Composer  Wilfred  Josephs

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


Wilfred Josephs was born in Newcastle on July 24, 1927 and educated at Rutherford School before his early schooling and piano studies were interrupted by wartime evacuation. Although persuaded by his family to enroll as a medical student, he was still able to receive musical tuition from Dr. Arthur Milner. It was as a dentist that he spent his military service. His early obsession with composition was soon vindicated when he won a Gaudeamus Prize with a Piano Trio during this period. He continued his studies on his return to London, where a scholarship enabled him to become a pupil of Alfred Nieman at the Guildhall School of Music. A Leverhulme Scholarship took him to Paris for a year with Max Deutsch.

A growing reputation, based on the success of his burgeoning catalogue of works, made it possible for Josephs to eventually devote all his time to music. Amongst the many prizes and awards won at this time was first prize for the First International Composition Competition of La Scala and the City of Milan, and the Harriet Cohen Commonwealth Medal.

Josephs' music showed a recognizable personality from the start. Whilst his works dating from the beginning of the 1950's clearly had their roots in an earlier English style and tradition, lessons with Max Deutsch (a distinguished Schoenburg pupil) were to help him to assimilate the lessons of the Second Viennese School. Other stylistic explorations further diversified his range. In the gradual shift of contemporary music back to practices once regarded as seditious - the expressive use of tonal harmony, and particularly the writing of real tunes - it was inevitable that Josephs' outstanding natural gift should have found himself consistently in the vanguard.

A prolific composer who nearly always wrote to commission, Josephs' concert works include 12 symphonies, 22 concertos, overtures, chamber music, operas, ballets and numerous vocal works. Opera North commissioned and performed Rebecca at the Grand Theatre, Leeds in 1983. The libretto for this acclaimed opera was by Edward Marsh, from the novel by Daphne du Maurier. Other important works in Wilfred Josephs' catalogue include Symphony 4 (1967), Symphony 5 "Pastoral" (1971), Symphony 10 "Circadian Rhythms" (1985), Nightmusic (1969) and Songs of Innocence (1971). To the impressive list of concert works must also be added his enormously successful scores for film and television, including The Great War, I Claudius, Swallows and Amazons, Cider with Rosie, This British Empire and All Creatures Great and Small.

Wilfred Josephs died at his home in London on November 17th 19

==  Biography from Wise Music Classical website  


In June of 1997, in anticipation of his seventieth birthday, I asked Wilfred Josephs for an interview.  He graciously agreed, and in those days before Skype and Zoom, a telephone call was placed.  We spoke for forty minutes, and portions were used on WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago the following month, along with a selection of recordings.

Now, a quarter-century later, I am pleased to present the entire chat on this webpage.  As you will see, he was thoughtful in his responses, and often injected some humor with his ideas.  Names which are links refer to my interviews elsewhere on my website.

While we were setting up to record the conversation, I mentioned not being able to get everything done as quickly as I would like . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:   Let us just start right there.  I’m trying to make an excuse about not being able to do everything.  Is the composer really supposed to be able to do everything to get his music performed?

Wilfred Josephs:   That’s an impossible question.  [Both laugh]  I don’t know the answer to that.  [Thinks a moment]  He has to do as much as he can, but he has to make sure that he doesn’t spoil the time that he needs in order to work in promoting what he’s written.

BD:   Do you set aside a little bit of time for promotion, and then keep the rest for composing?

Josephs:   I try to set aside things, like time for living and things like that, but I don’t manage to achieve it.  There’s never enough time as I’m sure you know.

BD:   Right, of course.  [With a gentle nudge]  Should we assume that composers have personal lives?

Josephs:   [Laughs]  Yes, I think so.  It’s a fair enough assumption.  You’ve got to live, and one tries to do a few other things.  Basically, as a composer your time is taken up with composing, and that’s what you feel you’re there for, and if you don’t do it, you feel guilty because you’re not doing it.

BD:   Do you hold any other positions, such as teaching?

Josephs:   No, no.  I have been teaching at various times and various places, mainly in America.  I’ve also been teaching at Film School here in London, but that’s only on a part-time thing, maybe one or two times a year, and I haven’t done any in the last year because I’ve been rather busy.

BD:   Let me pursue this just a moment.  Is there any difference when you’re writing the music for a film, and music for concerts?

Josephs:   It might be a different hat you’re wearing, so it’s possible.  It depends, because sometimes in films, and with some films particularly, you can write music which is much more abstruse and much more complex than you might get away with in the concert hall, funnily enough.  In a documentary film this would happen, but not in a feature film.  In a feature film, you might well be writing stuff with a beat to it, which is the reverse of where you’re writing something much more tuneful, or much more direct than you might be writing in a concert hall.  But basically, one does tend to find that you have sometimes slipped into the opposite position.

BD:   How can you keep the ideas straight of what is going into concert music and what is going into the film score?

Josephs:   I’m lucky because I’ve got a bad memory, and the result is I don’t remember what I’ve done.  [Laughs]  I do, but I don’t remember what it is.  A couple of nights ago there was a work which I hadn’t ever heard.  I wrote it two or three years back, and it was being done in London for the first time.  I went to hear it, and I was very amazed and delighted with it because it was good, and I was very happy with it.  But prior to that, I’d never heard it before, so it was as fresh to me as it might have been to somebody in the audience who hadn’t written it.  Once I heard it I remembered it, but that is just me because I’m getting old and senile.

BD:   As you’re putting the notes down on the page, are you aware of exactly how they will sound when they’re coming back from the voice or the orchestra?

Josephs:   Oh, yes!

BD:   You’re never surprised?

Josephs:   Yes, but usually for the better.  I’m very self-critical.  Though I’m a prolific composer, people think that if you’re prolific you may not be very self-critical.  But in fact I am very self-critical, and so if I am writing a work and I find it’s not going rightly, or I don’t like it, or if something’s wrong with it, I’m more likely to stop work on it.  That happened to me about a year or two ago.  Because I love Spanish music, I just felt like writing a big work for and about Spain for violin and orchestra.  I wrote half the piece, and thought it was a load of rubbish, and I destroyed it.

BD:   You didn’t just let it sit?

Josephs:   No, no, no, no!  I destroyed it.  It was no good at all, and I would never go back to it.  But if the work gets through that, gets over the stumbling block and actually gets completed, then it’s already achieved a great deal in order to get to that stage.  I know what it’s going to sound like, because I’m fairly experienced at it.  When it gets played, it sounds good, or it may even sound better, but it rarely sounds worse.  If it did, I would have failed in the early stages, in the filtering stages.  In the case of the Spanish piece, at the back of my mind all the time was the feeling that something was wrong with it.  I didn’t know what was wrong, but I wasn’t happy.  I don’t know if it’s the same in all the arts, but I suppose it probably is if you’re a creative person.  Being a composer, the thing obsesses you.  It
s there all the time.  While you’re doing other things, you’re thinking of it.  When you’re going to sleep, you’re thinking about it, and you may wake up in the morning, and think about it.  I’ve often solved musical problems while I’ve been asleep, and woken up to find the thing has solved itself.  So you’re tuned into the piece totally, and if you don’t reject it, as I did for the Spanish piece, then it’s passed through all the early stages of acceptance, and therefore it should be as good as you think it is.
BD:   Do you only work on one piece at a time?

Josephs:   No, I’ve often worked on more than one, but it varies.  It depends on the circumstances.

BD:   When you start to write a piece, are you aware of how long it will take to complete the compositional process?

Josephs:   That’s a good question.  [Laughs]  I’m often not aware what the piece is until I get into it.  I wrote one cello concerto years ago, and I’ve got the beginnings of another
the first two or three minutes of iton the piano at the moment.  But it’s been there for about nine months because I’ve been doing other things.  Also, I’ve been moving, but I know what’s there.  When I go past it, I can see it.  It sort of winks at me, and I say, “Yes, I’ll come back to you in due course.  Just be patient!  Then I played through a bit of it to somebody, and I thought, “Yes, it’s okay, but I’m not ready to go back to it yet.

BD:   You’re purposely avoiding it?

Josephs:   I’m sort of avoiding it for the moment.  I’m busy doing something else at the moment, anyway.

BD:   But if you had nothing else on your plate?

Josephs:   Then I would go back to this.

BD:   You’re not waiting for the idea to come?

Josephs:   No, no, no.  I’ve got some ideas at the back of my mind about it, and I’ve got the beginnings of the work.  The elements of which it’s going to be composed literally are there.  They’re in my head, and I can just leave it alone.  But when I’m ready to get down to it, then I may do it quite quickly.

BD:   Is this a commissioned work?

Josephs:   No.  In this case I just felt the time had come to write another cello concerto.   I remember years ago, when I wrote my Second Symphony during 1963-64 (first performed in 1965, and dedicated to Bernard Jacobson, whose tribute article about the Requiem is shown at the bottom of this webpage), I spent nearly six months thinking about it, and not writing anything.  I did not write a note... or actually I wrote two or three bars because the opening of the work is based on a series of scales, which start on the same note but go to different places.  That way, each time you hear a scale you think you’re going to hear what you had before, but you don’t.  It turns a corner, and you don’t expect it to.  Eventually it comes back to the beginning, and the whole symphony arises out of these two or three scales.  So, I had those scales written down, but I didn’t do any work on it. Finally, when I came to work on the piece, I was going to go away into the country and write.  I went to a cottage that we used to rent in the country outside London, and when I got there I found that the place had been burglarized.  There was a mass of broken glass everywhere, and broken windows, and God knows what.  I’d never been burglarized before, and I hope never to be again.  There wasn’t anything significant to be stolen, as I didn’t have anything there worth stealing.  I had all my old clothes there for working in when I was in the country, so that I could just slip into anything I wanted to.  Anyway, the police were called, and eventually they found the people who’d stolen whatever there was.  It turned out to be an old man and young boy with a horse and cart!  [Both laugh]  Terribly English, you know!  I don’t know what happened to them.  I never found out, unfortunately, but I was put right off work because there was this place with a big French window, and a big glass door that was shattered.  It had easy access into the house.  So, I couldn’t work.  I had to get the window repaired immediately.  So I got some wood put in until the glass was ready, and for two or three days I was sitting there fretting because I wanted to work but I couldn’t.  Eventually, I left the place and went down the road to a hotel that I knew where they had a piano in the lounge.

BD:   Could you work there?

Josephs:   Yes, I worked there for five days, until I discovered the receptionist kept opening the door and leaving it open so she could listen to my piano playing, which totally seized me up.  Then I couldn’t write another note.  [Laughs]  So, I’d written for about six days, and I went home and finished the symphony in about five weeks.  It was just boiling over, but I needed the circumstances to be right.  It’s one of my best pieces, actually.

BD:   [With a gentle nudge]  You didn’t nickname it your Burglary Symphony?

Josephs:   No, but I thought of that!  [Both laugh]

*     *     *     *     *
BD:   We’ve been talking about it a little bit, but how much do the outside ideas, and stresses, and joys find their way into the actual notes that you put on the paper?

Josephs:   The classic case for that for me is in my first piano concerto, because I spent quite a while writing that.  It’s a big work on a Brahmsian scale rather than Mozartian.  A bird outside was sitting on the tree, and it drove me mad going [sounds an irregular rhythm].  I kept waiting for the last beat, but it always stopped on the weak beat.  I know very little about birds, though I’ve written about them, and I got some advice.  I discovered this particular bird was called a wood pigeon, and it does this peculiar sort of thing in four bars, in which the last bar is not complete.  So I put it into the concerto!  It’s actually part of the development, and the piano does this.  It’s really very dramatic.  So, it’s a direct influence, and it’s right in the work.

BD:   If you had been writing a piece for brass, it might not have fitted in at all.

Josephs:   That’s true, but it might have stuck at the back of my mind for later.  I’ve written a piece called Byrd Song, which was commissioned for organ and piano, which I found a very strange combination.  At the time I’d never written for the organ, and I didn’t like the organ.  I since discovered what a fool I was.  But I wrote this piece, and it’s based on music of William Byrd, which I admire very much.  But it’s also based on actual bird song, which I recorded on Hampstead Heath [North West London] at about six in the morning.  I was living near there then, and I went down to the Heath with a portable tape recorder, and recorded these birds.  Then I brought them back home, and played them half-speed, and then again half-speed, and again half-speed, until I reduced them to about a twelfth of the speed.  At that point I was able to analyze and use the actual notes.  But that was a one-off, and it was fun to do.  The piece has got William Byrd in which makes it better.  The natural birds get a bit tiresome otherwise, although I love the way Messiaen does them.

BD:   Let me ask a real easy question.  What is the purpose of music?

Josephs:   Impossible to answer!  [Both laugh]  The purpose of music is to make one feel like a god.

BD:   The composer or the performer?

Josephs:   The composer, and the performer, and the listener, too.  I heard the Sibelius Second Symphony yesterday on the radio.  I was doing some orchestration and I had the radio on.  I often listen with half an ear when I’m orchestrating something.

BD:   I would think that would be terribly distracting.

Josephs:   No, no, not a bit, because a lot of orchestration I’ve already got planned in my head.  If I get to a bit where I can’t make it work, I’ll switch off the radio till I get it right, and then switch back on.  But I thought what a marvelous work this is, and it did make me feel like a God.  It made me feel wonderful!  I have no idea to the answer to your question other than that.

BD:   Do you have the audience in mind when you’re writing the work?

Josephs:   I have an audience of me, or of several thousands of me, God forbid.  In other words, they’re all me.  They’re all people like me, but I do have them in mind.  I’m aware if I’m writing something that’s just not working to one’s ear.  I write music that I want people to like, but I don’t want to write down to them, as it were.  I don’t want to sacrifice whatever I want to do, but I do want to write music that they will like, that they will get a spirit out of, and an uplift from.

BD:   On the first impact, or upon repeated hearings?

Josephs:   That doesn’t worry me too much.  The first impact is only in certain circumstances.  A few years ago, I was asked to write an overture for something to be played in Kenwood [Concert Bowl Lakeside Concerts], the open-air place near Hampstead Heath.  They said please write it like a Tchaikovsky overture, something that we can enjoy immediately.  I thought that’s a nice commission.  What fun!  I’ll do it.

BD:   Did you put in a few cannons at the end?

Josephs:   [Laughs]  I thought of that, yes, aimed at the man who’s commissioning it!  But I did in fact write a piece called Kenwood
actually ‘Caen Wood’ because it comes from the old French Caen.  It was something to do with Caen Wood, though I don’t know quite what, and that became Kenwood.  It’s got this big Tchaikovsky-like theme through it.  It’s much more appreciable on a first hearing, but that limits it because I’m always writing for second, or third, or fourth hearing in a way.  I’m always hoping that somebody will have to hear it again to get more out of it, and this is usually the case.
BD:   Do you try to make it multi-faceted, so that people can enjoy it on many levels?
Josephs:   Yes, but not consciously so.  I’ve just become like that.  For example, when I wrote my Concerto for Double Bass and Orchestra for Gary Karr [CD shown at left], at the same time I wrote a Sonata for Double Bass and Piano, because I was in the mood for it.  I was gummed up as to what was the right thing to do with the bass.  I knew all the complications of a transposing bass, which I hadn’t known before.  The Bass Concerto is a very serious piece, but very beautiful, because beauty is one of the things which is most important of all.  It was a lovely piece, and then I was writing the Sonata, and I don’t remember which order the various bits came, but they were more or less simultaneous.  When I came to the last movement of the Sonata, I thought, This is the sixth movement out of two worksthree in eachin which I’m going to let myself go, or let the bass go.  So, I wrote a very funny last movement, doing all the things that you expect a double bass to do, but which Gary Karr only does when he wants to.  He’s a serious player, and the reason I haven’t written a Second Cello Concerto up to now is because I wrote the Bass Concerto, which is really as good, if not better than my (first) Cello Concerto.  In fact, it is better!  So, I wrote this last movement for the Bass Sonata with a rumpty-tumpty type thing, a sort of march that didn’t work, with all kinds of twiddles and so on.  It brought the house down when he played it, and he had to play the last movement again!  [Both laugh]  But that was not the purpose of the piece.  It was a serious piece up to the last movement.  With the Bass Concerto beforehand, there were five serious movements, and it needed a relaxation movement, so that’s what I did.

BD:   The double bass has been forced to transcribe all kinds of things.  Should we have the reverse now, and let this Bass Concerto be transcribed for cello, since you say it’s better than your first cello concerto?

Josephs:   No, because I think it’s right for the bass!  Gary plays it marvelously.  It’s on a CD which he’s done, and it’s right as it is.  I wouldn’t want to alter it.  I did allow a transcription when I wrote my Alice in Wonderland children’s opera.  I’ve done both the Alice operas
Wonderland and Looking Glassand it was Looking Glass that I did first.  In that I did a piece called Alice’s Revery, which was for cello and orchestra.  At the time, my elder daughter was a cello student of about ten or eleven.  She was playing in the orchestra of a semi-amateur production, and I wrote Alice’s Revelry so she could have a solo cello piece to play.  But it was necessary in the work.  It needed this relaxation for a moment.  It’s a two- or three-minute piece.  The publisher, who is handling all my work now, and who is a bass virtuoso himself, was attracted to my work because of the Bass Concerto, which is the first thing of mine he heard.  He’s now running the Wilfred Josephs Society, which has just been formed.  He said he loved Alice’s Revelry, and asked if he could arrange it for the bass, which I thought was funny because I’d written it for cello.  This is the exact reverse of what you’ve just asked me, but I said sure.  So he did it, and what’s more, he plays it.

BD:   Did it work?

Josephs:   It worked beautifully, yes!  It worked, and Gary plays it as an encore sometimes.  [As shown in a CD below, it has also been transcribed for oboe d'amore!]

BD:   We’re talking a little bit about music being enjoyable.  In your music, is there a balance between an artistic achievement and an entertainment value?

Josephs:   A balance between them?  That I don’t know.  Certainly, there’s an attempt to balance them, but again, I don’t think I consciously say that I’ll do this.  I did it in the story I’ve just told you about the two bass works.  At the end of nine months of writing for the bass and orchestra, and the bass and piano, I felt the need at the end to relax, and I felt that the audience needed to relax, because I saw the works might be played successively.  They might be done in the same concert.  They haven’t been done that way, but still there was a conscious desire to relax the end.  But I don’t think I do that very often, so I don’t worry about the balance.  I don’t think there’s a conscious attitude to this, or a conscious decision.  It just comes out.
*     *     *     *     *
BD:   I assume you are always being bombarded with offers to write music.  How do you decide which commissions you’ll accept, and which commissions you’ll turn aside?

Josephs:   Some I can’t face at all.  No way I could face some things people ask, but other things that they ask I’m very keen.  I like writing for guitar but I find it extremely difficult.

BD:   Was it just difficult getting your ideas into notation that the guitarists can play?

Josephs:   No, I just find writing for the guitar itself difficult.  I’ve never played the guitar myself.  I also view it as a thing on my mother’s knee, as it were, or on my knee!  I find it difficult to write for, and I would avoid playing this for guitar.  I wrote a sonata for two guitars a few years ago, and which I’ve never heard.  This was the work I mentioned to you earlier, and when I heard it the other night I was delighted with it.  But I wouldn’t want to write another one because I find it a difficult task, or really an impossible task.

BD:   You really think specifically for the instrument that it’s going to be played on, rather than just the music and the colors?

Josephs:   Oh yes, very much so.  The first piece I wrote for guitar was for Rose Andresier, who commissioned it from me.  It was a diffused work in several movements, and was called Thoughts on a Spanish Guitar.  [CD shown at right.]  It was played by her on a concert for which the program had it misprinted as Thoughts on the Spanish Guitar, which is not the same, as you can see.  I’m not quite sure what the difference is, but what I meant was not Thoughts on THE Spanish Guitar, which is to me very big-headed and pompous, as though here am I on Olympus saying that I’m going write for the Spanish guitar, and isn’t that clever of me?  It was Thoughts on A Spanish Guitar, which was different.  It was almost as if I have a guitar handy, and I’m thinking through it.

BD:   [Wistfully]  It sounds more like you were musing.

Josephs:   Yes, but it wasn’t an amusing work.  It was quite a serious work which had some lighter moments. 
Musing would have been a good word, but it would probably have suffered from mis-interpretation.  I wrote a work called Piano Piece for clarinet and piano, and everybody got mixed up because it had a clarinet in it.  I used piano because it means ‘soft’!  I’ve now retitled it because it exasperates me.  I’ve forgotten what I called it, but it’s something totally different.

BD:   [With a gentle nudge]  You just can’t be too subtle.

Josephs:   No, no, especially with yourself!  [Both laugh]

BD:   Have you basically been pleased with the recordings that have been made of your music, because they have perhaps a little more universality than a single performance?

Josephs:   Yes, yes, I have been.  Gary was a little sorry about the Bass Concerto because he thought the balance wasn’t as good as he would have liked.  I thought the balance was good, but who am I?  I’m only the composer!  He sees it from a different viewpoint.

BD:   Who is right?

Josephs:   I don’t know.  Probably both of us were right.  There are moments when it could have been a little more distinct, but it’s such a good performance on the recording that it really doesn’t matter to me.

BD:   One last question.  Is composing fun?

Josephs:   Yes!  It’s hard work, very hard work, and it’s exasperating at times, but it’s marvelous.  It’s what life is about for me.  That’s what I love doing.  That’s what I’m here for.  I can’t help it.  It’s just wonderful, but it’s hellishly hard work at times.  There are times when the pure finance is so terrible, but let’s not talk about that.

BD:   At least you’re able to hold body and soul together...
Josephs:   I’m trying to.  At the moment I’m bankrupt, but don’t tell people that.  Well, you can if you want.  I don’t mind.  I’m not ashamed of it.  I’m bankrupt because I had a renegade accountant who mucked me about.  It’s not good, I can tell you.  I’ll be bankrupt for another year.  It’s been two years now, and I’m desperately trying to pay off what I owe, but I need work.  That’s the problem.

BD:   I have a note here that you started out in dentistry.

Josephs:   That’s right, yes.

BD:   Have you any thought of going back to dentistry to make a few pounds?

Josephs:   Thank you, no!  I moved into this address where I’m in now just a few weeks ago, and ironically there’s a dentist on the ground floor.  Everybody who comes to see me says I can always work down there if I’m stuck.  It’s now more than thirty years since I gave it up.  The thing was I enjoyed dentistry when I was doing it at the time, although I was doing it instead of medicine.  All that time I was writing music, because in those days doctors were always on call
not like they are nowand dentists weren’t.  Dentists had regular hours, which is why I changed over to dentistry.  Two of my three brothers were doctors, and when I changed over to dentistry, my parents were furious, and tried to change me back.

BD:   Were they even more furious when you went into music?

Josephs:   No, they knew I wanted to write music.  All they did was lock the piano for three or four years.  But then I stopped failing exams, and I got through my dentistry, went to the army, and came out and started studying properly.  But that’s the difference, you see.  Dentistry was okay, but music’s my life.

BD:   I’m reluctant to say this, but music is something you can really get your teeth into!

Josephs:   That’s right, and you’re not the first one to have said that!  [Both laugh]  In the army I was in the dental corps.  I was in charge of a dental center, and one of my patients was a major general.  He was a lovely man, and this was one of the things that I liked being anti-social like I am
that you could hob-knob with a general and get away with it.  They had a dining-out meal for me, and General Lamplugh made a speech to say good-bye to me.  He said, I’m never quite sure whether Captain Josephs was a dentist who was a very good composer, or a composer who is a very good dentist!  I said, I’ll leave it at that, and go while the going is good!  [Much laughter]

BD:   I’m glad that you’ve turned out to be a very good composer.

Josephs:   Thank you!  I think I’m not bad.  I’m trying, you know... but all you’ve got to do is listen to a bit of Schubert, or Sibelius, or Ravel, and you wonder what on Earth are you banging your head against the wall for when these people have done it so much better?

BD:   But don’t you feel satisfied when you have a piece played on a program which also has a piece by Schubert or Sibelius?

Josephs:   Yes, yes, yes, I like that, but you just want to be better.

BD:   Always striving.

Josephs:   Yes.

BD:   I appreciate your spending the time with me today.

Josephs:   You’re welcome.  Thank you very much.




[Note that all four works listed in the box at lower-left are by Josephs]
See my interviews with Jane Glover, Felicity Lott, and David Owen Norris


See my interviews with Sergiu Comissiona, Thea Musgrave, and Lawrence Leighton Smith

What follows is an article by Bernard Jacobson, posted on Music Web International on June 9, 2009.

From a vantage point nearly half a century later, it could almost be called the breakthrough that wasn't. Very early one morning in December 1963, my friend Wilfred Josephs was awakened by a telephone call congratulating “Joseph Wilfred” on winning the First International Competition for Symphonic Composition of the City of Milan and La Scala. A jury chaired by Victor de Sabata, and including the composers Ghedini and Petrassi and the conductors Franco Ferrara and Nino Sanzogno, had declared his Requiem, completed nine months earlier, the winner. As part of the prize, the work had its premiere at La Scala on October 28 and 29, 1965, under Sanzogno's direction. Performances in the northern English cities of Sheffield and Leeds followed a year later, and in London, Paris, and Rotterdam within the next few seasons. Meanwhile Max Rudolf introduced the Requiem to the United States with a series of performances in Cincinnati and New York in January 1967, and in 1972, paired on a program with Mozart's 40th Symphony, it was given three times by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under Carlo Maria Giulini, who dubbed it “the most important work by a living composer.”

It was possible to feel over the next few years-and indeed I declared in print-that these successes had transformed Josephs' life and career. Born in Newcastle upon Tyne on July 24, 1927, he had begun his musical studies, part time, under Arthur Milner, qualifying as a dentist at the same time. A scholarship in 1954 to study with Alfred Nieman at the Guildhall School of Music in London, and a further year in 1958 under Max Deutsch in Paris financed by a Leverhulme Scholarship, helped to put the seal of professionalism on his work as a composer, but left him still with the need to earn a living through the practice of dentistry. After Milan he was able to devote himself entirely to composing, stimulated rather than distracted on a couple of occasions by the experience of teaching when his growing reputation in the United States brought him professorial posts at universities in Milwaukee and Chicago. By the time of his death in 1997 his works, written by then almost exclusively on commission, numbered nearly 200. They include twelve symphonies, more than a dozen concertos, several large-scale ballets, a ground-breaking piece of music theater written in collaboration with the playwright Arnold Wesker and titled The Nottingham Captain, and an opera, Rebecca, composed for Opera North in England and premiered before packed houses in 1983.

Bearing the opus number 39, the Requiem represents Josephs at a crucial stage in his long and fruitful stylistic development. Max Deutsch (who was himself to conduct the French premiere of the work in Paris in 1970) was a distinguished Schoenberg pupil. His teaching had clearly helped the young composer to assimilate the lessons of the Second Viennese School and to come out, as it were, on the other side. Josephs was indeed one of the first to realize (as a growing number of composers of impeccable “avant-garde” credentials came to feel) that, with Schoenberg's “emancipation of the dissonance” long since achieved, there was no further need to exclude tonal structures from music as if they were potential sources of some kind of infection. The Requiem makes free play with tonal implications. They are used, however, for purely expressive purposes, while the formal organization of the work is based on techniques stemming essentially from the 12-tone method but no longer narrowly 12-tone in character. In other words (rather like his older contemporary Andrzej Panufnik, whom he greatly admired), Josephs develops his material through the horizontal and vertical elaboration of basic sets, but the sets no longer obey the a priori rules of 12-tone serialism. They tend to be much shorter and less exclusively chromatic, and their flavor-founded here on the intervals of the perfect fourth, the augmented fourth, the semitone, and the major second-points firmly forward to the real tunes Josephs in his later music increasingly reasserted the right to create.

The origins of this non-Latin Requiem go back to the arrest and trial of Adolf Eichmann in the late 1950s, and in a profounder sense they go back still farther than that. The Eichmann trial reawakened Josephs' horror at the sufferings of Jews during the Second World War. In memory of those who died, he wrote a String Quintet, which consisted of three slow movements and originally bore the title Requiescant. It was composed between February and June 1961. Later, feeling that he had more to say on the subject, he conceived the idea of incorporating the Quintet in a choral work, which would be a setting of the Kaddish traditionally recited by Jewish mourners for their dead as part of the liturgy. The choice of text, however, was in no way intended to restrict the work to the Jewish dead. On the contrary, though it was a Jewish tragedy that first triggered off the composition, it was precisely the universality of his theme that Josephs wished to underline by avoiding the very specific associations, both musical and liturgical, of the Roman Mass for the Dead.


The Requiem's unusual emotional character results partly from the layout of the forces it employs. When Josephs first started planning the extension of the Quintet into a ten-movement choral and orchestral work begun and interspersed by quintet movements, he considered the possibility of re-scoring the quintet music for orchestra. By deciding against this, and instead keeping the original quintet of two violins, viola, and two cellos, he achieved a work of strongly individual dynamic design. [In Chicago, the string players were the Chicago Symphony String Quartet - Victor Aitay (concertmaster), Edgar Muenzer, Milton Preves (principal viola), and Frank Miller (principal cello, who had earlier been first cellist of the NBC Symphony under Toscanini) - plus cellist Leonard Chausow.] The music rises out of, and finally sinks again into, near-silence, and the use of the solo strings adds an extra dimension to the dynamic possibilities of normal orchestral scoring. By contrast with the biggest fortissimo the quintet can produce, even the quietest passages for chorus and orchestra assume a character of massive strength. The few loud outbursts are in turn able to make a striking impact, since the contrast with the quintet enables the composer to keep to a soft dynamic through a large proportion of the choral and orchestral music. A further level of differentiation beyond the purely dynamic is worth pointing out: Josephs has paid due attention to the need of choral harmonies for time to register. This consideration calls for writing quite different from the fleeting changes of harmony possible in non-vocal music-hence the characteristic breadth in the choral style of the Requiem, by comparison with the intensely involuted chromatic lines of the first two quintet movements.

Just as the dynamics of the Requiem are prevailingly quiet, so its tempo is prevailingly slow. There is only one fast movement (No. III, Yehey Sh'mey Raba), and this also has more loud music than any of the other movements. In addition to the six vocal movements (four of them including a solo part for bass-baritone [in Chicago sung by Raffaele Arié]) and the three for string quintet, there is one purely orchestral movement-No. VII, De Profundis-which was allotted its place in the scheme of the Requiem early on in the planning but composed last of all. After the world premiere Josephs reversed the order of the last two movements: the work originally ended with the Monumentum movement for string quintet.

If the restraint of this Requiem's grief is as noteworthy as its eloquence, the explanation perhaps lies in a particular characteristic of the Kaddish text: nowhere does it mention death or the dead. It is a funeral prayer concerned only with life and with the glorification of God, an apparent paradox especially apt for the many-layered expressive powers of music.

It was, however, precisely the deployment of those powers through his remarkable melodic gift, combined with his fresh use of tonality, that constituted a serious impediment to the broader dissemination of Josephs' music in the Britain of the 1960s. The BBC was far and away the most important channel in the country for the performance of contemporary music-and from 1959 to 1972 the rather chillingly named post of BBC Controller of Music was held by William Glock (Sir William from 1970 on). Glock revitalized the broadcasting of the more recherché varieties of new music during his tenure, but he was also a somewhat doctrinaire member of what could be termed the “melody police”. As result, during a vital period in his career, Josephs found his music quite openly blocked from most avenues of British broadcasting. This was an ironic situation, because the Glock party's devotion to what I like to call the avant-derrière garde could be seen, when the serialist stranglehold on international composing styles came to be broken not very much later, as an ultimately reactionary posture.

Having nevertheless held a respected position among his composer colleagues for many years, Wilfred Josephs suffered not only from that virtual suppression of his music by the BBC in the 1960s and beyond, but later on also from developments that choked off his career as an exceptionally fluent and communicative composer of film and television music (for 30 feature films, roughly the same number of documentary programs, and more than 120 British television productions). Essentially what happened was that the producers and directors with whom he had enjoyed long and fruitful collaborations began to disappear from the scene through retirement or death, while at the same time-the other half of the double whammy-instrumental scores were being supplanted in a substantial number of productions by synthesized soundtracks. In the last year of his life, Josephs told me, he had only one commercial commission. Meanwhile, the only commercial recording of the Requiem, an excellent LP conducted by David Measham for the Unicorn-Kanchana label with Australian orchestral and choral forces, disappeared from view with the transition to an all-CD medium. [As can be seen above, the Requiem, was later re-issued on CD.]

Along with deteriorating health, the drying up of his principal source of income made Josephs' last months deeply depressing for him and for his friends. It would be at least a gesture of posthumous justice-as well as an illuminating and moving experience for today's listeners-if a major work like the Requiem could be restored to the repertoire, perhaps in salute to the 50th anniversary of its triumph in Milan back in 1963.

Bernard Jacobson  [The text has been slightly modified, and the links have been added.  Image is from another source.]

© 1997 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded on the telephone on June 13, 1997.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB the following month.  This transcription was made in 2022, and posted on this website at that time.  My thanks to British soprano Una Barry for her help in preparing this website presentation.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.  To read my thoughts on editing these interviews for print, as well as a few other interesting observations, click here.

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Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.