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Touching hearts: an interview with John Rutter

One of the most prolific of choral music composers, John Rutter is known throughout the world for music which has sustained choirs for almost half a century. Here he is in dialogue with composer Bob Chilcott.

Bob Chilcott: You are one of the first British composers to have had a truly international career, both as a composer and a conductor, and you still keep up a full schedule of concerts and singing days. Was it always your intention to be so visible and accessible as a conductor, or is this something that has developed over time? How important has this contact with those who love your music been to you?

John Rutter: I’ve never had a grand plan, in fact these days I sometimes feel I can’t see any further than next week, and I just stumble from one commitment to the next trying not to mess up. I’d like to tell you that everything I do is the result of a carefully thought-out policy, but most of what I undertake is in response to things that people and organisations ask me to do – though I’ve got better at saying ‘no’ and resisting moral blackmail, something my wife says I’m hopeless at. I have always found that I lack the willpower to compose absolutely full time, and composition is such a solitary pursuit that I especially relish my other musical activities like conducting, leading singing days, and producing recordings, because these are all social.

BC: Your music is so imbued with craft and an instinctive feel for what singers and players can do. You are also clearly very well versed in the technology in music that has developed more recently, in your work with music graphic programmes and also with your work as a sound engineer and producer. Do you think that the arrival of music software programmes has changed the way composers approach their work? How important do you think the craft, that some may perceive as ‘old school’, is nowadays?

JR: Now that composers can put their music on paper so easily it has empowered many who can self-publish and reach an audience in a way that wasn’t possible before. And for professionals, it’s a godsend: the process of notating complex scores and extracting instrumental parts has been transformed. The two downsides I see to this massive technological advance are, first, that it creates a sometimes deceptive air of professionalism when a score looks like print: inept composition is still inept even if beautifully typeset.

And second, hearing one’s music played by a virtual orchestra on a computer can be very misleading: what may be easily playable on a computer may be awkward or unplayable on a real instrument, and you have no idea of what the live balance will be like until you hear real players and singers.

BC: You continue to be a huge influence on many musicians worldwide through the impact of your work. Who have been influences and mentors to you, and how important have these influences been?

John Rutter by © Oxford University Press.

JR: The earliest important mentor I had was my director of music at school, Edward Chapman (who also taught my school chum John Tavener) – he had been a composition pupil of Charles Wood at Cambridge and had inherited much of Wood’s solid, conservative craftsmanship, which he passed on to me by osmosis rather than didactic tuition. He was always encouraging and supportive, saw that I wanted to compose and never squashed my aspirations, and he never told any of us that the musical profession is precarious, competitive, and filled with disappointments and setbacks. Above all he told me to write the music that was in my heart and not to worry about what anyone else was writing or to follow any school (this at the height of the vogue for serialism) – probably the best compositional advice I was ever given.

Then at Cambridge I was spotted by David Willcocks, who took me under his wing, asked to see some of my work, and recommended it to Oxford University Press, who have been my publishers ever since. The guidance and support he gave me continued to the end of his long life, and I am eternally grateful for it.

BC: What is the one bit of advice that you would give to a composer who is starting out now? 

JR: It depends on which young composer. I get sent lots of music by composers young and old, generally wanting my opinion of it (something I have learned it is most unwise to give) – or asking how to get it published and/or performed. In a few cases, I see an instinctive gift for writing, and my advice would just be ‘stick at it and try to extend your range, you’ve got something but you need to develop it, study your admired models closely and take every opportunity to hear your work performed.’

In rather more cases, what I am sent is woefully lacking in any sort of professionalism, imagination, or awareness of how composers write, and the advice would be ‘take some lessons from a professional – or stop.’ You’ve got to have technique: composition is like aircraft design; you can’t just go in and do it without training. That’s not meant to be discouraging, but technique is the vector of expression, and you’ll never find your voice if you don’t have the technique to express what you want to say.

A version of this article originally appeared in Classical Music Magazine’s December 2017 edition. Used with permission.

Featured image credit: Music notes by tstaller. Public domain via Pixabay

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