Thursday, July 07, 2016

This composer is no Mahler but does that really matter?

On Facebook Kevin Scott draws attention to Wilfred Josephs' Requiem with these words: "This magnificent work for chorus, string quintet and orchestra deserves many, many more performances. It is an utterance of faith that embodies a faithful setting of the Kaddish alongside sections of the Catholic requiem mass. Wilfred Josephs' tribute to those who perished at the hands of the Nazis is a must-hear piece!" That accolade prompted me to listen again to Josephs' Symphony suasive No. 5 (Pastoral) performed by the sadly missed David Measham and the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra on my 1983 Unicorn LP* seen above.

Wilfred Josephs was born in Newcastle upon Tyne in 1927 of Russian and English Jewish parents, and died in 1997. He was a prolific composer whose output, like Havergal Brian's, verged on the over-prolific: the Wilfred Josephs catalogue includes 12 symphonies, 22 concertos, operas, chamber music, ballets, an anti-war oratorio, and music for TV, radio, film and the theatre. After studying with Max Deutsch, a pupil of Arnold Schoenberg, Josephs developed a unique compositional style which he described as 'atonal - with tonal implications'. Despite this flirtation with atonality he could spin a good tune; as he explained: "One of the things I do well is write tunes, and if I don't, I feel as if I'm betraying myself. I no longer feel guilty about writing tunes: if I've written a really good one I feel marvellous".

Inevitably this penchant for the tuneful meant Wilfred Josephs' music did not find favour in the Glock/Boulez era, despite his Schoenbergian credentials. Josephs' reputation among the classical music police was also impaired by his success as a composer of incidental music: among his credits were the scores for Patrick McGoohan's cult TV series The Prisoner, the celebrated TV adaption of Robert Graves' I Claudius, and the movies Swallows and Amazons and All Creatures Great and Small. Today the militant advocacy of the music police has shifted from serialism to the less acerbic symphonies of Mahler and Shostakovich, both of who have connections, in varying degrees, to film music. In view of this it is surprising that Wilfred Josephs languishes in obscurity; for instance his music has never been performed at the BBC Proms, a concert series that has enthusiastically embraced both popularism and film music in recent years.

Fortunately away from police HQ things apostasy continues, and the reincarnated Lyrita label has recently reissued Josephs' Fifth Symphony and Requiem together with his Variations on a Theme of Beethoven as a 2-for-the-price-of-1 CD transfer seen below. Like his Requiem, Josephs' Fifth Symphony is a must hear piece that hits both the originality and accessibility hot buttons. In a Facebook debate ignited by my recent post about Havergal Brian a music policeman commented "... sorry, Brian is no Mahler". Which is quite true, and similarly Wilfred Josephs is no Mahler. But does that really matter? Do we want to eat nothing but foie gras and drink only premiere cuvée champagne? Is it really a crime to enjoy the occasional pizza and cold beer?

* The sleeve of the Unicorn LP used a specially commissioned painting by the Australian artist Robert Juniper titled Abbey Ruins, Llanthony. Paths converge in the Welsh borders as Llanthony Abbey featured in a very early Overgrown Path post. Another specially commissioned Robert Jupiter painting was used for the original Unicorn LP of Josephs' Requiem, and this is appears on the Lyrita reissue seen above. Special mention should be made of the excellent new essay by Paul Conway for the Lyrita release, parts of this post draw on that essay.

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JMW said...

This wonderful post begs the question: why is Mahler the benchmark? Paul Rappaport (and others) have argued convincingly that a symphony is a malleable thing. Why do we tend to presume a certain kind of content is specifically symphonic, which is in effect ghettoizing and limiting the very content which should be the most inclusive? Does Mahler (and by association Beethoven, Brahms) negate Bax, Godard, Mennin, Glazunov, Schumann, Mendelssohn, Elgar, Brian, Tchaikovsky, and so many others? I believe the cult of Mahler has had an adverse effect upon the reception of new music.

Next week excerpts of a work by Ethel Smyth designated as a Symphony for soloists, chorus and orchestra are being performed in New York City. How will it (or should it) be received? Unfortunately received wisdom may have undue influence upon its inference.

Pliable said...

On Facebook Peter Joelson comments: 'Seconded - the Lyrita set was an ear-opener for me, the subject of one of the few bits of writing I've done this year' -

Pliable said...

It was only after uploading this article that I realised Gustav Mahler was born on July 7, 1860.

Kevin Scott said...

This is one article that should be posted again and again and again.

No composer is Mahler, yet Mahler's influence over the last half-century has made a profound ripple effect on many composers, this one included. But the problem is that many composers hear the power of his music, but don't get into the soul, the inner meaning of why he composed the way he did and the cathartic results.

Josephs, Brian and many other composers that John listed are their own composers and owe a debt to no one but themselves, because a true symphonist has a vision that embodies not just form and content, but a total meaning of the word symphony - the total package of sorrow and joy, of nostalgia and of the present, a vision of tomorrow in the face of the present without forsaking the past or the defenders of the faith that brought a composer to write the way they do.

Yes, there are some composers who write symphonies the way gunslingers place notches on their pistol handles - they want to show off rather than say something, and there's one composer who has composed well over two dozen symphonies, and every one of them seems to go as far as New York City's present-day Second Avenue Subway, which is nowhere, yet a composer like James Barnes has written seven symphonies (the first has been discarded) that are powerhouse works, but he's not known among most classical music aficionados because all of his symphonies are for concert band! And a memo to those who read this - please check out Barnes' third and fifth symphonies, two titanic works that are some of the finest symphonies composed by an American in the last half century, and the Adagio of the Third, written in memory of his infant daughter, is unapologetically sired from the loins of Bruckner and Mahler with an American twist.

As for Josephs' Requiem...I hope to interest some choral conductors in performing this work. It deserves to be heard without any kind of hesitancy.