Music and Beyond: Thinking music out loud with John Rutter

John Rutter

John Rutter is one of the leading composers of choral music working today. As such the music he has written for other kinds of  instruments, such as the piece Visions composed for the Ottawa violinist Kerson Leong, is less well known.

“Writing for instruments is part of the resume. I have probably would say 75 to 80 per cent of of the music I have written has been choral or vocal. That doesn’t imply that I’m not interested in orchestral or instrumental music, it’s just really that a career takes the course that it takes,” he said in an interview in advance of his first ever concert appearance in Ottawa on Sunday and Monday at Dominion-Chalmers United Church.

On that program, in addition to the Canadian premiere of Visions, will be another instrumental piece.

“It’s quite a lightweight little thing called Suite Antique for flute, harpsichord and strings. It’s music for a summer’s evening.”

The imbalance in his career between music for voice and music for instrument, he said, is one reason “I no longer do commissions as such. I respond to invitations and suggestions. Visions was just exactly that. I stopped doing commissions for exactly the reason you are pinpointing. That it can lead to more of the same.

“What I liked about the opportunity to write Visions, and why I said yes, was precisely because I had never had a chance to write for a virtuoso solo violinist before.

“I hope I can write for any instrument.”

And he writes in many different styles.

“It’s a bit like an actor who would be happy to play many different roles. I see myself in that kind of way. I hope that I’ll always speak, in the end, with my own voice, but I use a range of styles. I have never been committed to one style.”

He does, he admits, like melodic music.

“That is something that I have never shut out from my compositional language. I’m not really a great explorer, I leave that to other composers to discover new sound worlds and to take people to places they’ve never been before.”

Rutter has thought clearly about where he fits in the musical scheme of things.

“I think I am more the kind of composer Handel was. He just took the sounds and styles that were in the air and made something personal out of them rather than Bach who was forever exploring the furthest reaches of counterpoint and pointing to new worlds.”

The operative word then is eclectic. He also uses another word to describe himself, but not without caution. That word is accessible, a word, he says, that can be a term of favour or abuse.

“I don’t think it need be a term of abuse because I don’t see any reason to shut your audience out. In the end you have to write what you have to write and you should never have to write down to people. I hope I don’t do that. At the same time, music is there to be appreciated and enjoyed.”

He has taken some shots over the years, however, because his music is accessible and popular. But Rutter remains unaffected and frankly unapologetic. 

“The thing is whatever you write you’re not going to please everybody. The best advice I was ever given about composition was when I was in school from my director of music who was a very wise old man and a fine musician. He said, ‘Write the music that’s in your heart and be true to yourself’. It’s not original advice but at the time it was quite brave advice.”

It was brave because when Rutter was a young scholar, the music world was in the grip of what he calls the avant-garde.

“There was a kind of Stalinist atmosphere that you had to write in this approved way.”

Rutter was certainly not doing that. It wasn’t in him.

“Although I have always been keenly interested in what is going on at the cutting edge of new music, I have to say that if I have a gift for writing, that’s not the gift that I have got.

“You have to be grateful for the gifts you do have. I have never had any difficulties starting work on a new piece even back in the day.”

He then quoted Arnold Schoenberg who once said ‘There is still plenty of good music to be written in C major.’ And there’s nothing wrong with trying to write some of it, Rutter said.

“The tide of history has gone out on him, but that comes across as one of his more durable thoughts.”

Today we live in a world when many strands of creation are happening and available all at the same time. Rutter finds that refreshing.

“It would be a very brave cultural commentator who said there is one mainstream today, in any of the arts. We have plural streams of endeavour and there are all kinds of labels stuck on them.

“And younger audiences, from what you might call the Spotify generation, do seem to have eclectic tastes. People who only like one thing are becoming rarer.”

That does create a different kind of problem. How does one find the gold amid all the noise?

“That’s gotten harder than ever, least of all in the arts. In the world of politics and public affairs we have the gamut of bad news every day.

“That was something that would never have troubled Bach. If there had been a famine in Africa, he wouldn’t have known about it. Still, we have to learn how to discriminate and sometimes you just have to say whatever it is doesn’t appeal to me. But it’s good if we can stretch ourselves and discover new things.

“On the whole,” he said, “the culture now is more plural and healthier than when I was starting.”

He does worry that popular music has grown too large and is pushing what we call classical music off to one side.

“The classics are the bedrock of our cultural experience and you build from that. One has to always remember that we shouldn’t lose sight of the heritage that we have all been fortunate to enjoy.”

So, despite mixed feelings about it all, in the end “I prefer the present to the past and I look forward to the future even more.”

And why wouldn’t he prefer the present. Choral singing is growing in popularity everywhere, it is truly a form of popular expression that is truly grassroots. 

“Choirs are a more flexible instrument than orchestras. There is 1,000 years of repertoire to choose from. Orchestras have 300 years. Indeed a choral program can embrace all music from Gregorian chant to the classics.

“The voice is the instrument you don’t have to pay for. Yes of course it has a technique like any other instrument, but whereas you can’t function in an orchestra unless you read music reasonable fluently and have studied whatever it is you are playing, anybody can join a choir at their level. It is potentially a very inclusive form of music making.”

And much of Rutter’s personal success is rooted in choral music.

His Magnificat, his Gloria, his Requiem and The Mass of the Children are played regularly, literally around the world.

The Ottawa audience will hear a performance of the Magnificat Sunday and Monday by three choirs the Elmer Iseler Singers, the Capital Chamber Choir and the Ottawa Children’s Choir..

“There is a sense in which a piece that you write grows up and leaves you,” Rutter said. “When you have just written something it is still your new baby and feel connected to it. I’m always happy to conduct Magnifcat and come back to it and have done so many times.

“It’s been featured on most of the last 30 seasons of Carnegie Hall that I have done. I would say (that today) it’s another score on the stand to interpret and perform as best I can. So in a way I can’t be the person I was when I wrote it in 1990, you can’t swim in the same river twice.

If it was blotting out other things that I have written and make it impossible to give anything else a listen. I’d probably be frustrated.” Much as years ago people associated him so strongly with Christmas, “that they thought I had never written anything for performance in the other 11 months.

“I think that has passed. The chemistry of every performance is different. You may think you are replicating but it won’t be the same. The performers change the piece. If I go where the speech patterns are different, the choral singing will be different. That’s healthy and stimulating.”

To that end he feels the Ottawa performance will not be quite the same “as any of the other 250 performances I have done.

“In the end we are all there to make music It is a social and collaborative venture and that’s precisely what I like about it. Composition is solitary. Not something I have the will power to do for 365 days a year. I think I’d go nuts.

To get together with others and make music justifies all the labour and effort and hours spent alone in my studio composing.”

John Rutter
Music and Beyond
Where: Dominion-Chalmers United Church
When: July 15 and 16 at 7:30 p.m.
Tickets and information:

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.