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The discordant masterpiece of a Jewish Dentist

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I first came across the music of Wilfred Josephs when I was a student in Salisbury in 1976 and visited a friend’s flat to hear the opening theme tune to the BBC’s adaptation of Robert Graves novel ‘I Claudius’. An extraordinary composition of Bassoons, Bass Clarinets and strings - it raised the hairs on my neck. I recall nothing about the acclaimed drama, starring Derek Jacobi, but I remember to this day the pictures his ninety seconds of vivid theme music brought to me - all the dark intrigue and internecine struggles within the Roman Empire during the reigns of four Roman emperors - Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula and finally Claudius.

I’d never heard music like it and it lived on in my memory at a time when the popular music was slowly morphing from Prog to Punk. Wilfred Josephs was born in Newcastle as the youngest son of Russian / Jewish parents. His first musical studies in Newcastle showed early promise, but he was persuaded by his parents to take up a 'sensible' career. He subsequently qualified as a Bachelor of Dental Surgery in 1951 at the University of Durham. But his love of music never left him and he made the unusual transition from dentistry to music composition and later studied at the Guildhall School in London, winning the La Scala in 1961 for his Requiem, a complete setting of the Hebrew Kaddish, written in memory of the Jews who died during the Holocaust.

Gradually his music faded from my mind and was only reawakened when I came across a Guardian obituary of an outstanding Welsh film maker called Geoffrey Jones in 2005. One of Jones’ films was simply called RAIL - a commission from Edgar Anstey at the British Transport Films to record the transition from steam power to diesel and electric traction. Wilfred Josephs was commissioned to write the score and captured all the percussive, clanking, mechanical intensity of the final years of the steam age and its sleek, rather soulless, usurper. Jones was so impressed by Joseph’s vivid composition that he eschewed a script or narrative and simply cut the film to the music (with a little help from the brilliant Daphne Oram at the BBC’s Radiophonic Workshop). Many of the BTF’s films were rather pedestrian, earnest documentaries, but Jones and Josephs brought their flair for editing and composition to raise it to a new artform.

Kevin Redpath