John Jeffreys Recordings

Of Welsh parentage, John Jeffreys was born at Margate in 1927, the youngest son of a Congregational minister. The composers who figured in early piano lessons ranged from Domenico Scarlatti and Muzio Clementi to Edvard Grieg and Percy Grainger – for whose folk-song arrangements Jeffreys retains an abiding admiration. Thanks to his father’s library, he was already familiar with major poets of the Elizabethan era when, as a choirboy, he was introduced to Tallis and the English choral tradition. While at Caterham School he met the violinist John Fry, an enthusiastic advocate of his compositions.

In 1940 John Jeffreys’ family moved to the West Country; in 1945 he enlisted in the RAF. This period saw the composition of seven Emily Brontë songs. For a time Jeffreys hesitated between art and music as a vocation – a brother opted for art. In 1948, however, he entered Trinity College of Music in London to study piano and counterpoint. In 1950 he completed When I Was Young , consisting of eighteen “miniature songs” for high voice. Early orchestral works include the transparently scored Violin Concerto in G minor, composed in 1951 for Pauline Ashley, whom Jeffreys married five years later. Pursuing his fascination with the English musical heritage, he wrote a study of the 17th-century Eccles family: a work since complemented by Jeffreys’ scholarly “memoir” (2003) of the Elizabethan lutenist and composer Philip Rosseter.

During the next two decades John Jeffreys composed works for full orchestra, chamber music, solo keyboard pieces, choruses, and a large number of songs for voice and piano. He was particularly encouraged by the violinist André Mangeot, founder of the International String Quartet. Another influence was the tenor René Soames, and a whole stream of songs poured from Jeffreys’ pen in the early 1960s. The Fox (1964), a song-cycle for tenor, French horn and string quartet, is based on contemporary texts by Barry Duane Hill. In 1966 Jeffreys set Ivor Gurney’s Poem for End for baritone, solo flute and string orchestra.

In the musical climate engendered by the William Glock era at the BBC, John Jeffreys fell virtually silent as a composer. Early in the 1980s he destroyed a large quantity of his works (a symphony, several concertos and nearly a hundred songs). But the depression enveloping him was lifted when he came across several tape recordings of his music from December 1966. The process of creative retrieval, revision and painstaking recomposition received a fillip from the publisher Kenneth Roberton, son of the distinguished choral conductor Sir Hugh Roberton. An “unedited facsimile edition” of forty songs (1983) was followed in 1984 by Jeffreys’s Second Book of Songs – settings of English, Scottish, Welsh and Irish poetry from five centuries. The title of his Third and Last Book of Song s (1990) turned out to be premature, for this anthology was soon joined in the Roberton catalogue by two further volumes, Album of Fourteen Songs and Sixteen Tenor Songs . Many of these songs have been recorded by Ian Partridge, Jonathan Veira and James Gilchrist ( for Divine Art/Diversions) and the American-born tenor Scot Weir.

John Jeffreys lived in west Suffolk. He died in 2010 only four days after the loss of his wife whose devoted carer he had been for many years.