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I whistle a happy tune

21 December 2012

Roderic Dunnettmeets the composer and choral maestro, John Rutter


Tuning in: John Rutter thrives on leading "Come and Sing Days" for choral enthusiasts

Tuning in: John Rutter thrives on leading "Come and Sing Days" for choral enthusiasts

JOHN RUTTER is one of the most successful composers of sacred choral music this country has ever known. His name is almost synomous with the genre in its contemporary form.

He is well known for singable settings of the Gloria and Magnificat, and for his Requiem, and Mass of the Children (which he conducted last month, in Carnegie Hall, New York). And, of course, he composed "This is the Day", the anthem for the wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge.

But he is best known for his Christmas carols, and carol arrangements - 100 or more at the last count. These include: "Donkey Carol", "Carol of the Magi", "Mary's Lullaby", and "The Colours of Christmas".

"For the infectiousness of his melodic invention and consummate craftmanship, Rutter has few peers," the London Evening Standard wrote recently. But, for all this, I found him modest, even shy.

"In a sense, I'm a writer of song, or song music, even before I'm a composer," Rutter says. "I love writing tunes - not all, but much of, the time. Atonality [music without a key, often dissonant] is something we all had a go at in the 1960s and '70s.

"You can't bury your head in the sand: this is music that matters. Webern and his musical complexity were, in part at least, the product of the vexed social conditions of Austro-Germany in the 1910s, '20s, and '30s, and it's important to remember that. I take my hat off to the explorers who've stuck with it - composers who are discovering new worlds, and voyaging through realms of uncharted territory."

He says that he has kept in touch with "the cutting edge of music - Bartók, Berio, works like Stockhausen's Gesang der Jünglinge, Berio, some of Penderecki". And he caught the recent Pierre Boulez concert at the Royal Festival Hall. "Boulez's music is lovely, delicate, exquisite - much more in touch with Debussy and Ravel than I'd realised," he says.

"But that's just not what I'm good at. You have to be happy with the gifts you've been given - not chase after ones you haven't been given. Exploring the darker realms of music is not me. I like to cheer people up."

THE other significant work that Rutter introduced his Carnegie Hall audience to was Ralph Vaughan Williams's "Hodie" (from A Christmas Cantata), composed in 1953-54. "It's an extraordinary piece," he says. "Vaughan Williams was 81 when he wrote it, and by that time he felt free just to write whatever he wanted to write. The music is often beautiful, touching, evocative; but his 'March of the Three Kings' is quite dotty and odd: bold, wacky, and wonderful."

Rutter's enthusiasm is infectious. It is visible at the countless choral-singing events he runs, on both sides of the Atlantic, in which he conducts. He is an educator par excellence; and a vitaliser and galvaniser of others.

"It was about 20 years ago that I started doing 'Come and Sing' days. The idea is that absolutely anyone is welcome. There's no kind of audition, or selection process. We simply do a day's singing together, and strive to perform better by the end of the day than we did at the start. I find that work really satisfying. It complements the sessions I have with professionals."

His inspiration for this was Sir David Willcocks, then Director of Music at King's College, Cambridge. "At the same time as he was insisting on perfection from his boys and men of King's College, Cambridge, choir, achieving standards virtually no one else could touch, David would do a singing session for amateurs in, say, Nether Wallop. Groups or choirs would approach and ask him, and, if he had a free day in his diary, he would invariably say yes."

Rutter was assisting Willcocks at the time, collaborating on the early stages of their series Carols for Choirs. "I was always slightly surprised, and fascinated, to see this side of him," he says. "He simply didn't mind if he was working with limited or amateur resources. David was, and still is, wonderfully open to all kinds of music. On occasions, we would round off concerts with 'Walking in the Air', from Howard Blake's The Snowman. Brilliant!

"David was my mentor, and I've tried, so far as I can, to follow in his footsteps, although nobody can hold a candle to him. I absolutely don't mind, at a "Come and Sing" day, or perhaps a charity event, if it's not note-perfect or perfectly tuned, or even not a good performance at the end of the day, so long as the participants go away feeling that they have done a bit better than they previously believed they could." 

RUTTER and his wife, JoAnne, live just outside Cambridge, in a village he describes as "the Bournemouth of the Fens". But his enthusiasm for these events means that, often, "I find myself jumping in the car on Saturdays, and heading to Scarborough, or Shrewsbury, or the Temple Church in London, or some of the lovely churches of Northamptonshire. I do a dozen 'Come and Sing' days each year; so over two decades that amounts to quite a lot."

Rutter thrives on the human exchange that these sessions engender. "On occasion, somebody will come up afterwards and say: 'That was the best experience I've had for ages.' So the return is that they make me feel a whole heap better, too. They go back to their little church choir hopefully recharged, and I go home to Cambridge, recharged as well."

A significant breakthrough, he says, "was getting my publishers on board. They initially needed some convincing. But I told them this was a service to the community, and making what they publish more or less freely available for events such as these would bring benefits in the long run. OUP's support and co-operation - their foresightedness - has contributed hugely to the success of these gatherings."


RUTTER caught the music bug, thanks to the inspiration of others, initially at Highgate Junior School: "We were directed by Martindale Sidwell, a wonderful man and excellent musician who was organist of Hampstead Parish Church. He was peppery and difficult, but basically a warm-hearted man, who taught us an immense amount.

"Our Director of Music at Highgate [Senior] School was Edward Chapman, who had been taught by Charles Wood and examined by Stanford. He was a conservative composer, but a very fine craftsman, and was incredibly encouraging and supportive.

"Under him, we sang a slightly scaled-down version of cathedral repertoire in Highgate's Victorian red-brick school chapel. That meant Sunday services as well, because pupils were mostly boarders then [though he was not]. . .

"We sang Tallis and Byrd, plainsong, Wesley, Stanford, and so on - in fact, a wide range of music. Minor public-school chapels weren't, by and large, doing that kind of stuff in those days. I was introduced to a wide repertoire, first-hand, in my teens, and I've always been grateful for that.

"Being a day boy living in London also meant that I could haunt the cheaper seats at Covent Garden and the Royal Festival Hall. John Tavener [Rutter's friend from Highgate] and I were always asking questions - buttonholing the percussionist or double-bassoonist and demanding to know how everything works."

From the beginning, he was captured by melody. "I've always enjoyed music with a tune you could whistle. In the '60s, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones meant a great deal to me, and they both had that gift."

Who has it now? "Today, I think of wonderfully versatile composers like Richard Rodney Bennett - a through-and-through classical musician who can produce a full-blooded percussion concerto, but then turn his hand to compose gloriously tuneful, memorable film music, knock off a song for Cleo Laine, accompany with aplomb a complete evening of cabaret, and then pen a series of enchanting choral gems for groups like the King's Singers."

 e is often asked where he gets his ideas from. "The honest answer is: I don't know. Where the music comes from is a mystery. I'm sure many other composers would say the same. The truth is, you have to hack away determinedly, a bit like a sculptor chiselling his stone. Hopefully, it comes in the end.

"Julian Lloyd Webber has been asking me for about 12 years for a cello concerto - and he's still waiting." 

This is the Day by John Rutter's ensemble, the Cambridge Singers, is available on his own Collegium label: www.collegium.co.uk.

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