John Rutter: A Life
John Rutter is one of the most successful of all living composers. His rare melodic gift and captivating harmonic flair have combined in a series of unforgettable choral gems that have touched the hearts of millions around the globe.
Like the great American songwriters of the 1920s and 30s, whom he greatly admires, Rutter possesses a remarkable instinct for writing vocal miniatures. His music exalts with an emotional freshness and honesty that shares points of contact with the inspired 1960s lyricism of The Beatles’ She’s Leaving Home and The Beach Boys’ God Only Knows.
Yet in Rutter’s skilled hands it is experienced through the musical prism of the English choral tradition, creating a unique and treasurable style like no other.
Every Rutter score is meticulously crafted and paced to perfection. When performing his music one instinctively feels in the safest of hands, as each successive phrase blossoms forth with a bracing sense of inevitability.
Such timeless classics as For The Beauty Of The Earth And Angels’ Carol possess a creative genius for child-like wonder comparable with Mendelssohn or Ravel.
Yet above all, Rutter’s music speaks from the heart to the heart, a priceless quality that after a century of being out of vogue in some classical circles, appears to be making a comeback.
Born the son of a gifted scientist, Rutter showed musical promise from an early age. One of his earliest memories is of playing an old, out-of-tune upright piano and discovering “a world that was somehow my world.”
His gift for improvisation and creating his own music tended to override the purely technical side of his playing, so that when he started having piano lessons with a local teacher it was his voice that caused the greatest stir. Accordingly, when he began his studies at Highgate School in London, his greatest musical passions were singing and composing – the musical die had been cast.
Highgate’s exceptionally high choral standards meant that the school choir was often invited to take part in professional performances, the highlight of which was the famous Decca recording of Britten’s War Requiem, which turned out to be a seminal experience: “To just be a fly on the wall at an event like that where we knew that musical history was being made was extraordinary.”
The other notable thing about Highgate was its active support for budding composers and arrangers, which at the time also included John Tavener, David Cullen (future orchestrator of Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals) and composer Brian Chapple. As a result, when he began his degree at Clare College, Cambridge, Rutter was already an experienced composer, used to churning out “sheaves of manuscript music” at the drop of a hat.
Rutter was only 18 when he composed what would become one of his signature pieces, the Shepherd’s Pipe Carol. Little did he know at the time, but this was just the first in a series of classic carol settings he was destined to compose and arrange, thanks initially to the friendly support of David Willcocks, who was running the music department just down the road at King’s College.
“He looked over some of my manuscripts,” Rutter explained to Classic FM in 2000, “and said ‘Would you be interested in seeing some of these published?’ I was truly gobsmacked.”
Rutter went on to co-edit several volumes of the classic Carols For Choirs series with Willcocks. Thanks also to such quintessential numbers as the Donkey Carol, Nativity Carol, Star Carol and The Very Best Time Of Year, his name is now virtually synonymous with Christmas time.
Difficult though it is to believe today, back in the 1960s and 70s the UK’s musical establishment was so polarised by the latest contemporary fads and fancies that Rutter’s exceptional talent – Willcocks considered him “the most gifted composer of his generation” – went largely unremarked.
That all changed, however, when in 1974 he was commissioned by choral specialist Melvin (“Mel”) Olson to compose and then premiere his Gloria in Omaha, Nebraska. This turned out to be the first of many trips to the United States, where his music found a huge audience.
Between 1975 and 1979 Rutter returned to Clare College where, as director of music, he made a tremendous impact, raising choral standards to the exalted level of the more famous King’s. Yet by now his own music had really begun to take off and he was also increasingly in demand as a conductor.
He gave up his Cambridge post in order to focus his energies on composition, although an invitation to conduct a televised Christmas concert in Salisbury Cathedral proved simply too good to miss. He gathered around him some of the best singers from his Clare College days and the Cambridge Singers were born.
Rutter quickly discovered the joy of being able to try out his latest compositions with his own choir, just as the Renaissance masters had done centuries before.
Meanwhile, more and more people wanted to hear his music performed under his direction, yet time for concertising was severely limited; so he decided to make the Cambridge Singers a recording outfit.
Seizing the opportunities presented by the latest digital technology, he started Collegium Records. It has since become one of the most successful labels of its kind in the world with a mouth-watering catalogue of around 40 titles.
Having suffered at times since the mid-1980s from myalgic encephalomyelitis (or ME), Rutter has found that strict routine is the best way to produce results on time.
“I wish there was some way of making the life of a composer sexy and exciting and full of incident,” he remarked in an interview for The Telegraph, “It really isn’t.”
When composing, Rutter will often work from mid-morning until midnight with only a break for dinner. He thrives on discipline and feels that the most vital aspect of any new piece is to come up with a first-rate idea, which then becomes a vital springboard for the piece as a whole. He prefers to make revisions and corrections as he goes along rather than revisit and make any changes after a piece has appeared in print.
Nowadays, Rutter is often invited to compose music for special occasions, most memorably for the wedding of Prince William and Catherine Middleton, which featured his enraptured anthem, This Is The Day.
One piece, though, has a special significance – the Mass Of The Children, the first major work he composed following the tragic death of his son Christopher in 2001.
Rutter is in great demand as a conductor of festive spectaculars.
“I love Christmas,” he told CBS News in 2003.
“It’s the child in me. Maybe I’ve never quite grown up. I still feel just for those few magic days a year, that we have the world as it might be.”
But ultimately Rutter always returns to where it all began.
“It is wonderful to go to a choral concert, but I think the deepest joy of all is to actually sing.”