Sunday, 31 July 2011

John Joubert:Symphony No. 2 in one movement, Op.68 (In memory of those killed at Sharpeville 21/3/60) (1970)

I have never heard any symphonic or orchestral works by John Joubert prior to listening to this present CD. Typically (I am ashamed to say this) I have tended to associate this composer with Christmas Carols: ‘Torches’ was one of the works that the Senior Ensemble struggled with at Coatbridge High School. Yet a glance at the composer’s web pages reveals a large number of works in a wide variety of genres and styles. For example, beside the two symphonies, there are concertos for bassoon, violin, piano and oboe. There are also important essays for chamber ensemble, piano, organ and the stage. To be sure, a large part of his output is dedicated to choral music – both accompanied by orchestra and a cappella. Amongst these works are the two carols upon which much of Joubert’s prestige rests. Interestingly, there are some fourteen recordings of ‘There is no Rose’ and eleven of the aforementioned ‘Torches’.

However, these two choral gems cannot prepare the listener for the experience of listening to the Symphony No. 2 in one movement, Op.68 (In memory of those killed at Sharpeville 21/3/60).

Now, I do not want to get into a debate about the use political characters or historical events as ‘inspiration’ for major works of art. However, there are certain events that do seem to have a universal significance and are reflected in a number of musical works. One thinks of Penderecki’s Threnody for the victims of Hiroshima, Benjamin Frankel’s Violin Concerto ‘In memory of the Six Million’ (who died in the Holocaust) and, perhaps, Richard Arnell’s ‘Mandela’ Symphony.

There may be a danger of subscribing a work to some event or personage that subsequent opinion takes a less-positive view. One needs only think of music dedicated to, or lionising the achievements of, Lenin: for example the Symphony No. 3 in B flat minor, Op. 22 ‘Requiem for Lenin’ by Dmitri Kabalevsky.

However, the vast majority of people will accept that the massacre at Sharpeville on 21 March 1960 was totally unacceptable and wrong by any standards of civilised behaviour. Whatever evils were perpetrated subsequently by the various participants in the struggle against apartheid, Sharpeville is seen as an icon of the ‘iniquities of a policy of racial segregation’. The present Symphony seeks to explore ‘some of the tensions brought about by [that] apartheid.’

The Symphony is not an easy or pleasant listening experience; however this goes with the political intention of the work. The music is often grinding or turgid, no doubt reflecting the nature of the events. Violence is the keynote of much of this work: there is very little light and virtually nothing that can be described as being optimistic. There is a tiny moment of repose about four minutes from the end of the work however the closing pages end aggressively. Joubert writes that he has used three African song melodies to give the work ‘a sense of urgency and immediacy of purpose, however it is difficult for the listener to known where this material begins and ends and where the composer’s own melodic invention comes to the fore.

I am not sure that I enjoyed this disturbing music (if enjoyment is something one does with a piece of this kind) and it is not a work that I will turn to often. To be sure, it is an impressive essay in organisation of material and instrumentation: there are plenty of interesting passages and the listener is never bored. Yet, it is music that is totally angst-ridden, and is singularly bound up with an historical event that has now passed into history, important and horrifying as it was. The Symphony was given its first performance at the Royal Festival Hall in 1971 with the composer conducting.

This work has been released on Dutton Epoch CDLX7270 and can be purchased from theDutton Vocalion Wepage

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