'I Regard Myself as a Song Writer First' - An Interview with John Rutter

An interview with John Rutter

St Paul’s Cathedral hosts a very special concert on Thursday 26 October when John Rutter, the nation’s – no, make that the world’s – favourite choral composer, joins forces with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra to perform a programme of music that, on one level, will delight his many fans and on another, has a deeply personal significance.

“Vaughan Williams’s Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, which we’ll be performing, was conducted by John Barbirolli at London’s Temple Church in 1962,” he explains. “It was exactly as Vaughan Williams would have wanted it performed. I adore it. And now, in our St Paul’s Cathedral concert, I’ll be conducting the RPO in a performance of it in the presence of the Temple Church choir. It’ll sound fantastic in the lush acoustic of St Paul’s.

“Another work is my piece, Hymn to the Creator of Light, which I dedicated to my friend, the composer Herbert Howells. It was performed at the unveiling of the Herbert Howells memorial window in Gloucester Cathedral in 1992.”

Fauré’s Requiem, which Rutter describes as “one of the 83 pieces I want sung at my funeral” will also be performed at St Paul’s – what the composer describes as “the perfect setting for the work”.

And there’s one more… Visions, another work by Rutter, is a four-movement showpiece for solo violin, string orchestra, harp and choir of treble voices, based on the theme of Jerusalem. It was composed at the invitation of the 2016 Menuhin Competition and premiered in private at the Temple Church by Kerson Leong, winner of the 2010 Junior Menuhin Prize, and the choristers of Temple Church. Those same forces will perform the work at St Paul’s Cathedral in what will be the work’s public premiere.

The music is inspired by Jerusalem and the Knights Templar. Vaughan Williams’s Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis is also an inspiration, especially so because of that Barbirolli recording in Temple Church. You can hear intimations of the work in Visions.

Indeed, the fourth movement, ‘The holy city’, is very RVW in sound and texture. Another movement, Lament for Jerusalem, was inspired by Menuhin and the rich, soulful playing of Jascha Heifetz. Rutter was interested to see, at that first performance in Temple Church, if the young Leong could rise to the occasion.

“He was fantastic,” he says. “He got it straight away and I had nothing to add.”

The piece has since been performed in Hong Kong and next year, will be performed in New York’s, Carnegie Hall.

Mention of New York prompts me to ask Rutter about his relationship with the US. I sense the country’s openness and uncomplicated spirit suits his musical style.

“Certainly, in the early stages of my career it was the US that welcomed me,” he says. “People there are not so worried about being at the cutting-edge of music as sometimes they are here and in Europe. They’re more inclined to suck it and see.

“I learned to cast off all my inhibitions working in the States. I wrote Gloria and Requiem for the US but in time, and to my astonishment, my smaller pieces were picked up in the UK and even performed in Anglican churches!”

Listening between the lines it’s clear Rutter is not deaf to the criticism he has faced from some quarters where he is perhaps not regarded as a ‘serious’ composer.

He makes no apology: “I’ve never been concerned with prevailing styles. I love a lot of cutting-edge music but my gift, if I have one, is not for writing that type of music.”

Instead, Rutter draws on a simple piece of advice given to him as a schoolboy by his music teacher at Highgate School: “‘Write the music that’s in your heart’, he told me; so I do. It’s not a competition; if it’s good, it’ll find its way.

“So I regard myself as a songwriter first, and you expect a songwriter to send you away after a concert, humming a tune.”

With the help of violinist Kerson Leong, baritone Matthew Brook, and the Temple Church and Bach choirs he’s looking forward to sending the audience at St Paul’s cathedral to their homes doing exactly that.

At the same time, he’s relishing the opportunity of renewing his relationship with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra which, he says, shares his work ethic (you can hear them together again in John Rutter’s Christmas Celebration on 6 December at London’s Royal Albert Hall).

“They have that wonderful ‘let’s get on with it’ approach to music making, which I have, too. The players’ attention and dedication to the music is total. I love that intensity of concentration when you can get everything right with only a few words of direction. We’re the same, me and the RPO.

“When people ask me: ‘how do you relax?” I tell them, ‘Musicians relax in the grave!'"

Written by John Evans

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