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.

JD: Tim, as a conductor, are you conscious of trying to communicate any kind of affect or emotional state, or are you trying to bring an emotional state out of the singers, or are you trying to elicit a response from the people listening?

TB: You’re trying to serve the music. One wants to lift the music off the page, as you feel it, and present it to the audience.

JR: People often ask me about conducting my own music versus conducting other people’s music. For me, I actually prefer conducting music I haven’t written because there’s always the challenge of understanding it. Assuming the piece is written before the era of recording, I love the challenge of trying to tease out what the composer actually means to say. That is not a challenge when you’re conducting your own work.

I think of composers like Herbert Howells, beloved of nearly all church musicians. There are so many things I should have asked him while he was still alive! Questions about ritardando, parts that should stand out, whether the metronome markings are “sacred.” Although he did once say to me: “John, my metronome marks are always wrong. There’s a natural speed to music!”

And George Guest used to say: “Too fast a tempo trivializes; too slow a tempo debilitates.”

TB: I’m usually not interested in conducting something unless there is some emotional “premium” in it for me. Music is more than the correct notes at the correct time. It must have emotional depth.

JD: It seems to me that the whole point of our craft of music is to be able to communicate a level of emotion that text alone can’t do, nor can intellectual puzzling it out. There’s a mystery to it that we become the custodians of.

JR: The greater the music is, the more of it there is to capture in each performance. I haven’t conducted the B Minor Mass that many times, but I’m sure that, if I were to continue to do it, I would notice many things new each time. The one thing that a conductor must have, above all else, is a vision of the music. Even if the players think it’s dead wrong, you must have a vision that you transmit to the performers.

JD: It seems dangerously tempting, today, with the prevelance of YouTube and Spotify, to have duplicate performances of what we’ve heard already on YouTube. I wonder what you both think about the direction music is going. Are there any danger zones – in either the performance or the composing realm?

TB: Well from a performance point of view, recordings are incredibly dangerous. As you say, people tend to immitate recordings rather than create their own interpretation. And as you know, the recording process is cut and paste.

JD: And no longer resembles a performance!

TB: When I listen to recordings from the 20s and 30s, I find them mesmorizing. And the level of concentration was so much higher than it seems to be now. So often today’s recordings are about getting the intonation right and the precision of lining up the parts, yet you lose the raw-ness of the music.

JR: It’s just unfortunate that the CD culture created expectations of technical flawlessness. It irons out the idiosyncracies of different performers because now, people are usually just about 5% outside of the norm of interpretation. No one wants to risk getting too far out of line. In the old days the great virtuosi had very few opportunities to hear one another. You plowed your own furrow. Rachmaninoff went on tour, and Horowitz went on tour, etc.; and they developed their own styles which were not at all alike.

But on the other hand, it’s never been easier for young people to access great performances, or music, from any period. You can’t put the genie back in the bottle. In the field of choral music, there has been an extraordinary improvement in the technical standard you would expect from a choir.

JD: From the American perspective, the recordings from King’s College, from the 60s, probably changed how choral music was perceived in the States. The States has always had a bit of a poor step-sister self-image in the realm of Western Classical music, so there was a great deal of desire to emulate King’s College Choir. The result was both good and bad. The good was that the standards rose dramatically and quickly; the bad was that the shift in awareness of possibilities created a lot of frustration.

JR: I think David Willcocks saw his job, at King’s, as setting a standard. It was because of his military background that he communicated to his choir that they were his brigade. Every time they opened their mouths, they were being judged. As it were, their boots always had to be polished, and their belt shined.

JD: Then the work that the two of you each did at Clare, with the mixed-voice choir, actually seemed to set a new tone for what a mixed choir could be.

JR: It was a very exciting time, Jonathan. Clare was one of three colleges to become mixed – in 1972. Overnight it transformed the chapel choir. Instead of being an all-male group of altos, tenors, and basses, it suddenly had lovely soaring sopranos opening up all new repertoire. My mission, and very much succeeded by Tim, was to prove that there was no reason that adult females can’t do everything that boy sopranos could do.

JD: And that was so necessary, from an American point of view, to get that imprimateur of women and men singing together.

TB: There’s no reason to think that expert mixed choirs are a competition or a threat to men and boys choirs.

JR: And in the real world, by the 1970s it was becoming harder and harder to recruit young boys to become trebles, anyway. And given that probably 80% of liturgical choirs were mixed choirs, we were able to be a bit of a role model. Fortunately nobody torched the Chapel!

JD: I think you both paved the way for that quality of sound; and I really applaud you for it.

JR: The thing is, women can bring an adult sensibility.

JD: It seems to me that the emotional content is desperately needed in most Tudor music. Boys can certainly be taught musical shaping of phrases,;but when an adult can do that intuitively, because they bring their own life experiences to the fore, it seems to me that the music gains.

JR: Well I think it’s lovely to have both options.

JD: I want to talk about sight-reading. Sometimes it can be a bit of a curse if it precludes the possibility of spending real time with a piece of music, sinking into its depths, finding out what it has to say.

TB: Yes! That’s an increasing problem in England because we sight-read so much and are so adept at it.

JR: Well, in the orchestral world it’s all about money; rehearsals cost money. Most of the concerts you hear in London by the leading orchestras, except for the BBC, are working with only one 3-hour rehearsal.

TB: I was listening to an orchestral recording on a drive the other day, and I could imagine that the ensemble did the recording in two sessions; and on repeated listening, it was very obvious that they missed a lot of important details about the music. This is simply because they don’t have time to rehearse.

JD: Our culture is so used to instantaneous results. How are we going to interest young people in learning violin or piano?

JR: You don’t get quick results on a stringed instrument. But to the point about sight-reading in choral settings, our chapel choir system means that one has to get through a lot of music in a short time. It becomes more and more expected that you can Hoover your way through masses, motets, recital programs, etc. Whereas in the days of David Willcocks and George Guest, it was quite rare for chapel choirs to go on tour. But now, it’s commercially, and in terms of the outreach of the college, much more important to travel around, do lots of recital work, and record. That puts pressure on the singers to be able to do things right away.

TB: I must say that this is not true on the continent, where much more time is spent with the music, and there is a noticeable difference each day the ensemble lives with the piece. 

JD: In closing, with the direction choral music is moving, in general, do you think that choral music will detach and become mostly that of collegiate choirs, concert halls, and choral societies of various cities?

JR: It’s certainly true that those developed a big audience for sacred music as Art – music you can put on your stereo and chill out to. Probably church music is heard more often on discs and in concert halls than in church. And in England, there is a split between the music you will hear in cathedrals and collegiate chapels versus the music of the parish churches. Up until the 60s, it was more of a piece, culturally – albeit more elaborate and better done in the cathedrals and collegiate choirs. But now, the parish churches in England have mostly gone towards pop music, evangelical, and “worship songs,” completely different from the music of the cathedrals.  The risk to the cathedrals is that they are an apex without a base to the pyramid. And our cathedrals are all under financial pressure.

TB: In the past, the church was an important patron of the Arts. Composers wrote FOR the church. Now, many of the great composers don’t write for the church, as if it’s too trivial. The language of music has changed. 

JD: When I was young, sacred music was rarely performed in concert halls; but I think now it frequently is. No one thinks twice about this. Which tells me that the “sacred” arts are moving away from sacred spaces and into secular spaces. Very interesting!

You’ve both given me many things to think about. Thank you!