John Rutter CBE: On being ‘Mr. Christmas’


John Rutter CBE, one of the greatest composers of his generation, who has constructed some of the most well-known choral works ever, developed a passion for music “from within” he tells me in an interview.

Without musical parents, he found “an old piano in my parents’ flat, which I discovered at an early age and began doodling away on.” As Rutter reflects, he has never stopped “doodling away”. He was a composer from the very start. “From the first I preferred making up my own little pieces rather than learning and playing what the great composers of the past had written, mainly because I wasn’t very good at that. Somehow I was more fluent at the keyboard when I was just making things up.”

It was really at school that this passion developed further, surrounded by pupils who would also become future successful musicians, such as David Cullen, who became Andrew Lloyd Webber’s orchestrator, and John Tavener, who went on to become one of the greatest ever composers. “And so, in a sense I grew up at school, thinking that composition was normal. I was shy in some ways, but then I had confidence and permission to compose and to get my little efforts performed.”

Rutter’s instincts for composition developed into creating actual pieces of music, from the age of “ten or twelve” when he was able to actually put his musical thoughts down onto paper. By the age of sixteen, he “wrote a piece called the Nativity Carol, which I think is my earliest published composition […] it’s one of those little milestones where I was able to say, well, I’ve sort of dipped my toes in the water and nothing terrible happened. And so maybe it’s okay to carry on.”

Rutter soon went to Clare College, Cambridge, where he instantly switched from studying Modern Languages to Music. At Cambridge, Rutter enjoyed “three years of freedom.” As a music student, he had loads of time to develop and shape his own journey, surrounded by many other musical geniuses.

…I was shaking from head to foot. He said, well, would you be interested in this being published?

Perhaps, for his own story, the most significant influence Rutter met was David Willcocks, the conductor and composer, who was the Director of King’s College Choir. Rutter describes being called to a meeting with Willcocks in his second year, to display his work. “He saw a little piece called the Shepherd’s Pipe Carol in the pile of pieces that I brought along. And he looked at that and looked at it again, and he looked at some of the other pieces. And of course, at this point, my mouth was dry and I was shaking from head to foot. At the end of it, he said, well, would you be interested in this being published? Well, golly, you’ re not going to say no, are you?” This moment, for Rutter, was a defining moment, and one that he puts down to a “stroke of luck,” since Willcocks was also editorial adviser to Oxford University Press. “My goodness me, I kind of got a fast track pass,” since being published was such a key stepping stone for any composer. Indeed, one of those works, the ‘Shepherd’s Pipe Carol’, found “in the pile of pieces that I brought along” would become one of Rutter’s most well known creations.

Despite this unquestionable luck, it cannot be ignored that clearly Rutter had shown himself to be a bright spark among so many other bright sparks at Cambridge, and so his success was fully deserved. The rest of Rutter’s career is testament to the fact that he never took opportunities for granted but made the most of them and ultimately reached levels that very few composers would reach.

Sometimes for absolutely no reason that any of us understand, you somehow have the ideas you’re looking for

I work in words, not musical notes, and so I tell Rutter how difficult I find it to understand the process of composition, and I ask him what his creative process involves. Rutter responds by saying “it’s the one question none of us can answer.”

“It’s completely mysterious […] The thing is, we’re trying to control ideas flowing from a tap that we don’t know how to turn on or off. […] Sometimes for absolutely no reason that any of us understand, you somehow have the ideas you’re looking for.”

John Rutter’s ideas have blossomed into some of the most beautiful pieces of music ever written, from ‘The Lord bless you and keep you’, to ‘For the beauty of the earth’, as well as larger choral works such as ‘Gloria’, ‘Requiem’, and ‘Magnificat’. His works have become some of the most well-played compositions. The grandeur of his work has been reflected by its continued and longstanding inclusion in major royal events, such as the Coronation in which at least six musical works performed had been written by Rutter.

The name ‘Rutter’ has become, in the musical world, almost synonymous with carols. Rutter’s interest in carols started early, as demonstrated by his aforementioned undergraduate creation the “Shepherd’s Pipe Carol”. In the choral world, Christmas is not Christmas without the inclusion of Rutter’s works, whether they be the carols he has composed himself, or arranged.

Rutter was initially attracted to the Christmas carol at school because he “just loved the feeling of celebration, of togetherness, because you could be sure that everybody’s parents would show up and they would be beaming proudly in the front row and they would sing lustily with heart.” For Rutter, though Christmas can be a time of “happiness” but also “stress and a time of loneliness”, “ideally, it’s a time of hope and a time of joy. And I think I bought into that at quite an early age, and it was only a short step really from singing Christmas carols to composing and sometimes writing the words of carols on my own.”

Writing Christmas carols enabled Rutter to right a sweet, melodic tune that people would enjoy. “Carols kind of gave me permission to be melodic and to write tunes, and it gave me the opportunity to write music that was positive, hopeful, gentle, joyous […] Carols have given me the opportunity to express something of what I feel about music and about life, really.” Rutter’s fondness for carols is clear, and is perhaps part of a broader aim on his part to bringing joy and sweet melodies to the ears of all who he his music, whether they be carols or his other work.

Carols have given me the opportunity to express something of what I feel about music and life, really

Rutter’s work has indeed brought joy to countless millions across the planet, but I wonder if Rutter knows the secret to such success. In short, Rutter says he “doesn’t really know.”  “If knew the secret, I would write a book about it and sell it […] I would say this advice to any composer. Never try to be popular. Don’t write down […] it doesn’t hurt to be sincere. I think most composers that I know are sincere and writing what they really do feel in their hearts.”

Words are so central to Rutter’s work. Yet, so often, these words are sacred. I ask how Rutter reconciles this with his own lack of Christian faith. He tells me that part of being a good composer is to have a “sympathetic relationship to the religious faith of whoever wrote the text.” He compares it to being an actor. He must enter into the character. “And so I’ve always been comfortable with religious texts, and mainly I think because some of them are so beautiful and they just have such depth of vision behind them.” Rutter is, however, keen to emphasise the importance of his secular works.

Rutter has cemented himself amongst the greats of music. Few composers have created music that have attracted such popular recognition, whilst staying true to the craft. Rutter has been working on his craft ever since he sat on front of that piano that happened to be in his parent’s London flat. It was here that the magic began, and it has continued until the present day. He is still relentlessly dedicated to this most wonderful of crafts, composing and conducting around the world. The very fact that the Royal Albert Hall hosts ‘John Rutter’s Christmas Celebration’ reinforces his continued popularity within the world of music, and the legacy he continues to build.

Image: vocalessence via Wikimedia Commons

One thought on “John Rutter CBE: On being ‘Mr. Christmas’

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