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Sing a song of Christmas
Composer John Rutter doesn't mind being known for his carols - after all, he lives off the royalties. Stephen Moss meets the man who likes nothing better than to touch hearts with a good tune
Friday 22 December 2000
With the possible exception of Santa, no one has a busier Christmas than John Rutter, though he favours a jumbo over a sleigh. In the past fortnight, he has conducted the Messiah and his own Magnificat at Carnegie Hall; hopped back to the UK to conduct the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra's Christmas concert at the Barbican; and then headed to Toronto to orchestrate the city's mass singalong. As composer, arranger and conductor, Rutter has become the musical equivalent of Dickens, synonymous with the season.
But it is as a writer of carols that he has really made his mark. He has written around two dozen - the best known are the Shepherd's Pipe Carol, Star Carol, Nativity Carol and Donkey Carol - and arranged a similar number. At this time of year, it is hard to escape his hummable, jolly, accessible songs. His larger-scale works - particularly the Gloria (1974), Requiem (1985) and Magnificat (1990) - are also well established in the choral repertoire, while the four volumes of Carols for Christmas which he edited with Sir David Willcocks remain standard texts.
Rutter, who is 55, is in the happy position of being able to live off his royalties. He gave up the post of director of music at Clare College, Cambridge, in 1979 to concentrate on composing, and no longer even works to commission, disliking the pressure it imposes. He runs his own professional choir, the Cambridge Singers, and his own record company, Collegium.
He realises that his identification with carols and Christmas has conditioned critical responses to his other works - his instrumental and orchestral music has been largely ignored - but feels no resentment. "I've become associated with Christmas, but I don't fight too hard because I have a special place in my heart for its music. It's the first music I remember actually enjoying when I was a kid, and as a member of my school chapel choir the carol service was the high point of the singing year."
He rarely writes carols now, but vigorously defends the form. "I point out to anyone who says they are a kitsch, naff art-form that they are actually a very old art-form. They are the first form of vernacular choral literature that we have in this country, because back in the 15th century when Latin was used for everything else in church, English was permitted for carols. Obviously the medieval clergy, stern though they no doubt were, had a soft spot for Christmas.
"Carols are a form of miniature and I like miniatures. I thought they were a charming, limited little art-form that reached out to people. A lot of people who are not touched by choral music for the rest of the year often find that Christmas music touches their heart."
He is intrigued by the history of carols and the unpredictable ways in which a canon has developed. "Carols have the most variegated history," he says, "from those which go back centuries to those like Silent Night, which only really became popular when Bing Crosby sang it in a movie called Going My Way in 1944. They're an extraordinarily mixed bunch, and a lot of them have been messed around with over the years."
Rutter was a chorister at Highgate School in London, where he was a contemporary of John Tavener. "It was a hotbed of musical activity," he recalls, "and had a boys' choir that not only sang within the school but got asked to do things like the recording of the War Requiem, so I was actually in it under Benjamin Britten. I think we knew that we were touching the hem of history's garment."
He sang in a performance of Carmina Burana at the Proms when he was 11, which proved another defining moment. "It gave me a taste for music-making, for audiences, and for the special magic that voices and instruments create when they are put together. I've always loved words, so for me composition and performance have always been bound together. I'm not sure I wouldn't really have fitted better in the 18th century, when musicians were all-rounders: you were composing one moment, conducting the next, and then thumping the choristers around the ear after that. I've a feeling that in our age of specialisation musicians don't have quite as much fun as they did then."
As teenagers, he and Tavener were already composing. "We were happily filling sheaves of manuscript paper without thinking there was anything unusual about it. It seemed a natural thing to do. Our director of music expected us to compose in the same way that you might write a weekly essay. It was never something I felt inhibited about."
Rutter wrote the Shepherd's Pipe Carol when he was 18, and many more in his 20s. He was composing jolly, tuneful Christmas music in the 1960s, when serialism held sway, but being irredeemably out of fashion didn't bother him. "I've never worried about fashion because if you're never in fashion, you can never go out of fashion. I've got a terribly weak sense of the here and now: what's the opposite of a fashion victim?"
Carols seemed a natural course to take for someone who wanted to write accessible music. "I loved singing at Christmas and, as a classically trained composer, what do you do if you like writing tunes? I'm not a pop-song writer and middle-of-the-road music is long gone, so that only leaves a few corners of compositional activity where it is still OK to write a hummable tune. Musical theatre is another one, but I've never got into that because I've never met the right librettist. I've always loved the theatre, but as a student I fell in more with a church-musicky crowd rather than a Footlights crowd. If I'd fallen in with the Footlights people, it might all have gone very differently."
He studied music at Clare College and became its director of music when he was 30, but the success of his Gloria in the US led to a flood of commissions and he gave up his fellowship to concentrate on composition. America has always been well disposed towards his work: the Gloria received hundreds of performances in the late 1970s, the Magnificat was written for Carnegie Hall, and he is in great demand there as a conductor.
"There are fewer prejudices about the style of contemporary music in the US," he says. "They have a very pragmatic approach: they want newly written music but it doesn't have to conform to the latest correct contemporary style. When serialism was big in Europe, there were large parts of America where they couldn't have cared less about it, and so if I did write music that happened to have tunes in it, nobody thought any the worse of it, whereas here it was sniffed at."
Rutter found that getting commissions was a mixed blessing. "People tend to want more of the same; they want you to repeat yourself," he says. "It's a very exceptional patron who says: 'You've done this, now see if you can do that.' I haven't often had that happen to me."
He wrote music for TV, but has given that up too, saying it is unfair merely to dabble. One of his carols, What Sweeter Music, was used in a Volvo commercial in the US, but he sounds suitably contrite about it. The success of his compositions appears to have given him complete freedom, and allows him time to run his choir and record label. The 24-strong choir only comes together to record. "I made the decision very early on with terrific regret to restrict our activities to recording," he explains. "We did one tour of the US which was euphoric in terms of the reception, but like any professional choir tour it lost money. Without the whole apparatus of sponsorship, which I didn't want to get into, and running an office..." He tails off, perhaps contemplating those painful impositions.
Rutter likens himself to Vincent Price: he would like to be seen as an all-round artist, but audiences always imagine him playing Dracula. "If people know you in one context, they find it hard to think of you in a completely different one. Once you are known as John Rutter, the carol man, if I suddenly wanted to do a threnody for Auschwitz, people would say: 'There must be some mistake, it can't be the same guy.' But taking the long view, I'm not sad and regretful, because these small things have gone around the world and made friends for me among all kinds of people. If I go and guest conduct somewhere, people who've never met me call me John immediately because they feel they know me. The carols are my calling cards."
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