John Rutter interviewed by Alan Macfarlane 28th January 2009

0:09:07 Born in London in 1945; parents lived over the pub run by my grandmother opposite Baker Street tube station, 'The Globe'; like many people my parents couldn't find somewhere to live at the end of the War and gratefully accepted the rather nice flat above the pub; we lived there for the first ten years of my life; it was a busy part of London but only five minutes from Regents Park which was, and still is, idyllic; remember Queen Mary's rose garden where we would sometimes walk; not very far from Hampstead Heath where my parents moved when I was ten; for the first time they were able to afford a mortgage and a car of their own, a Standard 8, which was a proud possession; they did not have much money; my father worked in industrial chemistry; like many people in the Depression he had missed the opportunity to go to university and had left school to help his mother in the family business; he made up for that later through London University where he was able to do a PhD; I remember when I was small, him with his papers set out on the table; his subject was paper chromatography which meant little to me except it involved round circles of blotting paper called chromatograms; he became Dr Rutter during my first decade; my mother stayed at home and looked after me; I was nine when my sister was born and then they needed to move to something larger; at that point we went to live just off the Finchley Road, a little nearer to Highgate School where I had just started; it had been my father's old school, a boys school where there was a strong musical tradition; by that point it was apparent that I had a strong musical inclination; I am told that somebody came to the house and heard me singing when about seven or eight, and noted my keen musical ear; asked my parents if they had considered putting me in for a choristership; I don't know why but I refused to do the audition; I think my parents knew that I didn't want to live away from home; what they did do was send me to a school where there was a fine chapel choir and strong musical tradition; that is where I began my serious schooling at the age of nine; I had previously been to a local nursery school; we sang hymns in assembly every morning, my first experience of group singing; I realized that I really loved it; I was always hopeless at sport, but the singing lesson or the assembly at the start of the day were always the high points of my school day; I enjoyed other lessons, but music was what made the day special

6:11:11 I am short-sighted and started to wear glasses at eight or nine; the short sight was inherited from my mother; I saw the blackboard in kind of impressionist blur so it is surprising that I did as well as I did; I think they spotted this and I first of all moved to the front and then had an eye test; my eyes have not got any worse since my early twenties; I suppose the upside of my short-sightedness is that my night vision is good; my father was typical of his generation, had had a middle-class upbringing in Newcastle where his father had been a marine engineer; my father was rather reserved and quiet, a scientist by training, and rather discontented in the job that he did; he worked for various of the food industry giants, finally Cadbury's, and spent his whole working life in a job he really didn't like; his hobbies were important to him as a result; he loved target shooting, which I find inexplicable; at weekends he would go off to Bisley with me, expecting me to be impressed, which I wasn't; he tinkered with other hobbies, some of which were aimed at making money, none of which did; in the late 1950's there was a craze for model planes and he designed a rocket fuel, a hobby I shared to some extent; he later became interested in free-lance chemical research; his world was not my world; he did take me to his laboratory and showed me microscopes etc.; I was fascinated, but it never took, though at some time when young I thought I would be a scientist like my dad; he, in turn, did not really belong to my world of music; he was fond of it but never had any musical training; he could play by ear rather badly but never sought to improve his technique; I think his taste only ran to the dance band hits of his youth; later I found out, but not until after his death, that he was very proud of my achievements; he was possibly more overtly affectionate with my sister, perhaps because she came along later and unexpectedly, or because she was a girl, perhaps because I was quite difficult and reserved myself; my mother was impulsive and emotional; she had hoped for an education but because of the War it was denied her; she was younger than my dad and at the time might have gone on to some professional training in acting, which was what she really wanted to do, but the War came and she had to work; she found a job for more or less the rest of her life as a telephonist because she had a lovely cultured speaking voice; her mother was a publican and had originally been from the East End; there was a bit of old cockney in my dearly loved grandmother's voice which neither my mother nor her sister inherited; my mother worked for Western Union in the heart of the City during the war, a very dangerous place to be; thus she was thwarted, partly by the War, partly by motherhood as they couldn't afford childcare; she did act in an amateur capacity and I remember going to productions that she was in where her talent was quite highly praised; later, when I went to university, she decided to do GCSE's and a couple of A levels; I admire her greatly for that; she was a loving mother; because she knew absolutely nothing about music, neither she nor my father were ever anything but encouraging, but they could not warn me that it is a rather precarious profession where only the very talented will succeed; in some ways they were the best kind of parents if I couldn't have parents who were professional musicians; I think that I had a clear sense that music was what I wanted to do from very early on

14:56:16 Began to learn on an old, out of tune, upright piano; it was on the top floor and had somehow been winched in as it certainly wouldn't go down the stairs again; I was probably about four or five when I discovered it; I raised the lid and began picking away at the keys and discovered a world that somehow was my world; the interesting thing was that I played by ear tunes that I had heard on the radio or hymns I had sung at nursery school; I always preferred making up things of my own than playing what had already been written; before I was learning music in any formal sense I was improvising and giving fantasy titles to my improvisations; somebody then bought me a book of scales and not long after, my parents realized that this was something that was taking wing in my heart; I was sent to a wonderful lady, rather stern and forbidding, called Mrs Melville, and I had a weekly lesson with her in Kentish Town; she realized that I was never going to be a great pianist but I did have a nice voice; she concentrated more and more on giving me songs to sing and accompanying me; the sad thing was that by the time I really wanted to play the organ at fourteen, it was really too late; I never had a strong desire to play another instrument as I already knew I preferred writing and singing; it all took off when I went to Highgate School; we had a fine music master in the junior school called Martindale Sidwell who was the Director of Music at Hampstead Parish Church which was almost like a cathedral in the standard of its choir; it was customary then for quite a few ex-King's choral scholars who were in London to join that particular choir; he came into Highgate Junior School and helped to teach me singing and tried to recruit me for the church choir but for some reason I resisted; I would have learned from it; music was quite an important part of the curriculum throughout the school and really it is to school rather than home that I owe my early instruction

19:25:22 I started junior school at ten and progressed to the senior school almost on my thirteenth birthday; it was mostly a day school with about a quarter boarding; I was a day boy and started going by bus, and later by bicycle; I was very lucky because my parents could barely afford it; I won a scholarship on entry to the senior school which did lower the cost considerably, but my mother wasn't earning until a little later; my father's salary was probably fairly meagre despite his qualifications, but I think they really did want to give me a good education, so I owe them a great debt; my sister was fortunate in that Camden High School for Girls was a state school but with a high reputation academically, so she got her education free; my parents could scarcely have picked a better school for me because the school choir was really renowned at that time; we were the choir of choice for symphonic works done in London that needed a boy's choir - 'Carmina Burana', the Mahler Third Symphony, and most famously, the Benjamin Britten 'War Requiem'; we were called in because we were good and local; I vividly remember that it was a great day when we were chosen for the recording of the 'War Requiem' in 1963; by that point my voice had changed but I got in as a rather squawky alto; to just be a fly on the wall at an event like that where we knew musical history was being made was extraordinary; that wouldn't necessarily have come to me if I had gone to a cathedral choir school; I would have had other experiences, but we did have a fine school chapel choir where we did cathedral-type repertoire, so I got to know quite a lot of the same music Sunday by Sunday; we had to attend on Sunday for the boarders' service, and every morning we had a fifteen minute act of worship; it didn't in the end make a religious man out of me but it gave me a working repertoire of a couple of hundred hymns, large chunks of the Bible, bits of the Psalms, all of which are in my mind still; mine was the last generation which experienced the King James Bible; the New English Bible came in during my sixth form years; we had a slightly avant-garde chaplain who thought we should experience the shock of the new; all of us groaned because, ignorant and young as we were, we appreciated the rhythms and cadences of fine English; those were still the days when public reading was taken seriously and members of staff and some boys read every morning; it was a remarkable school which academically did a very decent job with all of us; I disliked the sport and was made to do more than I wished as I thought it a waste of time; perhaps, mistakenly, I thought I didn't want to waste time on things that weren't going to be relevant in my later life; Cambridge followed on in a very natural sort of way because my Director of Studies in the sixth form in modern languages, John Dare, had been at Clare; he later became Headmaster of Bideford Grammar School; he was fairly young and had been at Clare in the 1950's and suggested it to me; it chimed with what I was beginning to think; my first thoughts about Cambridge came with hearing King's College choir on Christmas Eve, but also from the recordings; we had a number of them in our school record library from the Boris Ord era and the early David Willcocks era; I remember thinking I want to be where all this happens; something in me said I was not going to apply to King's as I was intimidated by its reputation; also my Headmaster was adamant that I should apply for a scholarship in modern languages which was half of what I was doing for A level, the other being music; he discouraged music as being very chancy and I actually did the A level by subterfuge in collusion with the Director of Music, Edward Chapman; by the time I met him at Highgate he had been teaching there for the best part of forty years; he had been organ scholar at Pembroke, Cambridge in the early 1920's and he remembered being the last candidate examined for the degree of Bachelor of Music by Stanford, who was then Professor of Music; Chapman came down from Cambridge, taught briefly at Portsmouth Grammar School, then came to Highgate where he taught for the rest of his days; he obviously thought Cambridge was the place where I should go, and encouraged me to do music; the problem was that my musical gifts were not as apparent as if I had been a performer; I was at school with John Tavener who is now hugely noted as a composer, but at the time in the school was thought of equally as an extraordinarily gifted pianist; we also had Howard Shelley, another fine pianist, who later won all kinds of awards for his recordings of Rachmaninov; I was less obviously gifted; I composed but felt under the shadow of John Tavener; actually, several of us composed; it was encouraged by Edward Chapman who himself learnt composition from Charles Wood, Stanford's successor here; that was in the honourable tradition of the organist-composer, which has quite died out now as organists are too busy and specialized; Charles Wood, as Director of Music at Caius, was, and so was Edward Chapman, who was a good organist and would compose quite regularly; he understood voices and instruments, and what worked, and had a lovely sense of text-setting; had he chosen to devote himself to composition he might have become quite noted; there was quite a clan of active musicians at Highgate; of the school which numbered 650, almost half were in the concert chorus; not only was there every encouragement to compose but also to hear our work performed; there was an annual school music competition where you got extra points for the number of instruments you included in the instrumental ensemble class; there were twelve houses in Highgate School and therefore there were at least twelve active arrangers under the terms of the music competition; when I look back it was remarkable, and many of us became professional musicians, not just Tavener and Shelley, but Andrew Lloyd Webber’s orchestrator David Cullen who was actively composing at the time I was there; Brian Chapple who specializes in writing educational music; one of the reasons I got into composition professionally was because I was encouraged to think of it as normal; encouragement is important, and Edward Chapman, to whom I would shyly hand in my compositions, would give me a sharp critique but never a discouraging one; I remember him writing glowingly in a school report at a time when I was getting quite bad ones; thought it was a good reason for going on with music as I had someone championing me; he wrote that he thought that my talent would take me into composition and that I would go to America; extraordinarily prophetic as quite a lot of my career has taken place in America where my work was recognised almost before is was widely recognised here; another thing I remember him saying was that when I was at Cambridge I should get to know David Willcocks; I didn't have to try as I was placed in his harmony and counterpoint class in my second year; I think it is fair to say that David talent-spotted me; I look back at the huge debt I owe to Highgate and the friends I made there; somehow composition became cemented into me at an age when a lot of young people would have doubts; I did think of playing for safety career-wise; in the mid 1960's we probably didn't worry as much about careers as we do now; there was fairly full employment and one sort of assumed that a graduate would find some sort of job; I don't think that until I found that my work was beginning to sell that I thought I could make a living from it

34:34:13 I am friend, fellow traveller, and agnostic supporter of the Christian faith; in my early days, people described themselves by default as Church of England if they didn't really have any religious affiliation; my father's family were Quakers, something his sister clung onto until the end of her days, but he lost that and never attended church or spoke of anything religious until the end of his life; then he began attending the nearest church to their home in Finchley Road which was actually Presbyterian; I think he sought Confirmation then; I had not done so when at school where the Chaplain felt it had to be a positive decision; don't remember whether I was disinclined, lazy or rebellious, and I didn't like the Chaplain, but I didn't; I sang in the chapel choir and was always interested in religious studies, but somehow being a non-joiner became a habit; although I think I probably was religious in quite a powerful sense when I was young and into my twenties, not least because I felt so lucky as my career began to take off and things began to go well for me; as a composer you are a member of a pretty elite club; each night I would give thought to how lucky I was and to others who were not so lucky - a kind of theology of gratitude; probably can't take it very far because what happens when something goes wrong in your life? - the sense that there must be some benevolent deity behind all this is a bit like American religious thought; when I began to travel to America I started to meet an awful lot of Christians; some of them were good-time Christians who thought they were blessed by God because they were uniquely good people; the American faith world contains some of the very finest and most searching of theology and religious thought and practice, and some of the worst; I have experienced the full spectrum; religion matters intensely to Americans which I found out quite quickly; I respect that, and all religious faiths, but if I wanted to be honest about my own faith journey it has been backwards over the years; I am afraid what slightly began to sow the seeds of doubt was seeing the absolute certainty of religious adherents in America, and some of the harm that that certainty could lead to; I started by thinking there must be many paths to God and went from there to a rather tougher position which is that the universe is basically numbers, and in some sense mathematical and a lottery; if there is a controlling deity he is a bit like a Mafia don who is capable of doing good and charitable things, but also almost takes pleasure in doing malicious and harmful things, sowing the seeds of long-running dissent and problems; that is hard to reconcile with the Christian concept of a loving God; I don't find it helpful either to say that you have to have a personal relationship with Jesus; numerous of my religious friends say that if you are not born again and if Jesus is not your personal friend, then you are not a true Christian; I always remember the words of the Rev. Professor Charles Moule, a most searching theologian, who said he was perfectly sure he had only been born once; my personal dislike of the evangelical mindset is the style of worship and thought that it goes with, which completely runs counter to everything I have been trained to believe as somebody who has had the kind of education I have had; people sometimes have asked me whether the fact that my son was killed affects my faith position; it happened in 2001 when he was nineteen and a student here at Cambridge, and he got run over crossing Queens’ Road one night; completely unforeseen and random, but I think that the answer is no, as by then I wouldn't have described myself as a believing Christian; on the other hand, you have to consider the alternatives; a world without any churches or space for religious thought or contemplation, or based only on material values, would be a hell; in a sense, if you believe the specific doctrines of the faith, I think that just the statement it makes about how man should not live by bread alone, is immensely important; music is a part of that because it is useless in a literal sense, you don't have to have music to survive, yet it has always been there; imagining a world without it is impossible, as is a world without faith; even though you might say that religion is an invention of man, I don't think it invalidates its worth; why I think that we create a God that suits us is that I began to visit American communities, and see different churches of many denominations; if you meet Southern Baptists, they believe in a God that doesn't go in for much rational thought, a God that is judgemental and supports Republicanism; on the other hand, if you go to a major university you might find a very different image of God in the university chapel; it began to look to me as if the whole edifice of religion was a man-made construct; I do remain hugely sympathetic to the church, its music, its liturgy, its traditions, and, with some caveats, its ministry; on the whole, the Church I was baptised into, is trying to do good in a difficult situation, and is making a statement on behalf of qualities like compassion, forgiveness, charity, that everybody would support; I would be heartbroken if the Church of England closed its doors tomorrow; I hope to be buried in a country churchyard with a funeral service according to the 1662 Prayer Book, and all my favourite pieces of music; I suppose that is wanting it both ways - both the trappings without necessarily subscribing to the doctrine; I think there are quite a lot of people like me; Vaughan Williams was similar in that he had a sense of generalised spirituality which was triggered by things like standing on top of the Malvern Hills and contemplating the beauty of nature, or walking through the west door of a cathedral and being awestruck by the grandeur and mystery of the building, or being inspired by 'Pilgrim's Progress'; I think he would not have called himself a Christian, yet his life was steeped in Christianity at every point; I am like that and my moral compass probably does derive in large part from Christian ethic and teaching; I owe Christianity a huge debt and it is rather ungrateful of me not to believe in it more

48:54:19 Stravinsky said that when he wrote the 'Rite of Spring' that he was just a vessel through whom the music passed; that was really the debate at the heart of Peter Shaffer's play 'Amadeus'; if you believe that there are some humans who are chosen to be a conduit then why is it that that particular job is given to the undeserving as well as to the deserving; there is no answer, but I do think that there is such a thing as genius; if I didn't believe that I think that I would pack up; I haven't got it, but it does reveal itself; it is not the same thing as talent; genius is something that transforms life, is memorable and you never forget it; music is a very good way of expressing it; mathematics must be another because in both cases they are rather pure; music is pitched sounds which vibrate in strict arithmetic ratios, and the stricter the ratio, the more beautiful the sound; the mystery of a major chord is extraordinary; the ancients believed that this in some way tied in with the music of the spheres and the order of creation; I'm not sure that there isn't something in that; I don't know why some composers have genius, but I think they probably are in some way messengers from another world, and they are just chosen; usually those who have been chosen work very hard indeed, and those that don't squander their gift, are driven; we are all driven in the world of music and it is very hard for any of us to relax with other things; I have tried in recent years to take up the hobby of sound recording which I find absorbing and relaxing, but different, but there is always something, rather as I imagine an addiction would feel like, that calls us back to the writing table; I don't compose full-time and have always divided my energies between composition and conducting, and earlier on, teaching, I still feel bad if I haven't written anything for weeks or months; I am a quite reluctant composer as I don't terribly enjoy the time I spend doing it; it is very demanding and tiring, and only intermittently fruitful because many of us have days when nothing useful comes; you always try to write something, and I try to be disciplined about the hours that I keep when I am working on a piece; I always used to have excuses not to compose when I was at home as there were always distractions; I thought I would find somewhere completely isolated and that is where I go to compose, and only to compose; it is a small cottage five miles from where we live in Duxford and it is lovely; however, I can't tell you truthfully that the hours I spend there are all that happy; I am glad when the end is in sight, when I can see that it will only take another day or two; that is a great feeling, and having a piece finished is good; I feel relief for a while and then the process of performance begins and I may or may not be involved in that; sometimes I am due to conduct a premiere myself, and that is great, sometimes I am just there in the audience; it is an exciting moment when you hear the music for the first time in real life rather than just in your head; that is what we live for, I think, much more than any reaction anyone has to it, even though I have always been a commercial writer; it is really whether I am pleased with it; C.P.E. Bach put it rather well when he said that if you don't please yourself you can't hope to please anyone else; because I have been commercially successful people accuse me of just targeting my non-critical audience and writing down; I hope I don't do that; I do try to write simply because when I think back to my dad, he had no musical learning, but I think he could recognise music that spoke from the heart; you can write for a sophisticated and knowledgeable elite but I have never felt called to do that myself; possibly because I was for some time an only child, possibly because my parents weren't musicians, I have felt some need through the music I write to be accepted; Leonard Bernstein said the same thing; I do like to be inclusive and accessible

58:01:14 On genius, I put Bach at the top of the tree; Mozart, Beethoven, Haydn - there is a particular moment in the eighteenth century when somehow everything came together in a particular bit of Europe; Handel also, and Palestrina, but the great thing about Bach etc. was their universality, they had a go at just about every form of music then available; the Renaissance writers tended to focus on one thing and the same became true a bit in the nineteenth century, where you associate Chopin with piano music and he didn't ever try to write an opera; you can never grow tired of Bach and I think most musicians would tell you the same, that he had a mathematical IQ with noughts on the end, just to plan his works with the intricacy he was able to, and yet such a sense of joy and communication; that is really, for me, genius; it is different from talent for which you could try Telemann, for example, who was much higher in public esteem in their lifetime but look what has happened to him now; Vivaldi was, I think, a very diligent master craftsman with flashes of genius; his problem was lack of universality because I associate him with a certain kind of driving energy and vitality; he is absolutely Venice in the eighteenth century, he was admired by Bach, but I couldn't put him up in the same league; there is a very well filled second rank; I love the American song writers of the twentieth century like Richard Rodgers, Jerome Kern, Stephen Sondheim, but they never did anything else