Meet the Artist – John Rutter, composer

Who or what inspired you to take up composing, and pursue a career in music? 

They always say that you don’t choose music as a way of life, it chooses you. From when I was about six years old I remember endlessly doodling  at the family piano, generally making up my own pieces rather than  learning how to play what was put before me by my piano teacher. I  couldn’t write down what I was making up until a few years later, but the impulse to compose something of my own was always there. I was fortunate to go to a school where music was an important part of the curriculum, I sang in the school choir, and by the time I was in my  teens I was showing up my little compositional efforts to our director of music Edward Chapman, who was always encouraging and never tried to  steer me into any particular style or genre. I was immensely enriched by  a friendship that developed between me and John Tavener, who was a year  ahead of me in school and streets ahead of me in compositional  technique and sophistication. It wasn’t until he left to go on to the Royal Academy of Music and I went to Cambridge that I came out from  under his shadow, but I owe him a great debt for the encouragement he gave and the example he offered. There was never any doubt that he would  become a professional composer, but I had no thought of that happening  to me, and in fact I was advised by my headmaster to go for an academic career (not in music), advice I’m very glad I didn’t take. 

Who or what were the most significant influences on your musical life and career as a composer? 

This really follows on from my previous answer, and I’ll confine myself to  those I have known personally; I could give you a long list of composers  and other musicians from the past who have inspired me. My kindly college at Cambridge allowed me to do a music degree, even though I had applied to study modern languages, and I was fortunate again: I was assigned Patrick Gowers as a composition teacher, who was a considerably  gifted composer now remembered mainly for his atmospheric and finely-crafted music for a TV serialisation of Sherlock Holmes which ran  for many years, but who was open to all sorts of music (he was a very  good jazz pianist) and who let me go my own way. Also at Cambridge I met  and got to know Sir David Willcocks, the renowned director of King’s  College Choir who believed in my compositional talent and took me under  his wing. It was thanks to him that my first little compositions (a  group of Christmas carols!) were published, and this led to my  association with Oxford University Press which has lasted for a very  long time. David continued to champion my work, and he remained a mentor  and friend to me for the rest of his life. I could list many other key  figures who have offered me opportunities, encouragement and support, I  have been so fortunate: no one I respect has ever told me ‘look, you’re  no good, retrain for another profession’. 

What have been the greatest challenges/frustrations of your career so far?  

The greatest challenge is to keep yourself fresh, not repeat yourself too  much, and find a balance between exercising the skills you know you’ve  already got and learning new ones. Finding the will power and stamina to write when you’re tired and busy with other work is hard. Every day of my life I’m shamed by the quantity and quality of music that so many composers have succeeded in writing when there are only twenty-four hours in a day. I’m not prolific, but then I divide my energies: composition is the compulsion, I guess, but conducting is the pleasure, and being among musicians, sometimes in the role of recording producer,  is a great joy and privilege. My only frustration is that I don’t get  more done. 

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working on a commissioned piece? 

It’s many years since I’ve undertaken commissioned work. In the 1980s I contracted a debilitating illness, ME (also known as post-viral fatigue syndrome), and, like malaria, it cycles on and off so you have good weeks and bad weeks. When you accept a commission there is a binding obligation to deliver on time, and I had to accept that I might not always be able to do that, so I stopped. After about seven years I made a  full recovery, but did not by then want to go back to what had become a  treadmill, so I continued in a pattern that I have stuck with ever since: from time to time I respond to invitations and suggestions from  the outside world, but then I also work on my own projects. I’m less  productive than in the years I was doing commissions, but I’m less  stressed. The challenge with a commission is to come up with something  that fits the required specification, the pleasure is to be told that it  does fit and that you have actually surpassed expectations. 

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working with particular musicians, singers, ensembles and orchestras? 

It always helps if you have the sound of a particular artist or ensemble in your head as you write: you’re writing specially for them. I always try to find out as much as I can in advance about who I’m writing for.  If it’s a group I’m thoroughly familiar with – King’s College Choir in the radiant acoustic of its chapel – I’m half way there before I start.  It’s a poor composer who can’t craft a piece well for its intended  performers. The problems can start when other groups, perhaps not as skilled as those you have written for, have difficulty and think your  music is unreasonably hard, or maybe they just don’t get it. 

Of which works are you most proud? 

That would be like admiring yourself in the mirror. I don’t think about my past work except when I find myself conducting it. I just want the next  piece I write to be the best yet. 

How would you characterise your compositional language? 

Eclectic. Conservative. Accessible. But I hope recognisable as my own. 

How do you work? 

Hard, but not as hard as I used to. 

Who are your favourite musicians/composers? 

Too many to list. There’s no reputable musician/composer from whom you can’t learn something. If I dislike what I’m hearing, I tend to blame myself.  

As a musician, what is your definition of success? 

To have achieved at least part of what you set out to do. 

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians? 

Be very, very good at what you do if you possibly can. Work harder and more perseveringly than anyone round you. Prepare thoroughly. If you are a performer, try to be true to the composer’s vision; if you are a composer, be true to yourself. If you have a spark of something, it will communicate, regardless of style. 

Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time? 

Still on this earth and working. 

What is your idea of perfect happiness? 

Being too busy to think about it. 

What is your most treasured possession? 

I don’t rate possessions. 

What do you enjoy doing most? 

Enjoying a meal with family and friends after a concert or recording has gone well. 

What is your present state of mind? 

Immersed in my current projects.

John Rutter was born in London in 1945 and studied music at Clare  College, Cambridge. His compositions embrace choral, orchestral, and  instrumental music, and he has co-edited various choral anthologies  including four Carols for Choirs volumes with Sir David Willcocks and the Oxford Choral Classics  series. From 1975-9 he was Director of Music at Clare College, and in  1981 formed his own choir, the Cambridge Singers, as a professional  chamber choir primarily dedicated to recording. 

Rutter’s choral works, including his Requiem and Gloria, are frequently performed around the world. In 2003 Mass of the Children, a major work for adult and children’s choir, soloists, and orchestra,  was premiered in New York’s Carnegie Hall conducted by the composer.



1 Comment

  1. Thanks for this. I’ve been listening to John Rutter’s sacred music for over 30 years ever since a friend introduced me to him with his Requiem. There are parts of the Requiem that can still bring me to my knees. A brilliant composer!

Comments are closed.