David Blackwell

Meet John Rutter: Touching people’s hearts

3:59, 25th November 2015

Though quintessentially English, the music of John Rutter has a universal appeal. As the composer approaches his 70th birthday. He talks to David Blackwell about commissions, Cambridge, and what got him started.

A light rain is falling as I arrive midsummer morning in the heart of rural Cambridgeshire. The village Flower Festival is in full swing – around the green, trestle tables are laden with plants of every colour and description, while homemade cakes and pots of tea stand ready to revive the weary floriculturist. It is a scene of utter Englishness – entirely appropriate, as waving a greeting from his door is another English icon, the composer John Rutter.

Approaching a landmark birthday, Rutter shows no sign of slowing a breathless pace of activity. In his office he is preparing for a recording he is producing the following day with the choir of Clare College, Cambridge, developing programmes for his annual RPO Christmas concerts, while a new work for next year’s Menuhin Competition is flickering into life. His desk of strewn with the meticulously typeset score of his recent compositions: a major new choral work, The Gift of Life, for the Dallas choral director Terry Price, two shorter pieces marking the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta, and a heart-stoppingly lovely ‘in memoriam’ for the Dean of Jesus College, Cambridge, following his tragic, unexpected death. Composing, conducting, recording – these, along with editing arranging and leading singing days, all add up to the polymathic musical career Rutter had pursued for the last 50 years. But how did it all begin?

‘My parents had a piano in their top-floor flat in London, left there by the previous occupants who couldn’t get it down the stairs,’ Rutter tells me. It proved an irresistible temptation for the young child, but it took a musical visitor to point out that picking out and harmonising radio theme tunes was a precocious activity for a six-year-old. Choristerships were considered but rejected in favour in Highgate School, where Rutter’s musical education began. Choral singing was strong: Rutter developed his love of the English choral traditions in the chapel and in the school choir took part in professional performances, including Decca’s recording of Britten’s War Requiem with the composer conducting. Students were encouraged to compose, and while still in school Rutter wrote The Shepherd’s Pipe Carol, an assured achievement, confidently displaying hallmarks of his later style, and the Nativity Carol. This last he entered for a Bach Choir Carol Competition, adjusticated by one David Willcocks; ‘It didn’t win,’ Rutter says ruefully.

Fast-forward a few years to John and David busily compiling Carols for Choirs 2: ‘”Ah yes”‘, Rutter adopts an affectionate parody of David’s cultured tones – ‘”we must include your lovely Nativity Carol.” I had to remind David it wasn’t even highly commended in his carol competition,’ John says. Quick as a flash came Wilcock’s riposte: ‘Yes, but it’s improved a lot since then!’

‘The dawn of mixed choirs at Oxbridge colleges was an exciting time’

Initially applying to Cambridge to read Modern Languages, Rutterswitched to Music during the selection process, and a thorough grounding in the subject followed at Clare College. A breakthrough event occurred in his second year: ‘My tutor suggested I needed to get more conducting experience, so I put on a Christmas concert with choir and chamber orchestra, programming some of my carols with Bach’s Cantata no.140 and other seasonal fare.’ One of the concert attendees, as it happened, was a senior EMI producer. ‘He sought me out after the concert and asked for more.’ So it was that Rutter found himself writing and preparing a full LP’s worth of carols, recorded during his last year and released shortly after he completed his undergraduate degree. ‘lacta’, as Julius Caesar probably said, ‘alea est’.

After graduating, Rutter stayed on in Cambridge to complete a MusB and then start a PhD, yet at the same time he was taking on a good deal of ad hoc undergraduate tuition, acting as Willcock’s amanuensis (‘an invaluable all-round training’) and getting a number of commissions. In 1969 Willcock’s invited Rutter to write a large-scale piece for the university chorus and orchestra. Premiered in King’s College Chapel, The Falcon set a richly symbolic medieval text with imaginative vocal lines and deft orchestration – its favourable reception only quickened Rutter’s resolve to succeed as a composer.

Willcock’s constant support led him to introduce Rutter to his UK publisher, Oxford University Press, and invite him to be his co-editor for Carols for Choirs 2. Then in 1974 Rutter was commissioned by the American choral director Mel Olson for a work for choir and instrumental ensemble. ‘He was very clear about what he wanted.’ Rutter recalls, ‘giving me the text, the approach and the approximate number of instruments. What I later realised was that he gave me the blueprint for what so many other choral directors wanted too.’ The result was his Gloria, for choir, brass and organ, a work which rocketed in popularity when it was performed at ACDA National Convention 1978. It led to a string of US commissions, with many of his most popular anthems written at this time. From a number of American publishers who approached Rutter seeking to represent his music in the States, he chose Don Hinshaw’s fledgling company, recognising Hinshaw’s sincere belief in his work, especially in the areas where he was most active, and realising how invaluable his contacts with key American organisations and choral directors would be.

In 1975 Rutter was invited by his alma mater, Clare College, to be director of music of the chapel choir. ‘It was the dawn of mixed choirs at Oxbridge colleges,’ Rutter says, ‘an exciting time when, overnight, college choirs changed their composition and sound.’ Rutter shaped and developed the choir and led it in broadcasts and recordings; but the lure of composing grew ever stronger, and in 1979 he gave up this post to focus morefully on composition. He was set free to travel, and threw himself into developing his career in the States. In a strange counterpoint, he found many of his anthems leaking back to the UK, as the liturgy of the Anglican Church loosened and followed a less formal US model.

Now a major figure on both sides of the Atlantic, and building a reputation around the world, Rutter secured his position with a number of enduringly popular concert works – Requiem, Magnificat, and later Psalmfest and Mass of the Children – as well as smaller scale pieces and instrumental works. An off-shoot of his tenure at Clare College was the formation of the Cambridge Singers, a professional mixed-voiced chamber choir exclusively dedicated to recordings on the collegium label, founded by Rutter in the early 1980s. Alongside recordings of his own pieces, this label sought to record music that Rutter believed deserved greater exposure – he cites with pride his recording of ‘lost’ pieces that have since become mainstays of the repertoire, such as Poulenc’s sacred motets. His work as a conductor was taking him around the world to prestigious venues like Carnegie Hall in New York, while at the other end of the scale he would drive around the UK to lead singing days, giving, as he puts it, ‘a much needed shot in the arm for those who love choral singing’.

If all this seems too much, Rutter likes nothing better than to retreat to his ‘composing cottage’, away from internet, phone and other distractions to immerse himself in the process of composition. He is unapologetically a melodist, pointing out that melodic invention was standard in classical music until the end of the 19th century. The gift for melody, along with harmonic clarity and colour, sensitivity to words and a strong sense of structure and ability to pace his material, combine to create works that communicate powerfully with performers and audiences alike. It is music that is meticulously crafted and highly practical. It perfectly suits the aims of its creation, whether for church or concert hall, yet is touched also with a sense of wonder. ‘That wouldn’t be a bad epitaph,’ Rutter muses; ‘his music touched people’s hearts.’

Outside, the rain had eased and a watery sun is piercing the clouds. I walk past a collection of penny-farthings and other antique cycles improbably parked on the composer’s lawn, up to the church, where the flower arrangements are displayed on a theme from Ecclesiastes: ‘to everything there is a season’ (coincidently, a text that Rutter has set). I think back to my interview with John – surely this is a composer whose music is right for all seasons: this is a composer whose music is right for all seasons: as beautiful as the flowers maybe, and set to last considerably longer.

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