Joseph Roff enjoyed a unique vantage point in his work as composer of church music. That position was constructed over decades as his double career of musician and priest evolved in the Roman Catholic Church. As a senior member of the presbyterate of the Diocese of Brooklyn (he was ordained in England in 1935), he wrote for the liturgy of the church both before and after the Second Vatican Council. With well over a thousand compositions (with over twenty-five publishers) behind him, he continued to offer the church steadfast service as he composed anthems and hymns, psalm settings, and acclamations.
An example of his commitment to serve the Church when the Church placed new demands on the composer, he published in 1966 a four-volume collection of harmonized settings of the propers for Sundays and feast days, a welcome relief to the tedium of psalm tone propers that were so prevalent in choir lofts at the time. Church musician found in his settings well-constructed harmonies and satisfying melodic lines that took into account the limited musical resource of the majority of the parish choirs. Such a control of harmony and theory is not acquired by accident but learned by training and artistic discipline. Father Roff achieved both during his early music education, which took him to the University of Toronto, where he earned a doctorate in music in 1948. While he pursued his studies at the university, he was student of Healey Willan, the foremost North American church music composer of the mid-century.
In addition to his sacred works, he boasts a lengthy list of orchestral compositions, as well as an operetta, Lady of
Mexico, which was performed at the Blackfriars Theater in Manhattan in 1967.
Whether he wrote a score for a symphonic ensemble or composed an anthem for a liturgical vocal ensemble, Roff consistently exerted the care and skill that characterized his early compositions. With such a history of successful music for the church, he can be seen as the never-tiring servant of the church, eager to write, to create, and to praise God.
Joseph Roff died on July 10, 1993, at age 82, just three days after the fifty-eighth anniversary of his ordination to the priesthood.
In a way, Roff's passing marks the end of an era at GIA. His first published work was issued in the early days of the Gregorian Institute of America. Since then, he published over 100 editions with GIA, the majority of which are still in print. GIA's editors have reflected that they can remember no single composer who consistently corresponded with his publisher on a regular basis as did Fr. Roff. The mail is lighter, and a legacy of music for the Church has come to a close.