John Rutter and Tim Brown

In the summer of 2017, I had the distinct privilege of visiting John Rutter in his country home. John is widely recognized as the most popular, and the most published, choral composer of our day. We were joined by my longtime friend and colleague, Tim Brown – one of the great choral conductors of the British Isles. Both Tim and John are formerly Directors of Music at Clare College, Cambridge, and as such, truly brought choral singing to a very high bar worldwide.

What follows is our interview together delving into matters about the future of music-making, what choral music is all about, and other matters.

Jonathan Dimmock: I’m interested in talking about the heart of what music is, why we do what we do, and perhaps even looking at what the future of music may look like. The early days Western music came from a place of emotional expression – both the sacred world, and daily life in the secular world. Then, in the 19th century, we broke off into choral groups becoming separate and having their own identity outside of the Church. Then in the 20th century, this split became even more pronounced; and the Church’s survival into the future started to become a real question. Also, in the 20th century, we decided that music could be about an intellectual construct, regardless of whether it speaks to the heart. 

John, I would say that you may be the greatest melodist alive – which brings a lot of heart back into church music and the concert hall. So, I wanted to ask what your thought is about how music is evolving. Also, now that we are understanding the neuroscience of how music can be used as a tool to help society, I’d love to know your thoughts about that and how it may or may not inform your work.

John Rutter: I’m happy to give you some personal pointers from my own experience. I was once advised, at a young age, by a music director named Edward Champman, himself formerly a composition student of Charles Wood in Cambridge. Edward knew that I wanted to write music and also that I felt overshadowed by my classmate, John Taverner (clearly some sort of a genius). He gave me this advice: Don’t worry about what everyone else is writing; write the music that is in your heart. I always thought that was very good advice, and it stayed with me. This was the 1960s when the Avant-Garde was in full flower. And while I’ve always been fascinated by what’s happening on the cutting edge of music, I knew that wasn’t my particular gift. 

I think I’m half composer and half song-writer. And as the 19th century became the 20th century, in the world of concert music, a melodic gift was no longer wanted! Up until the 1880s, you wouldn’t have lasted 10 minutes as a composer if you didn’t have a melodic gift! But then, as other things began to develop instead, like the exploration of texture, sound world, structure, links with poetry, etc., in a way, melody crept out of the room and took refuge in the world of operetta, musical theater, Johann Strauss, jazz, folk, and eventually pop music. Melody is still alive and well, it’s just living somewhere else!

I always liked the idea of a tune. For me, a good tune is like a vector that can carry the message of the text right into the heart of the listener. If you want to make a text real to a listener, a melody is quite a good way of getting it there. 

So, not wanting to give up writing melodically, I found that choral music and church music was a place where I could do just that; and people were quite happy to have it. The critics were quite vocal that my music was out of step with what everyone else was doing, but I think those voices have died down now. (I mostly write the sort of music that doesn’t get reviewed by critics, anyway. My judges are now my fellow musicians, performers, audiences.) I’m certainly interested in contemporary art form music, but I’m not likely to start writing that way.

JD: Well the current neo-Romantic period we’re in has a great deal of interest in lushness.

JR: Sure. We are in the post-everything age; you can go whichever way you want.

When I grew up, in the immediate aftermath of WWII, Germany, which had had such an extraordinary musical tradition, was very much in ruins musically (as well as every other way). Composers like Stockhausen said he never wanted to hear a military march again, as long as he lived. When he was a child, this music was broadcast through loudspeakers on the streets of Germany! Germany ended up making a fresh start, not just with democracy but also with music. Boulez did the same in France. In Britain, there also needed to be a fresh start. 

In the mid-20th century, Vaughan Williams and William Walton had the dominant positions. Conducting was dominated by old men. This was particularly frustrating to the younger generation, represented by the brilliance of Benjamin Britten. I think a number of composers became disheartened. And our BBC also turned to “cleaning out the stables” in the William Glock era. He controlled music in the 1960s, transforming the Proms concerts series and the entire profile of music on the BBC. This station is very important – not really analogous to anything in the States.

So, I lived in a time of great turbulence and new beginnings. It’s been an exciting time! I’ve steered my course, not motivated by a career, but by an inner drive to write music. It’s found its niche.

JD: Do you find, when you are writing, that you’re trying to say something; or is music just music?

JR: If it’s strictly instrumental, I think music is music is music. I’m not trying to be like Shostakovich and tell the history of Russia within a symphony. But when I’m setting words, the main thought in my mind is to serve that text. Then I’m thinking about serving the performers and the occasion the piece will be part of. I like to get a mental picture of how the piece might fit in to its first performance. I try to enter in to the text and serve it, musically.

Tim Brown: It seems to me that singers really want to have melodies and structures that they can grasp easily. It doesn’t matter what anyone does, academically, or what composers do, in the instrumental field to be experimental, we will never develop singers that can sing difficult music.

JR: You’re up against the limitations of the human voice. Tim and I will remember a recording of the Ligeti “Lux aeterna” which was an interesting recording. We came out of it thinking it was rather wonderful. Did the choir enjoy it?

TB: Yes, but that was a recording experience. Giles Swayne taught at Cambridge for a number of years, and I interacted with him a lot. He’s noted for writing music that is quite difficult to perform, including a lot of choral music. And while he was associated with us at Clare College, his choral writing actually became much simpler. I think it was more attractive without being less personal.

This article to be continued next week.