• John Joubert
  • Symphony No. 2, Op. 68 (1970)

  • Novello & Co Ltd (World)

Commissioned by the Royal Philharmonic Society

  • 3(pic)343/4331/timp.perc/2hp.pf/str
  • 21 min

Programme Note

In 1970 I received a commission from the Royal Philharmonic Society for a new orchestral work to be performed in their 1970-71 season. I had long wished to compose a work which could explore some of the tensions brought about by the apartheid system of government in my native South Africa and, inspired by the example of Alan Paton’s great novel ‘Cry the Beloved Country’, I determined to make this my opportunity of doing so. The Sharpeville massacre had taken place just ten years before and shocked the world into awareness of the iniquities of the policy of racial segregation which still prevailed. My new Symphony – for this is what it eventually turned out to be – would serve as a memorial to the victims of the event in which 83 people were shot dead by the police while taking part in a peaceful demonstration against the notorious Pass Laws, the hated symbol of black subjection to white supremacy. I was also influenced by the example of Shostakovich’s own memorial to the victims of political oppression in the shape of his Eleventh Symphony, which so movingly commemorates the dead of the 1905 Revolution in which another peaceful demonstration turned into a massacre. But where Shostakovich uses Russian political songs as symphonic material I resolved to make use of three African melodies to give my work a similar sense of urgency and immediacy of purpose.

The first performance of my Second Symphony, in which I conducted the London Philharmonic Orchestra, took place at the Royal Festival Hall in 1971. The event was widely reported in the South African press and not long afterwards I was informed by the then Head of Music at the SABC – a government organization – that the work would never be played in South Africa. However, completely representative government eventually came about in 1994 with the release of Nelson Mandela and my hopes of a South African performance have now happily been realized through the good offices of the late Sir Richard Knowles, one-time Lord Mayor of Birmingham, who drew Mandela’s attention to the ban, and of Nelson Mandela himself who promulgated the South African premiere which took place under the auspices of the very organization which had previously disowned it.

The Symphony’s single, continuous movement is divided into two main sections – a slow and a fast. The first begins with a fugato on muted lower strings over a double-bass ostinato figure that gradually gives place to the first of the African melodies which appears on horns. Thereafter the music expands and develops to a culminating and climactic statement of the melody on trumpets. The second section begins with a repeated-note figure which is the characteristic thematic feature of the second of the African melodies. Further material in this section is derived both from the more chromatic fugato opening of the work and from the third of the African melodies, a Zulu lament. The turbulence of this section is interrupted, however, by a full statement of the lament on solo horn accompanied by pianissimo muted strings. But the Symphony is not to end on this elegiac note. With the resumption of the more energetic music of the section it ends violently as befits a work which draws so much of its inspiration from the tragic conflicts of Southern Africa.

John Joubert, February 2011



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