NEW! John Joubert’s Jane Eyre Opera to Receive its First Professional Performance


John Joubert’s Jane Eyre Opera to Receive its First Professional Performance


John Joubert (c) Adrian Pearman

British/South African composer, John Joubert is an august and much-loved figure in British musical life. Perhaps his most popular work is his choral piece, Torches written in 1952 for his wife’s primary school. It is said to be “one of the best-loved carols of modern times.” He has written upwards of 150 works in all genres. The catalogue is wide-ranging and impressive. Some of it is represented on CD. There’s a D H Lawrence song-cycle, songs and chamber music (Toccata), choral music (Priory and BMS), string quartets (Somm), two symphonies (Lyrita and Dutton) and concertos for oboe and cello. Other works await attention including such complex epic choral pieces as The Choir Invisible, Gong-Tormented Sea, The Raising of Lazarus and Herefordshire Chronicles. Joubert has also been active as a conductor. He presided over the LPO at the first performance of his own Second Symphony. This took place at the Royal Festival Hall on 29 March 1971. It is not often that this happens at a premiere but going by a tape of that event the hall experienced a tumultuous reading of a deeply impressive work.

Joubert was born in Cape Town in 1927 and studied for two years at the South African College of Music before winning, at the age of 19, a Royal Academy of Music scholarship. From that date he put down roots in the UK. In 1950 the University of Hull made him a lecturer in music and he went on to further senior posts at the University of Birmingham. Early retirement beckoned in 1986 and he accepted the call so that he could spend more time writing music. He has not been short of commissions although he has on occasion written without such encouragement which is the case with Jane Eyre his third full-length opera. The other two ‘grand operas’ are Silas Marner (after George Eliot, 1961) and Under Western Eyes (after Joseph Conrad, 1968). It seems that he aspires to a fourth, a work based on Alan Paton. The composer says: “The criterion I use for the selection of operatic subjects is that they should comment in some way on basic human issues ….”

Jane Eyre is his Op. 134 (1987-97), an opera in three acts to a very effective libretto by Kenneth Birkin, one of the composer’s post-graduate students at Birmingham. Birkin has compressed Charlotte Bronte‘s novel into a very effective and dramatically fluent entity. It was given a small-scale amateur/professional first performance by Opera Mint at the CBSO Centre in Birmingham on 23 and 25 September 2005. The orchestra was on that occasion cut down from a modest sized orchestra to string quartet and piano. Going by Roderic Dunnett’s review in ‘Tempo’, Act I, heavy with foreboding, is alive with “nervy jagged rhythms and stabbing patterns.” Act II concerns itself with the love between Jane and Rochester and the blighted wedding. The last Act shows Jane in the home of St. John Rivers and then her return to the sightless Rochester. Work on the opera produced a spin-off in the form of the Lyric Fantasy based on themes from Jane Eyre. Joubert had previously made a setting of Six Emily Bronte Poems for voice and piano. The book has also drawn film music by Bernard Herrmann and John Williams. There was even an abortive Hollywood project by Stravinsky. Michael Berkeley has written an opera (in two acts) on Jane Eyre which has been recorded by Chandos.

Now in the 200th anniversary year of Charlotte Brontë’s birth and to usher in Joubert’s 90th birthday in 2017, Kenneth Woods and the English Symphony Orchestra will give the first fully professional performance of Joubert’s Jane Eyre. This will take the form of a concert performance on 25 October 2016, at the Ruddock Performing Arts Centre, Birmingham. SOMM will be making a live recording of the event and the set should appear in March 2017.

Woods writes of the opera: “a score of translucent beauty – Joubert’s undoubted magnum opus. … In Jane Eyre, John has created something very special – an opera based on a literary masterpiece in which the music is not only worthy of the original text but seems absolutely of and from it. Joubert emerges in this score as both a great literary and great musical mind. It’s astonishing that a work which is the crowning achievement of a composer as revered and important as John Joubert has had to wait almost two decades for a premiere performance and recording. The English Symphony Orchestra and I couldn’t be more thrilled to be part of this historic project in partnership with Siva Oke, SOMM’s owner and the Executive and Recording Producer of Jane Eyre. … It was due to Siva’s enthusiasm for Joubert’s music that the idea of recording Jane Eyre was born.”

Siva Oke adds “I first heard John Joubert’s music ten years ago when pianist Mark Bebbington played his Lyric Fantasy based on themes from the love scene between Jane and Rochester in Act 2 of Jane Eyre. I was stunned by the beauty and lyricism of the music. When we recorded it, as part of John’s 80th birthday celebrations, Christopher Morley described it in his liner-notes as luminous and radiant and I couldn’t agree more.” Soprano Katherine Manley will sing Jane and baritone David Stout will take the role of Rochester. Major funding for Jane Eyre has been provided by Arts Council England.

Readers who would like to have the scene set in more detail should try John Joubert at 85.

I am grateful to Paul Conway for his absolutely crucial assistance in writing this piece.

Rob Barnett

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