Q & A with John Rutter

Q & A with John Rutter
By Bethany Tillerson (photo credit: © Nick Rutter)

John Rutter is a household name among musicians, having composed some of the most iconic pieces in choral repertoire. His works have been performed at some of the world’s largest events, including Queen Elizabeth II’s Golden Jubilee, and he’s been awarded honors for his many achievements. 

In this interview with Rob Kennedy, Rutter discussed some of his musical inspirations and how he ended up becoming the composer he is today.

RUTTER: School was very important to me in my musical development when I was young, because there wasn’t much music in my home. Neither of my parents were musicians and we lived in a small apartment. However, my parents decided to send me to Highgate School in North London, which had a strong musical tradition; not only did the chapel choir sing on Sundays, but they sang every morning of the week. 

I had a quite transformative experience; I was no more than ten years old when Edward Chapman, who was the senior school director of music, would come down once a week to just see how things were going with the boys in the junior department. I remember he walked into our classroom, sat down at the piano, and without saying a word, he played that beautiful extended chorale from Bach’s Cantata 147. I didn’t know what it was, but I remember thinking at the time, ‘this is just the most beautiful sound I’ve ever heard and I want it to go on forever’. We sang it, and I remember that experience to this day. And of course, Bach continues to be a composer who transforms my life.

I sat alongside a tall, lanky fellow called John Tavener, and he had a reputation for being a genius musician, a pianist, an organist, and, above all, a composer. He and I soon became best friends. I think I received both encouragement and intimidation from having somebody so talented as a classmate. Anyone will remember the feeling of being close to somebody who does something rather better than you, and that can sometimes set you back in a way. Nonetheless, I started to compose.

Whatever your gift as a composer, it can’t just pour out of you. It has to have a channel, and that channel is your technique. The better your technique, the better the expression will be. I remember shyly submitting my compositions to Edward Chapman, and he said something that proved to be prophetic. He looked over something I’d just written and he said, “You will end up in America.” I was not in any sense bound by the Europeanisms of composition in those days. This was just when the avant-garde was starting to get going in the early 1960s–the names on the horizon were Pierre Boulez, Karlheinz Stockhausen. The music that they were writing was very, very different from anything that had gone before. I knew instinctively that much as I admired and enjoyed that kind of music, it was not the sort of music that I actually wanted to write. And I think I sensed even then that I was probably as much a songwriter as a composer.

Rutter also discussed the background behind his famous set of compositions, ‘100 Carols for Choirs’, co-composed with David Willcocks.

RUTTER: In 1969, Willcocks was looking for a collaborator for a second volume of the phenomenally successful Carols For Choirs series. Volume One, the Green Book, was co-edited by David Willcocks and Reginald Jacques. Jacques had died, and David wanted to do Volume Two in collaboration with another co-editor. He suggested my name to Oxford University Press, and we worked together on it. I was very honored because I was only about 21 years old. He, of course, was senior and revered, but he took me on as an equal and was eager for my contributions to be included in the book. It was awfully generous of him because he was regarded as the King of the Christmas Carol. That was the beginning of our collaboration; those books extended to Volume Three, Volume Four, and eventually ‘100 Carols for Choirs’, a “Best Of” compendium that came out in 1987. David Willcocks remained a mentor, a friend and a supporter to the day he died.

Regarding what has inspired him to write music, Rutter was amazingly practical.

RUTTER: 90% of what I have done has come as a result of somebody saying, “Will you write us this piece or that piece?” Generally, what spurs on the creation is the deadline, the looming deadline. I think journalists who may be listening to this will understand exactly what I mean–if the deadline is midnight, you deliver 5 minutes before midnight. Composers have sometimes been spurred on to their finest achievements by the clock ticking, and they have to get something finished. I like to think slowly about anything I’m invited to write. I don’t like to have to sit down on impulse and write it there and then. Really, a composer only needs peace and quiet and a blank wall to stare at and a bit of paper that you’re trying to fill up. I must say, I do spoil myself. I’m fortunate to be able to have a nice place to be miserable. And because you’re always miserable while you’re composing, usually exhilaration comes when the piece is finished. 

There are many musicians, classical and otherwise, whom he looks up to as inspirations.

RUTTER: There’s no reputable composer from whom you can’t learn something. I’m a bit of a musical magpie. I enjoy all kinds of music, from Gregorian chant right up to the present. I enjoy the traditions of popular music: jazz, blues, and in particular, the great Broadway songwriters of the mid-20th century. They have influenced me hugely because of the way they managed to make the music carry the sense of the words into the hearts of the listeners, which is a great gift. I would certainly list Jerome Kern, Richard Rodgers, George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Lerner and Lowe–and Stephen Sondheim, who was one of my great heroes, because he’s just as good with words as he is with music. Curiously, I think the biggest influence was Benjamin Britten, whom we think of first and foremost as a composer. He taught me that it’s okay for a composer to be a conductor.

Rutter shared his views on the popularity of his music outside his native England, and why it has found such an audience in American churches.

RUTTER: This or that school of composition is less important than whether this piece speaks to your heart. It’s sometimes said that American composers wear their heart on their sleeve more than European ones. I wonder how true that is. But it certainly is the case that I’ve always found in the music of Aaron Copeland a tremendously open feeling. When I write any kind of music to make it as direct as possible, there’s always complexity beneath the surface of any composition, but it need not be apparent–just as if you admire a gorgeous building. You don’t have to be aware of the steel girders holding it up. You just want to enjoy the building. I think with a piece of music, you don’t necessarily have to know how it was put together. 

I hope that what I write says what it says in a way people can take into their hearts. They may not like it, but at least they will know what it is. I also learned from Schumann, Schubert, and the great Broadway songwriters, that you mustn’t get in the way of the text, that the text must speak to the listener directly. That was a quality that American musicians were quick to pick up on.

Finally, he ended with a bit of useful advice that creatives of all fields can appreciate.

RUTTER: Composition needs study. If you want to be a great athlete, you can’t just run the race without doing the training first. Study hard, study hard! Don’t push your work onto the waiting world and expect them to be grateful when you’re not yet fully fledged. Sometimes launching yourself too soon can be a mistake because people may remember that you didn’t make a very good impression with your first things, but persevere. 

I suppose that’s the final piece of advice: stick at it, stick at it, stick at it. Don’t be discouraged by rebuffs and setbacks or bad reviews. I could talk forever about the critics. You have to just be true to yourself. And that really comes back to the best advice I was ever given, which was from Edward Chapman, when he said, “Write the music that’s in your heart.” 

Perhaps that’s the most important advice of all.

You can listen to Rob Kennedy’s full interview with John Rutter during My Life In Music at 7 p.m. eastern on Monday, November 7th!