Dis­cor­dant mas­ter­piece of a den­tist

The Jewish Chronicle - - LIFE - CUL­TURE PHILIP HY­MAN

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, in­clud- ing 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 three­move­ment string sex­tet writ­ten in re­sponse to the Adolf Eich­mann Hyp­notic: Pa­trick McGoohan in for which Josephs helped write the mu­sic 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 bass­bari­tone, 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.

PHOTO: BBC

Sem­i­nal: Derek Ja­cobi in the BBC se­ries I, Claudius, whose theme was writ­ten by Wil­fred Josephs

PHOTO: PRESS AS­SO­CI­A­TION

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