 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 the 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 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 remained his home for the rest of his life. 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 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 sequence 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 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 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. I dedicated the disc, with affection and gratitude, to John’s memory.

Now, to this second edition of the album, we can add the youthful ardour of Evocations, a dramatic rhapsody in which a gifted young composer flexes his muscles and demonstrates his technique. Impassioned, lyrical and arresting, it was written in the same war-torn, bomb-ravaged London of austerity and rationing in which he had arrived two- and-a-half years earlier. Still a student Joubert may have been, but this visionary, elemental music is totally assured and already entirely characteristic. It was one of the proudest moments of my musical life when John told me he’d like to write a sonata for me, and that Third Sonata went on to become his final piano work. I just hope he’d have approved of what I’ve made of his first one!”
Duncan Honeybourne

John Joubert – The Solo Piano Music
By Christopher Morley

The published solo piano music of John Joubert covers nearly the whole of his composing career, beginning with the Dance Suite of 1958, right up to the Piano Sonata no.3, written in 2005 and revised in 2010. These works are sometimes composed within the context of other compositions, and are often created with particular performers in mind.

With resonances of Bartok and Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, the Dance Suite opens with the fluttering minor seconds which are characteristic of so much of Joubert’s music, and rising and descending patterns of parallel fifths, transmuting into octaves, flicker in the busy, migratory left hand. Some of these five movements feature solemn, chorale-like melodies, another feature of Joubert’s compositional style, and pulsate with additive time-signatures.

Dedicatee of the Dance Suite is Adolph Hallis (1896 – 1987), a South African pianist, composer and teacher who was a friend of Joubert’s pianist mother. After study at the Royal Academy of Music and an extensive European career (during which he gave the 1936 UK premiere of Shostakovich’s First Piano Concerto in Birmingham), Hallis returned to teach in South Africa in 1939.

Another friend from South Africa was the pianist and teacher Lionel Bowman, who studied at the Royal Academy of Music, who performed at the Proms and broadcast on the BBC with such diverse stars as Paul Robeson and Mae West. It was to Bowman that John Joubert dedicated his “Sonata in One Movement for Piano” (no description of it as Sonata no.1, with no knowledge at that time that further piano sonatas were to follow), published in 1959.

The work seems almost improvisatory, building upon rising fourths (another Joubert fingerprint), and punctuated by a serene chorale-like passage. A lengthy tarantella intervenes (one thinks of the Schubert sonatas), a crashing chordal sequence across the keyboard failing to break the progress; only a return to the contemplative opening music can do that.

With these first two solo piano works dedicated to friends from Joubert’s native South Africa, the ensuing sonatas were written for colleagues with connections in Birmingham, the composer’s adopted home since 1962. Carl Hickmann, a well-known figure in Birmingham pianistic circles, is the dedicatee of the Piano Sonata no.2, published in 1977. It begins with characteristic choppy rhythms, in which bars of regular 4/4 time come as balm. We also hear once again Joubert’s soothing recourse to chorale-like textures. The second movement is a fleet, classically-structured scherzo and trio, featuring some formidable trills, and the lengthy concluding movement opens with one of Joubert’s favourite formats, a passacaglia (also a favourite device of Britten and Shostakovich, composers he admired so much), eventually leading into a multi-faceted finale before a pianississimo ending in the most ethereal reaches of the piano.

A labour of love throughout a long period of John Joubert’s life was the desire to compose an opera on Charlotte Bronte’s novel Jane Eyre. The opera, having so often to be put onto the back-burner because of incoming commissions, was eventually completed, but various circumstances (not least the premiere of an opera by Michael Berkeley at the Cheltenham Festival on the selfsame subject, and a botched amateur scaled-down production in Birmingham, given without Joubert’s imprimatur), led Joubert to think that his music would forever go unheard in a fully-fledged performance.

Accordingly he composed the Lyric Fantasy on themes from Jane Eyre, based largely on the Act 2 love scene between Jane and Rochester. Poignantly it begins, like the opera itself, with oscillating seconds, which, if you fast rewind, also began the Dance Suite of so long ago. Happily, Jane Eyre did receive a triumphant professional performance from the English Symphony Orchestra and a glittering array of soloists conducted by Kenneth Woods in October 2016, in the presence of the near-nonogenarian composer, who received an endless standing ovation. The occasion was captured by SOMM on a much-acclaimed recording.

The Piano Sonata no.3 is dedicated to Duncan Honeybourne, who gave the work its first performance in St John’s Church, Weymouth on April 21, 2006, celebrating the 60th anniversary of the Weymouth Music Club. Honeybourne also premiered the Sonata’s revised version in 2010 at Chester Town Hall.

Joubert prefaces its three movements with the sonnet “We are getting to the end of visioning” by Thomas Hardy, and adds “My sonata can be taken as an attempt to express in musical terms the message of the Hardy sonnet — a message which remains as relevant for our times as it was for his. The march theme with which the last movement begins is taken from my cantata ‘South of the Line’, a setting of five poems written by Hardy at the time of the Anglo-Boer war and expressing both his adverse response to that particular war, and his abhorrence of war in general.”
Christopher Morley