John Joubert’s Jane Eyre- A conductor’s perspective

John Joubert’s musical language is original yet familiar, subtle yet direct. Firmly rooted in tonality, his harmonic vocabulary is highly sophisticated and personal, and he seems to have a particular knack for energising traditional harmonies through clashes, bi-tonality and harmonic extension. Joubert’s Jane Eyre is the work of a melodist of the highest order who writes for the voice with profound understanding. In Jane Eyre’s musical landscape, all the parts are full of purpose and meaning; a tapestry of counterpoint which serves to complement and enrich the sung drama.

Transforming a great novel into a great opera poses many challenges, but the greatest of these is the fact that musical and literary forms work so differently. The 19th Century novel tends to start at “in the beginning” and to finish at “The End;” it is no accident that some of the most successful adaptations of Brontë’s Jane Eyre have been those for serialised television. Most musical forms, particularly instrumental ones, tend to start at the beginning and finish at a transformed version of the beginning. Repetition, development, restatement and transformation are the building blocks of musical form. Wagner was perhaps the first composer to understand this tension between narrative, linear literary form and architectural, developmental musical form in opera. Part of what makes a vast work like Tristan und Isolde so coherent and satisfying is the extent to which it works symphonically as well as dramatically.

In Jane Eyre, John Joubert and librettist Kenneth Birkin have managed the crucial balance between storytelling and structure about as well as it can be handled. Joubert’s Jane Eyre, while spiritually true to Charlotte Brontë, dispenses with much of the expository and descriptive content of the novel and focuses intently on the emotional journey of the protagonist as viewed through six pivotal scenes in her life.

Part of what makes the opera so compelling, apart from its staggering beauty, is Joubert’s mastery at balancing the levels of musical structure in the work. Each scene forms a sort of self-contained symphonic whole, while both acts are unified within themselves yet distinct from each other. Each act finds cohesion through the theme which opens it- neither of which is ever sung. In the case of Act 1, the mysterious opening in the viola, an enchanted musical “Once upon a time…” if there ever was one, achieves a kind of fierce monumentality at the climax of Jane and Mr. Brocklehurst’s contentious duet at the send of Scene 1, then a bleak stentorian savagery in Rochester’s despairing aria at the end of Scene 2, before being transformed into music of mystic tenderness at the opening of Scene 3. When we hear it in the closing bars of Act 1 we sense the completion of not only the first part of the musical journey, but the end of the first part of Jane’s life.

The parallel theme of Act II is the march heard first in the violas, which soon reveals itself as the music of Jane’s wedding procession- music of hope, happiness and promise. As the wedding begins to collapse into humiliation and shame, Joubert changes this hopeful march into a despairing horn obbligato as Rochester confesses his previous marriage, then it later becomes a real funeral march at the beginning of Act 2, Scene 3. Joubert underlines the organic unity of the score by illustrating this theme’s kinship with the main theme of Act 1 as soon as the 3rd bar of Act 2, when he inverts it and changes its rhythm to straight crotchets from dotted rhythms- it’s only two notes different from what we’ve heard before. This inverted form of the wedding march becomes the backdrop to much of the turmoil of the catastrophic wedding scene, heard as the agitated ostinato which underpins the section which begins when Rochester declares “She lives, but is not, was not and will never be a wife to me” and later forms the sort of waves which sweep this tumultuous scene to its bleak conclusion while the congregation screams out “Bigamy!”

There are several other fully fledged themes which Joubert handles deftly throughout the opera, such as the theme of Jane’s longing, which we hear for the first time just after she sings “visions, long cherished dreams, become at last reality” in the first scene, and the complex web of themes and motives which make up the music depicting Bertha’s madness, fire and destruction. We hear this material first at the beginning of the second scene as Bertha lights fire to Rochester’s bedroom, and later as Rochester tells of her death and the fire which consumed Thornfield at the beginning of the opera’s final scene, but Joubert also deploys these motives in the background during Jane and Rochester’s first love duet. Jane says “Think of your bride, you are not free.”  She is referring, of course, to Blanche, whom she assumes to be betrothed to Rochester, but the re-appearance of Bertha’s music gives the moment a sinister double meaning.

Beyond these longer and more involved themes, there are a complex web of shorter, Wagnerian Leitmotifs. One of the most important is the “Jane” motive, which Rochester sings three times at the climax of both Act 2 Scene 2 and Act 2 scene 3 (these are the only times in the opera this motive is sung, although it weaves its way through almost the entire score in the orchestra). One of the most interesting themes in the opera might be called the “love,” or “love’s sorrow” theme, which we first hear Jane sing near the beginning of the second scene to the words “demon shadows grow.” It is a heart-rending evocation of the pain of love, soon transformed into hopeful radiance when Jane sings “He is my light!” Joubert has fashioned a love theme capable of expressing all the nuances of this most complex emotion.

Jane Eyre is a work of mirrors- characters are illuminated by the ways in which they’re reflected against their counterparts, and scenes are given weight and meaning by the way in which they counterbalance each other. Each act ends with a love duet, and these two duets form one musical mirror as the relationship of the two main characters is fundamentally reset. In Act 1, it is Rochester who utters the pivotal words, “My bride is here!” in full throated fortissimo (followed by what has to be one of the most gorgeous passages in any opera). In the final scene, Jane almost whispers “Choose her who loves you best,” using the same music, but now suffused with tenderness and compassion. As she does so, Joubert weaves together the two narrative themes of the opera- with the “Once upon a time” music of Act 1 returning tenderly in the strings and the wedding/funeral march of Act 2 returning in the horn. We sense that at last, the journey is coming full circle as the conflicting forces in their lives which have separated them have now been reconciled in an act of love and forgiveness. I would be hard pressed to think of another duet which more poetically evokes the rapture of newly discovered love more touchingly than the one which ends Act 1.  The opera’s final scene, serves a dual purpose- in addition to depicting the reconciliation of the lovers, Joubert uses this final duet as a space in which to resolve the opera’s musical tensions. In a sense it functions in much the same way as a symphonic recapitulation, as musical ideas from across the score return and combine in newly stable ways. It feels very true to life in the way in which love now comes across as richer, more complex and more troubled, but ultimately deeper than in Act 1, which in retrospect looks like a sort of innocent bliss. The very ending of the opera is magical, Mahlerian in its transcendent yet wounded peace.

In stark contrast to Jane’s duets with Rochester are those with the controlling Mr Brocklehurst in the opera’s first scene, and the equally controlling, messianic St. John Rivers in the opera’s penultimate scene. Where the two duets with Rochester show Jane’s capacity for love and partnership, these show her need for independence and agency. The scene with Brocklehurst unfolds as something like a set of variations on the theme that accompanies his arrival, another sort of funereal march, but ends with a reassertion of Jane’s music. A similar thing happens at the climax of the scene with St. John. After hearing Rochester call to her, Jane sings of her love and her determination to face the challenges that seeking out Rochester will bring. It is one of the most passionate episodes in the opera, as the “Jane” theme sings out in several permutations above the soaring climax. St John is reduced to impotent rage as he mutters “You are deceived: I heard nothing,” but Jane knows her own mind, singing as she did of her love for Rochester “He loves me still, he needs me” with the “love’s sorrow” theme returning all its serpentine complexity.

The opera ends in A major, and without weighing the reader down with technicalities, it is worth noting Joubert’s subtle, symbolic and highly effective use of key throughout the opera. The tritone relationship between this final A major, associated throughout the opera with light and love, and the E-flat major which ends Act 1 and which also underpins much of the scene between Jane and St. John gives some sense of the magnitude of Jane’s journey. There are also certain distinctive harmonic progressions which recur throughout the opera which help give the largescale form a sense of structural rhythm.

Any discussion of the music of Jane Eyre would be incomplete without mention of Joubert’s mastery of the orchestra. Joubert stipulates an orchestra of single woodwind (each player doubling one additional instrument, so flute doubling piccolo, oboe doubling cor anglais, clarinet doubling bass clarinet and bassoon doubling contra bassoon), single brass (horn, trumpet, trombone and tuba), two percussionists, timpani, piano, organ and a small string section. In the case of the current performance, that makes for an orchestra of just 35 musicians. With these rather modest forces, Joubert has created a score of staggering colouristic variety and astonishing power. For instance, the final pages of act one, with flute and cor anglais forming one pair and bass clarinet and contra bassoon another, each pair moving in winding parallelism, their phrases ending with citrus trills, must be one of the most stunning and original instrumental passages of recent decades, made all the more miraculous by the way in which it evolves out of melodic and motivic threads Joubert has been developing throughout the scene. Joubert’s orchestra is capable of unleashing the full grandeur and power of a massive symphonic ensemble, but Joubert’s smaller forces give it not only greater transparency, but a slight hint of lean tensile strength, shorn of the comfortable cushion of a huge string section. Joubert’s use of the orchestral piano is also inspired. It plays much the same role that a harp might have in a Romantic score, but also serves as an able supplement to the percussion section when called for, and gives Jane Eyre’s soundworld a slightly steelier edge. This is yet another example of the way that throughout Jane Eyre, Joubert has been careful to avoid maudlin sentimentality, while reaching for the most powerful possible emotional and dramatic impact.

— c. 2017 Kenneth Woods


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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

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