As another year comes to an end, I thought I’d turn my attention to a Christmas-themed blog entry (as I’ve done the previous three years – with varying degrees of success), and as always I got stuck as to what to write about. Should I make a point about bad Christmas pop-music? Or wax lyrical about the Verbum caro factum est plainchant? Or write a survey about all the recent settings of There is no rose? I could do, but then I remembered a piece that always lightens my heart – John Joubert’s carol, Torches!
John Joubert may be the most successful British (well, sort of British…more of that in a moment)composer you have never heard of, a composer of real craftsmanship, integrity and ability – perhaps the last in a line of composers with a melodic gift, whose oeuvre extends from symphonies and operas to sonatas and short choral works. In fact if it wasn’t for Torches (and to a lesser extent, There is no rose) I guess very few people would know of him. He was born in 1927 in Cape Town (which doesn’t make him British at all, but I think he is British in an empire sort of way…bit like Edmund Hillary) moving to the UK in 1946 firstly on a scholarship, before settling down to a life of academia and composition. He has written over 170 works for many of the country’s leading orchestras, ensembles and choirs and his music has been widely published, recorded and broadcast. Perhaps I like him the most because he did all this whilst teaching composition at Hull University (followed by Birmingham) – I like to imagine him passing the time of day with Philip Larkin (his near contemporary and fellow Hull University employee) perhaps suggesting a collaboration that never happened (in fact they looked quite similar – all balding pates and thick-rimmed glasses…though Joubert looks a good deal less sinister than Larkin…)?
Torches was written in 1951 and was already an established part of the repertoire before its inclusion in the first book of Carols for Choirs in 1961 – it has since gone on to become a much-loved Christmas favourite and has been performed hundreds of times across the world. I think much of its appeal lies in the simple, folk-like melody that is repeated over and over again – there is something quite’ primitive’ (and I’m not making a point about sophistication here) about the melody with its strong falling fourths and dotted rhythms, this emphasised by the quick tempo (the piece is generally finished in about a minute and a half), all those parallel fifths and powerful organ chords stressing the beat and little else. Although the melody varies little with each repetition, the accompaniment has subtle alterations with almost unnoticed chord changes subverting the harmony, tickling the ear with different possibilities. Unusually, it is written in the main for unison voices (with a rather fetching middle section for unaccompanied SATB) this only adding to the feel of something rustic and more vernacular than other Christmas offerings. I think what makes this piece so pleasing is twofold: it is memorable – once you’ve heard it (and I do recommend listening to it) you’ll be singing ‘Torches, torches, run with torches’ for the rest of the day (which you may or may not want) and secondly it is because it is fast and joyful (which is impressive for a piece largely in a minor key) – too much Christmas choral music is soft, gentle and thoughtful, but mainly slow. It’s nice to have something foot-tapping every so often – it actually makes you want to run around with torches!
So there you go, John Joubert for Christmas No.1 in 2014 with Torches – probably not, but maybe by writing this, a few more people may become aware of this fine composer in his Indian Summer. Merry Christmas.