Obituary: Wilfred Josephs

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Wilfred Josephs, composer: born Newcastle upon Tyne 24 July 1927; married 1956 Valerie Wisbey (two daughters); died London 17 November 1997.

Wilfred Josephs once commented: "Composing may be agony at times but it's what I do best and what I want to do most, and not too many people can say they spent their life that way!"

In a productive career spanning almost 50 years, Josephs was a seminal, but not easily defined figure in Britain's musical life. His compositions encompassed all forms of musical genre and style and communicated in a direct and powerful way to the appropriate audience. As a commercial composer he wrote scores for more than 120 British television productions, 30 feature films and as many documentary programmes; while at the time of his death his "serious" concert music had just passed opus 180 with a sadly incomplete Second Cello Concerto.

Josephs received performances of almost all his music around the world, and was an inspiring teacher in Britain and America. Simultaneously, he almost always completed his film or concert commissions to the specified deadline. He was one of the very few freelance composers of his generation able to support himself and his family entirely by composing.

Born in Newcastle upon Tyne in 1927, the fourth and youngest son of Russian/South Shields Jewish parents, Josephs spent his formative years in Gosforth and as a scholar at Rutherford College Boys' School. In 1939 he was briefly evacuated to Carlisle, where his first musical experiments simplifying a difficult Chopin study on his foster-parents' piano-player led to concert forays organised by his brother Cyril and tentative piano lessons. Back at Rutherford in 1940, Josephs's interest in music flourished when he was discovered "penning masterpieces" on full-score, hand-ruled staves in free periods often borrowing complex figures and motifs from Dvorak or Saint-Saens.

He was encouraged to perform piano recitals at lunchtime, but a catastrophe playing Saint-Saens' The Swan led to his admission, years later, that "by amateur standards I seem to be good at it but inside it all and to fellow professionals, we all know that I'm a pretty lousy pianist". The "agony" of performing live became manifest before film or television recordings later in life when the mere notion of conducting or vetting his music would bring about severe nausea.

In 1945, Josephs followed his two older distinguished medical brothers to Durham University's medical faculty in Newcastle, changing soon after arriving to the Dental School. At the time, although he knew he wanted to write music, he saw that it was impossible: "I suppose I wasn't assertive enough." During his college years he composed, played and wrote sketches for a variety of rag revues, culminating in formal lessons in composition with Arthur Milner, from which only one short polytonal piano piece, Fees de Lune, survives. In 1951 Josephs qualified, left the Dental School and served his National Service in the Royal Army Dental Corps, being posted to Germany.

Returning home following his father's sudden illness in 1953, he enrolled with Professor Alfred Nieman as a part-time composition student at the Guildhall School of Music in London. Winning a GSM Scholarship allowed him to travel to Newcastle and assist in the nursing of his increasingly sick father; from this painful experience, he responded by composing: "I wrote an entire symphony - my first - opus 9, in which I depicted his gradual disintegration and death; he died in the music before he died in real life. It was agony for me." When Josephs returned with his mother to London in October 1955, he re-enrolled at the GSM and worked as a dentist during the day at Unilever.

While continuing to work and study in the mid- to late-1950s Josephs started to receive occasional broadcasts by the BBC and performances at the Society for the Promotion for New Music. However, early in 1958, he realised that he was moving into the 12-note system and needed guidance. He was keen to compose a work that related extra-musically to Rodin's sculptures, particularly La Porte de L'Enfer, and thought about various mentors, including Edmund Rubbra, Frank Martin and Paul Hindemith, before finally deciding upon the Paris-based Olivier Messiaen.

Fortuitously, a Leverhulme Scholarship enabled him to study in Paris for a year, accompanied by his wife. Discovering that Madame Loriod (Messiaen's pianist wife) taught composition to his pupils and not Messiaen himself, Josephs then studied with one of Schoenberg's most distinguished pupils, Max Deutsch. Nothing came of the great Rodin-Symphonie, but Deutsch's lessons would have a lasting impact on the young composer's later pieces.

In 1960, Josephs met the television and film director Claude Whatham, who required an epic score for his series The Boer War; from this first collaboration, the two men worked together on a total of 26 productions, including D.H. Lawrence (1965), A Voyage Round My Father (1969), Cider With Rosie (1971), Disraeli (1977) and the films Swallows and Amazons (1973) and All Creatures Great and Small (1974).

The Boer War helped to establish Josephs as a serious and highly original composer working in films and television. It led to another epic production, The Great War (1964), which was at the time the largest television project in the world - 26 episodes of 40 minutes each, and each shown twice in the week. This would be Josephs's passport everywhere until superseded by his astonishing score for BBC's I Claudius in 1977.

The same year as The Boer War, Adolf Eichmann was brought to trial, and newsreel footage of concentration camps was replayed on television. As a Jew this had a profound effect on Josephs and contributed to his writing a slow, three- movement string quintet, Requiescant pro defunctis. This led to a full- scale choral and orchestral work, a Requiem which utilised the original string quintet as a basic skeleton; the text was the Hebrew Kaddish.

In 1963 Josephs won the prestigious Composition Competition run by La Scala and the City of Milan for his Requiem which, like his commercial music, propelled him on to the international scene. The Requiem was later performed in Cincinnati in 1967 by the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra under Max Rudolf, which led to the composer's being commissioned to write another anti-war piece, Mortales (1970) for choir, children's choir and orchestra.

Becoming ever more versatile, Josephs composed music for the West End musical Man of Magic, a score for Arnold Wesker's The Nottingham Captain and music for Caedmon Records' The Tempest and Milton's Samson Agonistes. In 1965 a BBC Monitor film was made about his life. In his concert music, he was equally prolific, writing symphonic works, ballets and chamber pieces.

During the 1970s, Josephs worked, some say obsessively, on music for festivals, symphonic and chamber commissions and television. Further work followed with his opera Rebecca (1982-83) for Opera North, visits to Australia for the recording of his Fifth Symphony and Beethoven Variations (1984), music for the Hoffnung Festivals, operas based on the Lewis Carroll Alice books (1978, 1990), new symphonies, 8-12, and Cyrano de Bergerac for the Royal Ballet (1989-91).

When Josephs's commercial work, commissions and broadcasts dried up in the late 1980s he felt rightly cross and neglected. He was a humane, generous, kind, loving and gifted composer and, although artistically successful, he died in twilight penury.