A Healing Touch – John Rutter Interviewed by Jeremy Siepmann

April 11, 2011
John Rutter
John Rutter at session

In his native England, John Rutter is most famous for his Christmas carols. His prolific, and varied, output, however, reaches far beyond these. While by no means spurning the present, his music is audibly rooted in the past—often in the ancient past. Carols, after all, form the oldest vernacular choral literature in English music. ‘Back in the 15th century,’ Rutter points out, ‘all other sacred music was in Latin.’ Educated at Highgate School in London, where a close friend was fellow-pupil John Tavener, his formative teachers included Martindale Sidwell and Edward Chapman. But even then, he didn’t confine himself to the present. Apart from his teachers, I wondered, who influenced him most as a composer? Who were his principal role models?

‘Oh they were a very varied bunch. Bach was always been at the top of my tree because his music has such an absolutely perfect balance of head, heart and spirit. I loved all the usuals. Mozart, of course, and Beethoven—particularly when I realised how supremely well he did what’s most difficult in composition, that’s to say creating structure. In addition to the standards, I felt particularly drawn to several 20th-century composers, William Walton (who had a wonderful physical, heroic quality, tinged with melancholy), Benjamin Britten, Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Shostakovich…and perhaps rather surprisingly, I found an early affinity with the great Broadway songwriters: Jerome Kern, Richard Rodgers, George Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Cole Porter…later Stephen Sondheim…all of whom achieved a perfect blend of words and music. I’ve always loved words, and I wanted to write for voices from the beginning. Then, too, there’s the European operetta tradition which fed into all this, resulting in a particularly American fusion. In fact, American music generally has always spoken strongly to me. I’ve always loved Copland and Bernstein, for instance—you know, that very ‘up-front’, New York, ‘say it boldly’ school of composition. And I love the example of Gershwin, who transformed himself from a brilliant songwriter into a composer of real consequence.’

But it wasn’t just a question of repertoire. Rutter has spent almost more time in America than at home. How did that happen? ‘When my first compositions began to be published in the UK, it was by Oxford University Press, who had an office in New York as well. So everything was published both here and in America, where there’s a hugely thriving choral world. And when they found what I’d been writing, quite a few people thought ‘Well, why not give this a try?’ What began as a trickle turned into a flow, and then a veritable torrent of invitations to go to America to guest conduct and to write for choirs. In Europe at that time, the kind of music I write was very much out of favour—that’s to say, music very much rooted in tonality, with now and again an actual tune! This was a bit of a sin in the 60s and 70s. You needed permission to write like that here! America, by contrast, provided a very friendly climate for eclectic music such as mine. I instinctively felt that away from the carpings of European critics, my music stood a better chance of getting a fair hearing. And this is what happened. I could really have emigrated to America—except that my family, my roots and my friends are still here, in England. I really don’t think I could live anywhere else.’

Having always been fascinated by the degree of passivity in creation, I put to Rutter an astonishing quote from Stravinsky, who wrote of The Rite of Spring: ‘I was guided by no system whatever when I composed The Rite. I heard, and I wrote what I heard. I am the vessel through which The Rite passed.’ Schumann too experienced something similar. Does this ring any bells for Rutter? ‘I wonder if any of us really know where our ideas come from. We like to think we’re in control of them but we’re really not. You can put in a 12-hour day working on a new piece; several days, even, may pass without anything useful coming to you; and then, for no apparent reason, you clock in to work and the first thing that comes into your head is the very idea you’ve been struggling to find. Usually we recognise a good idea when we get one, but the fact is that you can still go through all the motions, do all the right things, and get nothing but dross. The little nuggets of gold often come when you least expect them. I think all of us would agree, though, that you’re most likely to get good ideas if you observe some kind of routine. Like most composers, I think, I’m quite disciplined in that way. I keep pretty regular hours, sitting down at my desk at 10 in the morning, having dealt with the mail and all that, stopping for meal breaks and then packing up around midnight. If you repeat that regularly, pretty soon you find that those empty pages do fill up. But it never gets easier. Composition is a very mysterious process.’

Rutter: Gloria • Magnificat • Te Deum
Naxos 8.572653

From process, we turned next to results. I invited him to fill me in on the background to the three major works in Naxos’s forthcoming Rutter release. ‘The Gloria (1974) was the first of my works to be commissioned in America. Out of the blue, I received a letter from a choral conductor in Omaha, Nebraska, right in the middle of the Great Plains. His name was Mel Olson, an excellent musician, who knew exactly how to brief a composer. In fact he was so specific in his requirements that the piece practically wrote itself. Among much else, he suggested a sacred work, equally suitable to both churches and concert halls, with a Latin text (making it instantly accessible to choirs all over the world). So I thought of the Gloria—just about the most famous little piece of Latin that there is. For my instrumental group (they hadn’t the budget for a full orchestra) I chose a brass ensemble, supplemented by organ, timpani and percussion. And that was the beginning. The work is unapologetically eclectic. Listening to it now, as I very recently did in the new Naxos recording—a very exciting performance—I hear echoes of Stravinsky (second movement), William Walton, in his ceremonial mode, and Poulenc (in the finale). Underpinning the whole thing is something very important to me—namely Gregorian chant, which for me is the foundation of Western music. In fairly disguised form there’s a chant running through the entire piece. And that’s the steel frame, if you like, that holds it all together. If you wanted to analyse the score in any detail you’d find traces of it everywhere—and the first choral entry in the first movement presents the chant itself in fairly bold outline.

‘The Magnificat dates from 1990. By that time I was regularly conducting concerts at New York’s Carnegie Hall, which certainly deserves its fame. It’s one of the world’s great concert halls. 2800 seats, marvellous acoustics, and a tremendously festive atmosphere—one of those wonderful ‘horseshoe’ halls where the seats are curved around and the members of the audience can see one another. And if enjoyment starts in one part of the house, it’ll catch. You feel really like part of one great family, which doesn’t happen in modern concert halls like the Royal Festival Hall, where you sit in rows, like in an aircraft, and there’s no interaction between the members of the audience. Carnegie Hall is an absolute jewel. I’d been conducting in this concert series for two years when the director of the series, Peter Tabori, said ‘Well, how about writing something especially for us? I particularly wanted to write something celebratory and joyful since the last choral work I’d written had been the Requiem in 1985. So I decided on a setting of the Magnificat. I’d just come back from a brief vacation in Spain, and I decided that the model should be a Spanish Fiesta—a kind of celebration: a choral, outdoor Magnificat. As it happened, I wrote it quite quickly. The first performance was in May 1990, and I’m pleased to say that the work has been Fiesta-ing on ever since! It was originally for full symphony orchestra. For practical reasons, I thought it would be good to do an alternative, chamber orchestra version, suitable to smaller choirs. And I think in some ways it actually gains from being a little leaner and more economical. And of course I’m absolutely delighted that it’s popped up in this new, very fine recording.

‘The Te Deum was written for Canterbury Cathedral, in 1988, to celebrate the centenary of the Guild of Church Musicians. I thought, well this is a wonderful, iconic building, and it’s been a tradition here at least since the time of Henry V to sing a Te Deum at times of rejoicing. The problem is; it’s very difficult to set to music—because it’s long. And if you’re going to write a liturgical Te Deum, you don’t want the service to drag on for hours, so you have to get an awful lot of text into quite a short time frame. I found myself reaching back in my mind to memories of the Coronation, when I was just a little lad, watching it on my parents’ nine-inch black and white television, and somehow that whole aura of William Walton (and Westminster Abbey of course) resonated in my mind. So here’s a work which belongs firmly in the tradition of English ceremonial music. It doesn’t break any fresh ground, but I felt this was not an occasion for the shock of the new. It was originally written with just organ accompaniment, but I later added the brass parts which are used in this present recording.’

Rutter has enjoyed twin careers, as both composer and conductor. Have they, I wondered, been mutually nourishing? ‘Absolutely! I would recommend any composer to get out there and conduct. Because it’s as good as ten composition lessons. You soon learn as a conductor what works and what doesn’t work—in terms of acoustic balance, in terms of pacing and structure, in terms of how well you’re writing for your forces. I’ve never been trained as a conductor, but I’ve done lots of it and I’ve never had any fear of it. I’m quite a sociable person, and composition is by nature solitary. After spending all those hours, days, and perhaps weeks by myself, the thing that I really live for is the moment when I get out there and conduct, and make music with colleagues, and have all the joys of a collaborative experience, which is something that composition just can’t be. Conducting is easier, in a way. Because once you’ve conducted a concert or a recording, you can forget it. With the composition, while it’s in progress, at least, it haunts you.’

Whatever critics may say of his output (the public has long since given its resounding verdict), Rutter is a man who takes music very seriously indeed. A man to whom it matters profoundly. Centrally. ‘Music is unique among the arts because it communicates equally to head, heart, spirit and body. What matters most to me is that it should communicate on all these levels, though not, perhaps, simultaneously, or in the same concentration. Of course what all composers would like first on their tombstone is ‘He wrote like an angel’! We’d all like to be admired for our technique and professionalism. In my case, what I’d like to have next is ‘He touched people’s hearts’. It’s not me to build mighty cathedrals in sound. It’s not my gift to be an explorer, opening the way to new sound worlds, new kinds of musical expression. I’m more of a magpie. I gather sounds in the air around me and in some sort of way make them my own. I think what I’ve probably been brought into the world to do is to cheer people up. And maybe to bring consolation. And healing. People have said that my Requiem does bring them consolation and so forth, and that’s wonderful, but there’s also a need for joy—which is always there, always waiting to be released into our midst. You know, somebody asked ‘Can there be any rejoicing after Auschwitz?’ Well, yes! There has to be! If only (but not only) because humanity has to be programmed to carry on. And there was a period in contemporary music when there was precious little joy to be found. Today, though, I think composers are rediscovering a kind of joie de vivre, and excitement—a real communicativeness. This is a great time to be writing music. That said, I don’t just want a cosy world of music, where none of our assumptions are ever shaken up. The arts, after all, are here to challenge people. In my parallel life as a record producer, I get some of the greatest satisfaction from some of the most difficult contemporary works. Just last year I produced an album devoted to the choral works of Giles Swayne, which is by no means an easy listen. And more recently I’ve produced an album by the brilliant young American composer Nico Muhly. I’m excited by the cutting-edge, and by exploration, but I know, too, that that’s not what I’m supposed to be writing. I think, if I’ve got—don’t let’s call it a mission, let’s just say a place where I fit—I think it’s above all to bring consolation, and perhaps healing…a process of which I’m deeply honoured and privileged to be part.’

John Rutter Biography & Discography

Previous releases of works by John Rutter on Naxos: