John Rutter's Major Musical Contemporaries

Two of Britain’s leading composers have, like Rutter, made a speciality of writing profound choral music.

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John Tavener (b.1944)

John Rutter’s classmate has carved a unique niche for himself in the world of contemporary music.

It was the funeral in 1997 of Diana, Princess of Wales, that brought Tavener international celebrity when his Song For Athene was performed by the choir as the cortège left Westminster Abbey.

With his striking profile and shoulder-length locks, Tavener is one of the most instantly recognisable faces in contemporary classical music. Like his near-namesake the composer John Taverner (c.1490-1545), Tavener’s music is inspired by his spiritual thinking and religious faith (though he himself describes his lost 1969 opera, Notre Dame des Fleurs, as “highly blasphemous”).


He was a fellow pupil of Rutter at Highgate School in London, deciding to become a composer after hearing Stravinsky’s Canticum Sacrum in 1956.

He had an early success with his cantata The Whale (1968), based on the Old Testament story of Jonah and the Whale, premiered at the Proms in 1969 and recorded on The Beatles’ Apple label the following year.

In 1977, announcing that Christian music had been ruined by excess sophistication, and disassociating himself from his early works, Tavener converted to Orthodoxy. Its traditions were a major influence for the next two decades. Since then, he has found inspiration in his enthusiasm for Sufism, Indian music and the texts of all the great religious traditions.

In Brief

Tavener’s sympathy with minimalism, the sound world of pre-Renaissance music and the religious aura of his music are elements he shares with the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt. The powerful effect of his music is achieved by the extraordinary intensity he brings to the simplest of materials. His best-known works include The Lamb (1982), The Protecting Veil for cello and strings (1989) and the all-night vigil The Veil Of The Temple (2003).

James MacMillan (b.1959)

Scotland’s most successful living composer finds inspiration in his Roman Catholic faith.

Though minimalist techniques, rock music, Far Eastern and Scandinavian influences, and traditional Scottish themes are part of his musical catholicism, it is his deep religious beliefs that, like Tavener’s, informs much of MacMillan’s music.

A devout Roman Catholic, he writes much music for the congregation of his church in Glasgow. 
A rather larger congregation sang his music in 2010 when he was commissioned to write a new mass setting for the visit to Great Britain of Pope Benedict XVI.

Born into a religious, politically-aware working-class family in Ayrshire, MacMillan’s first major success was The Confession Of Isobel Gowdie (1990), which depicted the Scottish witch-hunt and murder of a Catholic woman in 17th century Scotland. The work that made him internationally famous, though, was his 1992 percussion concerto Veni, Veni, Emmanuel, premiered by Evelyn Glennie. It has so far had more than 400 performances.

Other important pieces include his first opera, Inés De Castro (1996), a Cello Concerto for Mstislav Rostropovich (1997) and St John Passion (2008). MacMillan was awarded a CBE in January 2004

In Brief

Prolific, accessible, adventurous and original – James MacMillan is Scotland’s foremost composer and one of the most important figures in contemporary classical music.

“Just because I’m a religious composer,” he says, “doesn’t mean the conflict and stress you get in modernism isn’t relevant, in fact it’s the reverse. For me religious faith is rooted in the mess of real life, and my music has to be true to that experience.”

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