World-renowned English composer John Rutter says it can be lovely when a conductor surprises him with a different take on one of his pieces. That happened in a high-profile way at the royal wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle in the spring of 2018 in Windsor. Rutter was at home that day – he jokingly says, “my invitation got lost in the mail,” and he hadn’t known the couple had chosen his piece The Lord Bless You and Keep You for the wedding.
“It was slightly different, I think, from how I would have conducted it myself. Yet it was perfect for the occasion, and it was beautiful,” Rutter said. “I’m actually rather glad that James Vivian, the terrific director of the choir at St. George’s Windsor, was in charge and not me – besides which, I didn’t have the stress and pressure of knowing that two billion people were watching!”
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It’s surprises like this that have contributed to a lifetime of success for the British composer and conductor. Over the years, Rutter’s works have been performed at several royal events and in venues around the globe, from the smallest schools to the greatest concert halls.
And Rutter has become widely regarded for his variety of compositions. This includes extended major works, Christmas carols such as Candlelight Carol and What Sweeter Music, and masterful anthems that have become standards, including For the Beauty of the Earth and Look at the World.
His talent has always been undeniable, but like others, he needed a helping hand to get started.
The Big Break
An unexpected moment at university began opening doors for Rutter. While an undergraduate at Clare College Cambridge, he was assigned to take a harmony class with David Willcocks, who was the director of music at King’s College and an editorial advisor for Oxford University Press. One day after class, Willcocks asked Rutter to bring in his compositions the next day. In Rutter’s pile was Shepherd’s Pipe Carol, which would end up being his first piece published by Oxford.
“It was thanks to his kindness that I first made the leap from being an aspiring composer to a published composer, and it would never have happened if I’d been assigned to a different harmony class,” Rutter said. “I would never have had the temerity to show my work to a publisher when I was only a student… but I didn’t have to because he did it for me, so that was a surprise.”
That first success launched a decades-long business relationship between Rutter and Oxford University Press. In the United States, the reception of Rutter’s compositions grew when companies like Pepper recognized his work.
“I’ve never forgotten that J.W. Pepper chose my Shepherd’s Pipe Carol as one of their picks of the month,” Rutter said. “As a composer, I’m very aware that if it wasn’t for organizations like J.W. Pepper I would just be sitting there writing these pieces and they would go pretty well nowhere in the United States.”
“When you write a melody, I think it’s nice if there’s a sense that it’s inevitable – that you can’t imagine it having been written in any other way.”– John Rutter
Making a Masterpiece
Rutter’s immense ability to fashion compositions with inspiring universal themes has been pivotal to this success. However, it isn’t easy to create such masterpieces. Rutter says he had many false starts with one of his best-known works, For the Beauty of the Earth. It wasn’t until he settled on the up a sixth and down a seventh opening that he thought he found his answer.
“It took me ages to uncover that’s what I was looking for,” Rutter said. “When you write a melody, I think it’s nice if there’s a sense that it’s inevitable – that you can’t imagine it having been written in any other way.”
Recognition for such pieces allowed Rutter to remain in a field that he said gave him “great joy,” but then some life tragedies would test his professional and spiritual strength.
In the mid-1980s Rutter had to slow down when he was diagnosed with a severe form of myalgic encephalomyelitis, commonly known as chronic or post-viral fatigue syndrome. In a letter published in The Spectator, Rutter said the illness “ruined seven years of my life.”
Rutter said the case started with chicken pox and then his health went downhill. Eventually, with the help of treatment and a changed diet, his health improved. But then about ten years after his recovery, the worst happened.
In 2001, his 19-year-old son, a first-year student at Rutter’s own alma mater Clare College, was struck by a car as he crossed the road after a choir rehearsal and died. Rutter’s creative output almost entirely came to a stop for two years. When he began composing again, the first large-scale work to appear was the deeply spiritual Mass of the Children.
Afterwards, Rutter continued to do what he says is most important for a composer: “Write the music that’s in your heart.” Among other pieces, he wrote A Flower Remembered (2011), which honored victims of the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan, and a six-movement work titled The Gift of Life (2015).
In the years since, Rutter has continued composing and conducting, being kept very busy, while always staying in touch with his spirituality. In 2019 at the conference of the American Choral Directors Association, where Pepper interviewed Rutter, he had been invited to create a short concert-opening piece. Choosing a text inspired by John Dryden, Awake, ye heavenly choirs, he paid tribute to the patron saint of composers, St. Cecilia.
“I think it’s rather lovely to think that there’s somebody who is watching over composers,” Rutter said.
“One person saying I want the world to all be one – that’s fine. But I think if one hundred people sing it all at once, then it really does hit home.”– John Rutter
A Changing Choral World
Over the years, Rutter says one thing that has given him great satisfaction is the rising standards of choral groups. He said that in the 1950s if you heard a choir singing an a cappella piece that began in G major, you’d have little confidence it would end in the right key. Listening to a choir sink in pitch was common. Today, though, he says this is not the case.
“Both at the professional level and the student nonprofessional level, the standard has risen so spectacularly over the past 50 years,” Rutter said.
In the midst of such talent, Rutter has worked to bridge a gap that he says has grown between songwriting and classical composing.
“In musical history up to about the late 19th century, if you didn’t have an outstanding melodic gift you wouldn’t last ten minutes,” Rutter said. “As the century progressed, different sorts of music split like a road that divides – on the one hand you get what you loosely call high art music, and on the other hand, you get popular music.”
Rutter says he tries to reconcile the parting of ways in his works by using his classical music training along with the influence of musical theater and popular music. As a listener, though, he enjoys many kinds of contemporary music and welcomes the diversity in today’s compositional landscape.
“We live in an era of the instant mix tape,” Rutter said. “It’s like cookery – putting in unexpected ingredients together just gives you something that you wouldn’t have had if you’d stuck with the tried and tested.”
One thing that has not changed for Rutter is the way choral music gives people the power to connect.
“One person saying I want the world to all be one – that’s fine. But I think if one hundred people sing it all at once, then it really does hit home,” Rutter said.
Aside from composing and conducting, Rutter also enjoys editing anthologies. He spent two years compiling the Sacred Choruses anthology. It was part of a larger project to create volumes of standard works in different genres of choral music. The newest 384-page volume includes 28 works.
Rutter says it includes some well-known works from composers like George Frideric Handel along with lesser known pieces by (for example) Lili Boulanger, Felix Mendelssohn and Erik Satie. Rutter studied paleography at Cambridge University, which enabled him to analyze old musical manuscripts and get them ready for publication in an anthology – a task he welcomes as a change from composition.
“Give me a medieval manuscript, and I’m happy for hours,” Rutter said.
Now that the project is finished, Rutter has turned his attention back to composing and conducting. “Ninety-five percent of the music that’s performed once in musical history soon falls away and gets forgotten,” Rutter said. “It’s not easy to craft a tune that the world will remember, but it is worth a try.”
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