Life & Culture

Discordant masterpiece of a dentist


First, a simple question: do you remember that wonderfully spooky and haunting music which introduced the classic BBC TV drama series I Claudius, starring Derek Jacobi?

In fact, it was written by the prolific composer Wilfred Josephs, born in 1927 in Newcastle-upon-Tyne.

His father wanted to ensure that he had a ''proper'' profession to follow, so Josephs qualified with an MA in dentistry in 1951. He died in 1997 and, although his commissions and performances tailed off during his final years, he had been able to survive as a full-time composer and lecturer for some decades.

Apart from a long list of music written for film, television and radio productions (including The Prisoner), his output includes 12 symphonies and no fewer than 20 concertos - also chamber music including quintets, quartets and trios for various combinations of instruments, and a number of operas and ballets, including Rebecca, a three-act opera based on the novel by Daphne du Maurier.

It is a pity that Josephs's wonderful music has never had a high public profile on record or in the concert hall, though determined researchers can find a few old BBC recordings of three of the symphonies, and the Clarinet Concerto is on Youtube.

In the 1980s, Unicorn/Kanchana issued two LPs of his works in studio performances recorded in Adelaide, Australia - the Fifth Symphony, the Beethoven Variations, and his Requiem.

A few years ago, the writer and critic Bernard Jacobson wrote an eloquent plea for the reissue of the Requiem recording, and at last all three of these pieces have just been reissued on CD for the first time by Lyrita.

A Jewish requiem? Well, there are certainly enough events in our history to commemorate with a serious choral work, and this Requiem is Josephs's response to the Holocaust. The text is the Kaddish rather than the Latin Mass, a 10-movement setting running 60 minutes.

The work began in 1961 as a three-movement string sextet written in response to the Adolf Eichmann trial in Israel that so transfixed the world in its intimate and shocking detail of what had occurred during the Holocaust.
At the time, Josephs had intended it to serve as a memorial to the
six million.

As he worked on it, the ideas and scope increased and widened to form the finished masterpiece we hear today, composed for bass-baritone, chorus, string sextet and full orchestra.

As a pupil of Schoenberg, Josephs has suffered unjustly by being labelled a 12-tone composer. He himself described his music as "atonal with tonal implications", but the description should be the other way round: to my ears, his music is tonal with atonal implications.

But let us remember the subject-matter of this work and the extraordinary circumstances of its gestation and composition. Certainly, the music is sometimes discordant.

At times, it is strong and rugged and yet, at others, can be quiet and gentle. This is, without doubt, not an unpleasant or difficult listen. The best way I can describe it is Stravinsky's Symphony of Psalms meets Bernstein's Chichester Psalms.

In 1963, Josephs's new Requiem won the first La Scala Milan Composition Competition, an extremely prestigious award. Carlo Maria Giulini then conducted three performances of it in 1972 in Chicago and was in no doubt as to its quality.

Last year, another great Jewish choral work was reissued for the first time on CD (on the Caprice label). The Jewish Song is a choral symphony by the Finnish/Swedish composer Moses Pergament - another scandalously neglected genius.

Let me also mention Joshua (DG) and The Song of Terezin (Decca) by Franz Waxman, and Moshe by H D Koppel (Da Capo) - all of them excellent.

Koppel wrote powerful, tuneful music, as expected from a pupil of Carl Nielsen. Nielsen himself was a pupil of Niels Gade, who was
mentored by Mendelssohn in Leipzig. No finer pedigree could there be.

Finally, I can highly recommend Volume Two of the Music in Exile series from Chandos which features music by Jerzy Fitelberg, son of another great musician and a pupil of Schreker.

We need no longer be limited to Mendelssohn, Mahler, Kurt Weill, Gershwin and Bernstein.

After decades of unjustified neglect, the music of generations of Jewish composers is now becoming available to a mass market.

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