Composer John Rutter discusses a life in music ahead of his Cambridge Summer Music Festival preview event with Rowan Williams
Dr John Rutter and the master of Magdalene College and former Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams will come together in conversation at a unique event on June 24,
‘When I was four or five, I climbed up to the old out-of-tune piano in my parents’ flat, opened the lid and I discovered a world of magic. I just knew that’s where I wanted to spend my life,” says Dr John Rutter.
So began an extraordinary life in music for a man considered by the late Sir David Willcocks, former director of music at King’s, to be “the most gifted composer of his generation”.
Born in London in 1945, the son of an industrial chemist and his wife, John didn’t hail from a particularly musical family – but he considers that an advantage.
“I used to sing along in my treble voice when other kids were out kicking footballs around,” he recalls. “And the fact that my parents didn’t know what a precarious, insecure profession music is – with so much heartbreak, setbacks, disappointment, competition – meant that they didn’t discourage me.
“You meet people from professional musician families where the parents have said ‘Be an investment analyst or be a lawyer’. I never had any of that. They just supported me and said, ‘Well if that’s what you want to do, then you’ve got to do it’. I sleepwalked my way into a musical career that I didn’t know I was going to have.”
John’s early interest in music was fostered at the independent Highgate School, with its fine chapel choir.
“I sang in the original recording in Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem under the baton of the composer himself when I was still a schoolboy.
“The original recording remains iconic and we all felt we were taking part in something really rather historic,” says John.
With traditional Latin interspersed with words from First World War poet Wilfred Owen, Britten’s War Requiem – which sold 200,000 within five months of its release – was an expression of his pacifism.
It’s rich subject matter for the conversation between John and master of Magdalene Rowan Williams at Clare College on June 24.
“I’m sure Rowan Williams will have views on it,” says John. “Benjamin Britten did have very definite religious, moral and political views. It will be interesting to see how that bounces off a former Archbishop of Canterbury.”
The work will be among the recordings John has chosen to play during the Words and Music event, held as a precursor to the Cambridge Summer Music Festival, supported by the Cambridge Independent.
“I will be playing that as a chance to talk about the experience of singing in such a great work when it was new. It will bring up questions of composers making political/moral statements through music. It’s a very religious work of course. So I’ve chosen musical extracts that I hope will spark off thoughts in Rowan Williams,” says John.
He predicts that the event, also featuring poetry readings, “will be rather an extraordinary meeting of words and music”.
“Rowan Williams is a published poet and passionate music lover and his thoughts on how music interacts with words and faith will be quite fascinating,” says John. “It’s about how words and music come together in a way that could be termed spiritual in the broadest sense.”
John considers himself “hugely sympathetic” to the Church of England, rather than a believing Christian – in fact he’s said in the past that the “whole edifice of religion” appears to him “a man-made construct”.
But faith is not a prerequisite for enjoying sacred choral music.
“Rowan Williams is on the record of saying that very thing,” he points out. “If you don’t happen to be a churchgoer or somebody comfortable with the doctrines of the church you can still enjoy the music. It’s like being able to enjoy the architecture of Ely Cathedral – you don’t have to be religious to be uplifted by it.”
John’s first taste of success came after his arrival at Clare College.
“My path became set only after I came to Cambridge. I was attracted not only by the reputation and the beauty of the city but also by the many wonderful choirs. In those days the focus was mainly on King’s and St John’s choirs and of course it’s broadened quite a lot now.
“I heard the King’s College Choir at the Christmas Eve broadcast and it grew from there. For someone who loved choral music, which I always did, Cambridge was like being in heaven. It was like a toy shop where the toys were all free because you could walk into any college chapel on any day in term-time and have a musical treat. Aside from Oxford, there’s nowhere quite like it.”
John’s first recording came as a Cambridge student.
“I really knew nothing but I was conducting a college concert in December and I thought let’s put a few Christmas carols in. I wrote some original carols and made some arrangements of some traditional favourites and it caught the attention of one of the major record labels – purely because one of the secretaries there was a friend of mine and she brought her boss to Cambridge. He said can you do a whole LP – 40 minutes worth of Christmas material. I said I’ll have a try.
“That recording is still, would you believe, in the catalogue today. I like to think I’ve done a lot better since but you’ve got to start somewhere. It was a very lucky early start because that led to me getting into print.”
It was Sir David Willcox, an editorial adviser to Oxford University Press, that helped John get his work published.
“He said ‘Your music might have a future in print’. That was an extraordinary thing for a young student to be told and he turned out to be right. I owe him a huge debt,” says John, who went on to collaborate with Sir David on five volumes of the hugely popular Carols for Choirs anthology.
His recordings enabled him to develop a strong international following, with invitations to compose and conduct from musical organisations around the world.
“It was like ripples in the pond, except in my case they spread inwards because in the early years my work was best known abroad and then it leaped back to Britain and then finally to Cambridge.”
John took up the post of director of music at Clare College from 1975-79, building its international reputation and composing his Gloria while he was there, but he retired “with regret” from the role to concentrate on composition.
His famous Requiem followed in 1985 but then John suffered from ME, or chronic fatigue syndrome, from which took about seven years to recover and he chose to stop taking commissions. In 2001, his son was tragically killed while crossing Queens’ Road while a student at Cambridge. It was two years before he completed his next major work, Mass of the Children.
Today, he is often invited to create works for special occasions – notably the wedding of Prince William and Catherine Middleton, for which he wrote the anthem This Is The Day.
His latest work, Visions, released last October, was composed at the invitation of the 2016 Menuhin Competition. John describes it as “either a violin concerto with a choir thrown in or you could look on it as a choral piece”.
“It’s about visions of the holy city of Jerusalem, which is more than just a Middle Eastern city. It’s a symbol,” he reflects.
Although not one for looking back on work – “you can’t swim in the same river twice”, he notes – the Visions CD also features a rerecording of his Requiem to take advantage of advances in recording technology. It is performed by Cambridge Singers, the choir he established after leaving Clare.
His work remains hugely popular around the world – not least in America, which spawned some of the influences on his music: 20th century American songbook writers like Richard Rodgers, Jerome Kern and Stephen Sondheim. But his place in Cambridge music history is assured.
“Two years ago I had the great honour of conducting for the first time a concert at King’s College. I thought, well it’s taken me 50 years but it’s worth it – I’ve arrived. That was a lovely accolade and it came from Cambridge Summer Music Festival,” he says.
Rowan Williams shares a background at Clare College – he was made dean and a fellow there in 1984. He was arrested and fined for singing psalms during a CND protest at the Lakenheath air base.
“We’ve got a lot to talk about because truth to tell although we have met we don’t know one another personally all that well,” says John.
“We share a common background in a Cambridge college where music and the life of the chapel are very important and it will be a first opportunity to reflect about what that means in our lives. He, I’m sure, will talk about what poetry and music mean in his life and I’ll have a chance to talk about what church music means in my life.”
Despite falling church attendances, he is delighted to be witnessing a rise in the popularity of choral music. What does he put that down to?
“I think the choirs have got better. The standard has unquestionably risen hugely in my lifetime so it’s more of a pleasure and more people are going to be interested,” he says.
“Beyond that, recordings have brought it into people’s living rooms. It’s a click of a mouse away on Spotify or iTunes. And those who take part in a choir know, as Kingsley Amis said, it’s just about the most fun you can have with your clothes on.”
• Words & Music: Dr Rowan Williams and Dr John Rutter in conversation takes place on Saturday June 24 at 2.30pm in the Riley Auditorium at Clare College, Cambridge.
Tickets: £22 (students £12) include box office booking fee, from Cambridge Live on 01223 357851 or book at cambridgelivetrust.co.uk.