Born in Gosforth, Newcastle upon Tyne, the fourth and youngest son of Russian and South Shields Jewish parents, Wilfred Josephs had his first musical studies in Newcastle with Arthur Milner, and showed early promise, but was persuaded by his parents to take up a 'sensible' career. He subsequently became a dentist, qualifying as a Bachelor of Dental Surgery of the University of Durham in 1951. He later studied at the Guildhall School in London.
In 1963 his Requiem, a complete setting of the Hebrew Kaddish, written in memory of the Jews who died during the Holocaust, won the first International Composing Competition of the City of Milan and La Scala - then the biggest musical award in the world, after which he gave up dentistry and became a full-time composer. The Requiem was performed by Nino Sanzogno in Milan, Maurice Handford for the BBC, Max Rudolf in Cincinnati, and Giulini in Chicago. A recording was made by David Measham for Unicorn Kanchana.
Josephs was awarded an honorary Doctorate of Music of Newcastle University in 1978. In October 1996, a concert of his works was given at Newcastle University in his presence. He died in London in 1997, leaving a wife, Valerie, and two daughters, Claudia and Philippa. The Wilfred Josephs Society continues to promote his works, the president of which is Sir Charles Mackerras.
Wilfred Josephs was a prolific composer and his classical works include 12 symphonies, 22 concertos, overtures, chamber music, operas, ballets, vocal works - almost all of which had been written to commission. An exception was Requiescant pro defunctis, a string quartet composed as Joseph's personal response to newsreel footage of Auschwitz shown at the time of the Adolf Eichmann trial. This string quartet became the basis of the Kaddish Requiem.
Josephs is best remembered for composing the music for the television series The Great War (1964), Theatre 625 (1965), Talking to a Stranger (1966), Weavers Green (1966), Cider with Rosie (1971), I, Claudius (1976), The Ghosts of Motley Hall (1976), Enemy at the Door (1978), The Voyage of Charles Darwin (1978) and incidental music for The Prisoner (1967). His film scores include Cash on Demand (1961), Fanatic (1965), The Deadly Bees (1966), Hostile Witness (1968), My Side of the Mountain (1969), Cry of the Banshee (1970), Dark Places (1973), Callan (1974), Swallows and Amazons (1974), All Creatures Great and Small (1975), The Uncanny (1977), Martin's Day (1985) and Mata Hari (1985).
His other notable works include an opera Rebecca (1983), based on Daphne du Maurier's novel, a ballet Cyrano (1991) and the Aelian Dances, based on Newcastle folk songs (the title is a reference to Newcastle's Roman name.) and a music theater piece in memory of his nephew, A Child of the Universe op. 80. and a children's opera Alice in Wonderland Op 144 (1985-1988) .
- Requiem, Robert Dawe, baritone; Adelaide String Quartet, with Pamela de Almeida, 2nd cello; Chorus; Adelaide Symphony Orchestra, David Measham, Unicorn-Kanchana LP DKP 9032 (released on double CD in November 2015 - Lyrita SRCD.2352)
- Robert Chase Dies Irae: A Guide to Requiem Music -2004 Page 385 "Other related works are Requiem, Op. 39 (1963) (complete setting of the Kaddish) by Wilfred Josephs"
- The Strad: A Monthly Journal for Professionals and Amateurs Pablo de Sarasate - 1967 "In the Halle Orchestra's Mid-day Concert on September 1 in the BBC's Music Programme, there was the first broadcast performance in this country of Wilfred Josephs' "Requiem", the work which won the 1963 Milan Composition Prize. The soloist, as in ... The performance was conducted by Maurice Handford. "
- Glenda Abramson - Encyclopedia of Modern Jewish Culture 2013 p. 435 "a music theater piece, A Child of the Universe op. 80, with a text by the composer and others (1971"
- Listing of Joseph's works
- Musicwebinternational - Requiem