Composer / Conductor  John  Rutter

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


Born on 24 September 1945 in London, John Rutter is the son of an industrial chemist and his wife. He grew up living over the Globe pub on London's Marylebone Road, and was educated at Highgate School, where fellow pupils included John Tavener, and Howard Shelley. As a chorister there took part in the first recording of Britten's War Requiem under the composer's baton. He then read music at Clare College, Cambridge, where he was a member of the choir. While still an undergraduate he had his first compositions published, including the "Shepherd's Pipe Carol" which he had written aged 18. He served as director of music at Clare College from 1975 to 1979 and led the choir to international prominence.

In 1981, Rutter founded his own choir, the Cambridge Singers, which he conducts, and with which he has made many recordings of sacred choral repertoire (including his own works), particularly under his own label Collegium Records. He frequently conducts many choirs and orchestras around the world.

In 1980, he was made an honorary Fellow of Westminster Choir College, Princeton, and in 1988 a Fellow of the Guild of Church Musicians. In 1996, the Archbishop of Canterbury conferred a Lambeth Doctorate of Music upon him in recognition of his contribution to church music. In 2008, he was made an honorary Bencher of the Middle Temple while playing a significant role in the 2008 Temple Festival.

Rutter also works as an arranger and editor. As a young man he collaborated with Sir David Willcocks on five volumes of the extraordinarily successful Carols for Choirs anthology series.

He was inducted as a National Patron of Delta Omicron, an international professional music fraternity in 1985. Rutter is also a Vice-President of the Joyful Company of Singers, President of The Bach Choir, and President of the Association of British Choral Directors (ABCD).  He was awarded a CBE for his services to music in the 2007 Queen's New Year Honours List.

Rutter's compositions are chiefly choral, and include Christmas carols, anthems and extended works such as the Gloria, the Requiem and the Magnificat.

The world premiere of Rutter's Requiem (1985), and of his authoritative edition of Fauré's Requiem, took place with the Fox Valley Festival Chorus, in Illinois. In 2002, his setting of Psalm 150, commissioned for the Queen's Golden Jubilee, was performed at the Jubilee thanksgiving service in St Paul's Cathedral, London. Similarly, he was commissioned to write a new anthem, This is the day, for the Wedding of Prince William and Catherine Middleton in 2011, performed at Westminster Abbey during the service.

Rutter's work is published by Oxford University Press, and has been recorded by many choirs.

--  Names which are links in this box and below refer to my interviews elsewhere on my website.  BD  


Rutter was in St. Charles, Illinois (a suburb about 40 miles west of Chicago) in July of 1991 for the first annual St. Charles Art and Music Festival.

We met immediately after a rehearsal of his all-Mozart program, and his comments about it inspired my first question . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:   If you are in charge of the rehearsal, why would you be surprised that it ends early?

John Rutter:   Because that very rarely happens in musical performance.  All musicians end up at the Pearly Gates of Heaven and say,
More time, please.  More time, more time!  [Both laugh]  It’s a great tribute to the preparation that’s happened in advance of my arrival, that everybody here in St. Charles pretty much knew what I wanted to do before I did it.  I had sent rehearsal notes ahead of me, and I marked up all the orchestra parts, and everybody really slotted into place with great sureness and great speed.  I was impressed with them.

BD:   Was it just the technical work, or also the interpretative work?

Rutter:   The interpretative work is the hardest to explain ahead of your arrival, and that was what took the time.  The Requiem of Mozart, which is one of the two main works on our program, is complex because it looks back the stile antico.  

Stile antico (literally "ancient style"), is a term describing a manner of musical composition from the sixteenth century onwards that was historically conscious, as opposed to stile moderno, which adhered to more modern trends.

Stile antico has been associated with composers of the high Baroque and early Classical periods of music, in which composers used controlled dissonance and modal effects, and avoided overtly instrumental textures and lavish ornamentation to imitate the compositional style of the late Renaissance. Stile antico was deemed appropriate in the conservative confines of church music, or as a compositional exercise, as in J. J. Fux's Gradus Ad Parnassum (1725), the classic textbook on strict counterpoint. Much of the music associated with this style looks to the music of Palestrina as a model.

The great composers of the late Baroque all wrote compositions in the stile antico, especially Bach. His Mass in B minor has sections written in stile antico which contrast with up-to-date Baroque idioms. Later composers such as Haydn and Mozart also used stile antico. Beethoven's Missa Solemnis, written after the composer's study of Palestrina, is a late flowering of the style.

rutter Mozart was paying homage to the world of Handel or Lully in moments like the Rex Tremendae, which has a sense of terror, but in a very controlled and rather Baroque kind of way.  That style, which you find also in the Kyrie fugue, has to co-exist with what you would think of as Mozart’s more normal style, like the Hostias, which is pretty much like something that could have come out of one of the operas.   So the old and new co-exist in this kind of fresco of death.  It’s a very dramatic work, a work which, for me, is filled with what’s supposed to be the classic ingredients of tragedy, pity, and terror.  They’re all very much there.  The fear of the abyss hangs over the whole thing, and that is something where you feel a bit of a fool putting in rehearsal notes saying, Sing this as if afraid you are of the abyss!  This is something where the body language, and just a few thoughts expressed along the road can pretty quickly make clear what’s needed.

BD:   So this was really almost the ideal rehearsal, where everyone comes knowing their parts, and knowing the pitch and duration, and knows where everything goes, and you can make it from there to music.

Rutter:   Yes, you’re absolutely right.  The Fortieth Symphony, which is also on the program, makes a very good pair with the Requiem, because there’s a case for saying that it’s Mozart’s wild ride into the abyss.  It’s not a comfortable work.  It’s inexplicable to me that Schumann could have referred to it as full of elegance and grace.  He saw nothing much more in it than that.

BD:   [With mock horror]  You mean, there’s nothing elegant or graceful about falling into the abyss???

Rutter:   [Laughs]  Not a bit, no!  The last movement is a wild tormented ride there, helter-skelter, with no letup from beginning to end.  It’s all expressed within Mozart’s own language, which is basically a very controlled and beautiful language, but nevertheless, the drive that fuels it is something very dark and demonic that, for me, points right forward into the darkest recesses of the Nineteenth Century.  There is something almost Satanic about it, actually.  It’s remarkable that a Minuet, which is supposed to be one of the Eighteenth Century dances that’s possessed of grace and elegance, never has one single four-bar phrase in this work.  Mozart’s Minuet is all based on multiples of seven bars, and that sense of disorder turns what should be a dance on a formal occasion, into something almost grotesque and nightmarish.

BD:   So even if you aren’t aware that it’s seven bars, it’s upsetting?

Rutter:   Yes, exactly.  The whole work is full of asymmetries like that.  The first movement is all based on multiples of eleven, and that’s a limping meter, as it were.  If you add it all up, it’s remarkable that the whole movement lasts for 399 measures.  The recap starts at measure 266, and it is very cleverly planned, but all in multiples of irregular numbers.

BD:   Do you think he planned it that way, or did it just happen that way?

Rutter:   No, I’m absolutely certain he planned it that way.  I’ve studied that work quite a bit, and it’s just full of these kind of mathematical details.  It’s almost as if he felt that the more wild and disordered his idea, the more it needed to be expressed in terms of something that was planned with almost mathematical precision.  It’s a remarkable work.  That’s what ultimately makes it a classic, whereas the Symphonie Fantastique of Berlioz is a romantic work, one which, in a sense, doesn’t contain what it has to say within such a wonderfully ordered framework.

BD:   Now you’re most noted for composing, and conducting choruses, and yet we’re talking about instrumental works.  Do you get enough time to conduct instrumental works?

rutter Rutter:   I’ve made a choice that conducting has to come second to composition, because composition is my main urge, and has always been my main pursuit.  But performance and composition are very much bound up together.  There are many composers who are absolutely happy to just write what they write, and never go near a performance.  So, they have no hand in shaping it.  But for me, I was born singing, and that was my first experience of music making... that and playing the piano, and then the organ.  I was also born composing, and the two flowed into each other.  The way I’ve run my career, I’ve tended to take up more invitations to work with choirs and voices than with instruments, and I always have regretted that because I never have felt that instruments are in any sense a number two to voices... although I used to sing, whereas I don’t really play.  I thoroughly enjoy working with orchestras, and actually wished that I were able to create more opportunities to do so.  But it is really a matter of time, just as you say.

BD:   Since you’re still really in the early stages of your career, I trust you can adjust things as you go along.

Rutter:   One never feels it’s that early.  It’s the old saying that it’s later than you think.  [Both laugh]  I’m forty-five years old, so if I was Mozart, I would have been dead for the last nine years.  [More laughter]  Time moves on, but it’s true that neither composers nor conductors give up young.  Those are two forms of musical activity that tend to go on till you finally drop dread.

BD:   Are you a better conductor because you are a composer?

Rutter:   I can’t claim that in any technical sense, but I suppose a composer looks at a score in a slightly different way from a non-composer, because the composer always wants to know what makes it tick.  How did the composer build this work?  Those are the thought processes I have to go through myself when I’m attempting to write a piece of music.  You have first to find a structure, and then work on the detail.  So, a composer’s look at a score will tend to always be about what’s the whole thing, what’s it saying over all, and then how do the details relate to that.  Sometimes a non-composer may look at a score and say,
That’s an exciting moment.  I’m really going to make something of that, and there’s another exciting moment.  These should always be subordinate to the overall flow.  It’s interesting that the old German conductors, such as Furtwängler and Klemperer, always thought of themselves more as composers than conductors.  Klemperer was very hurt when a dictionary article described him as conductor.  He said, No, I’m a composer!  That was the old training.  You learned analysis and conducting through composition.

BD:   It seems like the last one to really do that was Mahler.

Rutter:   Yes, he was a staggering exponent of both, as was Richard Strauss.  But in this age of specialization, people may be a little suspicious of somebody who tries to do it all.  But I keep a low enough profile in every department of what I do for people not to get too upset.

BD:   Let me turn the question around.  Are you a better composer because you spend so much time conducting?

Rutter:   I certainly think that if you conduct, and are accustomed to working with instruments and singers, that you develop a sixth sense for what works and what does not work.  It’s all very well sitting there in your study with your score paper, and you build a wonderful castle in sound.  It may not turn out that way when you actually get into the studio or the concert hall, and years of working with performers of one sort and another, does sharpen up your sense of the practical.  You need to be an idealist building you castles in the air, but, as the old saying goes, with feet firmly on the ground.  I’ve worked with enough groups where rehearsal time is limited and you have to get there fast, to know when there is something that you can only get right if you’ve got a long time.  There are some passages in works by Michael Tippett, for instance, that are wonderfully conceived but can only ever be realized if you have a very leisurely rehearsal schedule.

BD:   Is it correct to assume that the things you take from being a conductor are not so much compositional ideas, but techniques of communicating those ideas?

Rutter:   That’s exactly right.  It is really practical techniques of communication and writing that my conductor’s side in me feeds into the compositions that I write.  Rimsky-Korsakov, who conducted quite a lot, said the thing about effective writing is that the first time you try it through, it sounds good, and the second time you try it through, it sounds tremendous.  Benjamin Britten, who rode several horses with such tremendous skill, was great pianist, and accompanist in particular, in addition to being a wonderful conductor.  I’ve sung under him a number of times, in the War Requiem most notably, and saw that as a composer he was eminently practical.  Everything he did worked, and it didn’t really take long for it to be clear what he was going on about.  He had the gift of inspired simplicity and economy in what he did, which came of his practical experiences in conducting
never putting more notes than you need.

*     *     *     *     *

rutter BD:   Tell me the joys and sorrows of writing for the human voice.

Rutter:   It feels, for me, like coming home every time I write for voices, because my first experiences of making music to any sort of a good standard were in my school choir as a boy soprano.  I love the voice.  It is so personally expressive that you have to handle it with the most tremendous respect and care, and it does distress me that some contemporary composers seem to abuse the voice, and work against it.  There are things that a voice can’t really do very effectively.  It can’t do jagged rhythms and extreme leaps of register easily.  But if you write with the voice and not against it, it is potentially the most expressive music medium.

BD:   Let me play devil’s advocate for a moment.  It seems that in every age, the forward-leading composers have always been accused of writing terrible leaps and jagged edges and impossible things, and now they’re the easy things that you study almost as pedagogy.

Rutter:   Yes, you’re probably right.  I’m not one of those composers that was brought into the world to be at the cutting edge of what was going on.  I’m not a pioneer.  Probably I should be pushing back more frontiers of what the voice can do, but it’s been my lot as a composer to write a great deal for students and amateurs of one kind and another.  I relish working with professionals, but an awful lot of the time I have been working for those whose technical resources are not equal to those who are full-time professionals.  That brings about certain challenges, because of what I’m always having to try and do.  For instance, in a work like the Requiem I wrote just a few years ago, I was trying to say something, but saying it in absolutely the simplest and most pared down way I can.  Complexity, almost as a self-indulgence, is something that I can’t afford.  In fact, I have been accused of writing simplistically.  Some people say that equates to triteness, and there may be truth in that.  But I feel that you should, if possible, write in a way where it’s a bit like the swan gliding over the surface of the water, but paddling like mad underneath.  There should be an art of concealing art.  Mozart taught me that lesson many years ago.  If you take apart a Mozart score, the density of inter-relationships and subtleties beneath the surface are quite extraordinary, but what you hear is an effortlessly flowing surface that seems like it couldn’t have been written any other way.  So, yes, I suppose I should be more exploratory and innovative.

BD:   If you were commissioned by a group that was technically the best in the world, and had a lot of rehearsal time, would you write something more complex?

Rutter:   Yes, I think I would, because in some way it’s almost easier to write a complex piece than a simple one.

BD:   You’re just assuming that the performers will solve the problems?

Rutter:   Yes.

BD:   Can’t you just simply write a piece that comes from your heart?

Rutter:   Oh, everything I write comes from my heart.  That sincerely must be assumed in any reputable composer.  Even if what I write is for a group of kids, or even if it’s for a very amateur church choir, if you don’t mean it, it’s going to show through.  With whatever you write, however simple, however small, you have to mean it, even if it’s what might be loosely thought of as work written to order, or commercial art.  I sometimes think that
commercial is the adjective of abuse that people apply to things if they happen to get successful.  [Both laugh]  But no, I hope I always write from the heart.  I might write something more extended and complex that is still from the heart, were that opportunity to present itself.  In fact, you’re probably quite right that I’ve reached a point where I could be making choices to do things differently from what I’m doing, and that is on the agenda for the next five years.  I have it in mind to write a viola concerto shortly.  I won’t say I feel sorry for violas because I love the instrument dearly, and my wife is a viola player.  But I feel it has a warmth and an expressiveness, a certain melancholy, almost, that was brilliantly captured by William Walton in his wonderful concerto.  But that was written in 1929, and maybe there’s time for another viola concerto, which is something I want to do... and an organ concerto, because really there hasn’t been one that’s made a great deal of impact since Poulenc’s lovely concerto of 1939.

BD:   So you’re going to move away a little bit from text-oriented works?

Rutter:   That probably is the plan, though when you start out as a young guy of twenty-one, you think you have a grand master plan that’s going to carry you through the next twenty-five years.  Once you get past a certain stage, however, all you hope is to make it through to the end of the week [laughs], and that’s about where I am now.

BD:   You have, I assume, a backlog of people demanding compositions.  How do you decide which ones you will accept, and which ones you’ll simply turn aside?

Rutter:   I made the decision on my fortieth birthday that I wasn’t going to accept any more commissions, but that hasn’t actually stopped me from writing pieces which are really invitations.  For instance, if two friends get married, and they ask for an anthem for their wedding, or if an impresario, who I’ve worked for quite a bit in New York, says,
We’ve got a Carnegie Hall concert with a three-hundred-voice chorus and symphony orchestra coming up next May.  How would you feel about writing something for the occasion?  There are opportunities like that where it’s very hard to refuse.  I suppose what I look for now is something a bit different from what I’ve done before, because I must get ten letters a week saying, Our church is celebrating its 100th anniversary, or Our senior minister’s retiring, or Our college is just building a new music wing, and we want something to celebrate the occasion with a cheerful sort of text and lasting about five or six minutes.  If I had written all those pieces, there’d be a stack of five hundred of them, and probably they’d all be getting to sound the same.  It is difficult to keep doing the same thing.  I greatly admire Chopin who, with the title Nocturne, managed to weave so many different magic spells, and find so many different facets of what was really just the same character piece.

rutter BD:   Are you changing palettes, or are you just adding new colors to your existing palette?

Rutter:   I don’t think I’m ever going to forsake the bedrock of my style, which is really very simple, tonal, and communicative.  It is important to me to communicate through what I write, and it’s important to communicate to more than just the specialist audience that enjoys serious contemporary music.  I’ve been accused of being up the wrong track, but I do strongly feel that there has to be a middle way between music that’s purely pop, and music which is purely esoteric and contemporary.  Through trying to find the middle of the road, you sometimes run the risk of being run down, at least by the critics, but not so much in what I’m writing, as the kind of music that somebody should be writing.  There ought to be music which speaks to the general music lover, people who have a sensitivity to music and a love of music, but who are never really going to relate very closely to the contemporary avant-garde.

BD:   In choral music, you have a text, and much of your text has been liturgical, so obviously there’s going to be a spiritual quality in all of this music.  Is it safe to assume that there will be some kind of spirituality in everything up to and including the as yet uncomposed viola concerto?

Rutter:   It
s not safe to assume that, because whatever text I set, whether it’s sacred or secular, what I’m looking for is some quality of vision or poetry in it.  I wouldn’t divide my sacred music into a special category all on its own.  It’s certainly not true that I’m writing music with sacred texts in order to promote faith.  That’s really not why I do it.  Music acts as a vehicle for the texts.  If I set the Twenty-Third Psalm, saying The Lord is My Shepherd, I make it my business to enter into that feeling at that moment.  King David, who wrote the words, really did believe that the Lord was his shepherd.  He believed that all the time.  I believe it for as long as it takes me to write the piece.  It’s the duty of anyone setting a text to try and keep faith with that text, to understand it, to get it under the skin a bit, just as an actor giving a performance of Hamlet, has to get under the skin of what it feels like to be considering suicide.  If I were to play that part, I wouldn’t really want to commit suicide, but you can portray that.

BD:   You’d have to understand the conditions?

Rutter:   You have to understand the condition, and that is the way I approach the setting of texts, whether they’re sacred or secular.  I’ve always loved church music.  It’s had a place in my heart, because so many of my early opportunities in music-making came from being a member of a church choir.  Not only the music, but experiencing something like that has gone now in England, I’m very sad to say.  I am referring to the liturgy of the King James Bible and Cranmer’s Prayer Book [Book of Common Prayer], written English at its incomparable best.  They did these things better in the Seventeenth Century than they do now, and you may have noticed that when I set sacred texts, I tend to choose the old versions.  For me, they have more resonance, and depth, and poetry.  They’re easier to set to music, and that will remain, I’m sure, a strand in what I do.  People tell me that there’s a spirituality there, but really that’s not for me to judge.  All I can say that is that I do my best with the texts that I set.  I make a conscious choice with those texts.  Nobody forced me to set the Twenty-Third Psalm to music.  I just thought I would like to, and you must make of that what you will.  I’m certainly not any kind of religious crusade.  There’s no element of that at all in what I’m doing.

BD:   Is there something different about setting the Twenty-Third Psalm, which is so universally known and beloved, as opposed to setting, say, Psalm Twenty-Two or Twenty-Four, which are much less-known?

Rutter:   If you do set an extremely well-known text, everybody feeds their own feelings into it, their own previous experience, their own response to it.  So, in some ways you may have a harder job because their conditioned response to that text may be different, and they’d say,
Oh, no, that’s not the way to set it to music.  That’s not how I envisioned that at all.

BD:   That’s when everybody becomes a critic!

Rutter:   [Laughs]  That can be the case!  It’s a bit like conducting Messiah.  You put your head on the block every time you do it, because everybody brings their own memories and views to how it should be done.  But I have set some obscure texts, and, indeed, it’s been a pleasure to sometimes find a simple but lovely text, like The Gaelic Blessing Deep Peace of the Running Wave to You, which has, as far as I know, never been set to music before.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   We were talking a moment ago that you need to understand the condition in order to write the music.  What is the condition of music?

rutter Rutter:   The condition of music is, for me, magic.  What I remember most clearly about my early musical experiences is that I was in some sense creating my own world.  When I climbed up onto the piano stool in my parents apartment as a little boy of three or four, and began to bash around at the keys, I strongly felt that I was creating my own secret garden, my own domain, which was set apart from the everyday world, and where I could have things exactly the way I wanted them.  I wouldn’t say I think of music as a way of escape.  That’s a rather feeble way of looking upon music.  It should bring you face-to-face with things, not help you run away from them.  But for me, there’s always been a strong element of fantasy about music.  It does have this extraordinary capacity to take you into another sphere of experience.  Mendelssohn put it absolutely right when he said that music goes beyond words, and that music takes over where the words leave off.  That, for me, is a lot of what it’s about.  For me, composition has represented the way of arranging the flowers in my secret garden the way that I would like them to be, and because there’s a sense of music taking you into another realm, music progresses towards the ideal.  For me, it’s the number one art, because words tie you down in literature.  Poetry can set you free to an extent, but music seems to deal with the inexpressible, and with another plane of experience that isn’t exactly a motion, and isn’t exactly spirit.  It’s all those things mixed up together.  It’s always had very strong appeal to me from when I was small, and that’s the quality that I look for.  I can forgive an awful lot in the musical performance, but I can’t forgive a dull performance, or a pedestrian performance that just remains Earth-bound.  For me, there’s almost a physical sense of lift-off.  I remember doing the Bach Magnificat in Carnegie Hall with a group of performers who were mainly high school singers who were experiencing this wonderful piece for the first time.  They’d rehearsed thoroughly, but when it actually got put together with the orchestra, and they began to sing, it was clear that the whole thing was just lifting them off the ground.  It was levitation.  It was one of the most extraordinary moments that I’ll remember all my life, because it was a shared experience between all of us who were there.  That is what I look for.  The German Romantics expressed it rather well when they said that this was the quest for the Die Blaue Blume,’ the Blue Flower.  There’s something always out of reach.

BD:   Is this something that gets lost with repeated performance and familiarity?

Rutter:   I hope never so, because every performance is a living organism.  I could do the Mozart Requiem any number of times, and still find different things in it.  Besides, the people I'm doing it with will each feed in their own feelings.

BD:   What if you did it with the same choir, week after week after week?

Rutter:   It becomes an act of re-creation, rather than creation then.  This is true, but I must say I do admire people who manage to do a Broadway show for a long run, and still keep it so fresh and spontaneous.  That’s not something most conductors have to address themselves to, because normally we don’t repeat concerts that often.  There isn’t the demand for it.

BD:   There will be three or four performances, and then you go on to something else?

Rutter:   Yes, that’s right.

BD:   Is it refreshing to go to something else, and then come back to this work after a period of time?

Rutter:   Always.  My periods of composition help refresh my conducting when I return to a work that I may not have done for a time.  I wish I had the bravery that Solti has, because he tells us that every time he does a work he’s done before, he tears up his old score, purchases a new score, and marks it up afresh.  I wish that I could do that, but I don’t really have the time.  I could make it if I really wanted to, but that seems to me the ideal way.  You must look at each piece that you do through the eyes that you now have.  Even with my own stuff, when I listen to recordings that I made a number of years ago, there are things that I definitely would now not do in quite the same way... [laughs] but wild horses wouldn’t drag out of me what those are.

BD:   Oh, no, I wouldn’t ask that.  I would like to ask if you conduct in a same or similar way in the concert hall as you do in the recording studio?

Rutter:   In the concert hall you take more risks, because a concert is an event that takes place at a defined moment, and then it’s over.  Little slips, little ragged attacks, the small events of which there’s a hundred in every live performance, really don’t matter.  What matters is that the thing has a momentum from beginning to end, and, to put it crudely, that the people don’t get bored half way through.  The thing must push through from beginning to end.  In the recording studio, when you’re assembling a piece of music in bits and pieces, what’s more important is that everything will bear repeated listening, which means you can’t take so many risks.  On the other hand, you always have another chance, which is nice.  I quite enjoy recordings because they do capture a moment in time.  I have been fortunate...  I remember when we recorded the Fauré Requiem with the Cambridge Singers, the In Paradisum
which, for me is the most sublime of the seven movementswas recorded in one take.  The producer said to me at the end, Yes!

BD:   No reason to redo anything?

Rutter:   No reason to redo it, and it’s probably the best of the seven movements.

BD:   Is there a balance in the music that you conduct, or in your own music, between an artistic achievement and an entertainment value?

Rutter:   It depends on what I’m doing.  I remember when I was director of music at Clare College in Cambridge, the chapel choir would perform in the chapel during the week for Choral Evensong.  There were very few people there, and on those occasions I chose the sort of pieces of music
like the motets or Masses of William Byrdwhich really don’t gain from having an audience, just as there are certain string quartets that I would rather listen to in seclusion at home.  However, if I was going to do Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast, you have to have an audience for that piece.  Otherwise, it’s like a football match without a crowd.  It’s not the same piece.  It just has to have that thrill of people there rooting for you every measure of the way.  For a public work like that, by all means let us make it as entertaining as we can, because the people are there sharing the experience.  Let’s bring them along with us.  On the other hand, there are some pieces where what you really want of an audience is that they should be very, very still, and not even applaud.  It always upsets me if people applaud too soon at the end of a work like the Fauré Requiem.  There should be a compulsory one-minute silence after it’s over, to just let the vibrations die way, and allow people return to earth.  Then, applaud if you must.

BD:   Is it an indication of a perfect performance if there is that one-minute silence, meaning that everybody understands?

Rutter:   It happens rarely, but I’ve had it on one or two occasions.  It’s always one of the best tributes you can have.

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BD:   Coming back to rehearsing just a little bit, is all of your work done in rehearsal, or do you specifically leave something for the spark of that evening performance?

Rutter:   As I grow older, I’m more inclined to try and leave something for the performance.  Sir Thomas Beecham was a great exponent of that.  His rehearsals could even sometimes appear perfunctory at times.  I watched him at the very end of his life, when I was a young lad, and he did leave corners unturned.  But, in fact, the parts were always very carefully marked up.  The instrumentalists knew what he wanted, and he would trust them to deliver it at the time of performance.  In my earlier years I always was the Doubting Thomas.  I wanted to say to them,
Show me, in rehearsal.  It’s true that nothing excuses sloppy preparation.  You have to enable everybody to know what they must do.  You’re erecting a platform on which they can perform with confidence, and if you put people up on that platform with only the vaguest idea of what they’re mean to be doing, then you betray them as conductor.  But a rehearsal is not the performance.  It’s a preparation for the performance.  It’s training for an event in the future.


BD:   A performance always has to have more?

Rutter:   If possible.  There are things that you know will happen in performance, just in terms of a little adrenaline buzz.  Pacing sometimes becomes a little tighter, so I don’t push my performers as hard in rehearsal as I used to.  Whether or not that’s the right thing to do, one can only judge by playing tapes of the performances.

BD:   Could that change from group to group that you’re working with?

Rutter:   Yes.  There are some groups that I have to rehearse technically up to the very last possible moment.  That’s not the case here in St. Charles, because the people know what they have to do in the concert that I’m working on.

rutter BD:   As you’re conducting, do you also respond to the audience who are behind you?

Rutter:   Every performer warms to an audience, and it does feed into you in some way.  It really isn’t the same as just a group of people watching it on television.  It is a group experience, just as the Greek drama was.  Those were held in an arena with people all round, and that is important.  It does do something to me and to those who I’m directing, but it would be very hard to define exactly what.  This is one of the things that makes conducting and performing such an elusive art.  Books are written about how to conduct, but, in a way, all the most interesting things can’t be put down in writing.

BD:   Can any of the most interesting things be put down in writing?

Rutter:   Yes, good books have been written, and there are some very good insights into how the great conductors worked.  There’s a book which just come out recently which devotes a chapter to each of the greats within the last hundred years or so, and there are some interesting insights into how they rehearsed.  Beecham, who I spoke of, could be quite casual.  On the other hand, George Szell could be extremely meticulous and demanding, and those things do cast light onto the performances that you hear.  Toscanini drove his performers very hard, whereas Bruno Walter was more laid back.  There are interesting things which are worth knowing when you’re listening to the recorded legacy.

BD:   Is making music fun?

Rutter:   Yes, always!  It’s physically exhilarating, it’s uplifting, it’s exhausting afterwards, but never at the time.  For me, the thing which makes it more fun than composing is that you can forget it.  When you’ve done a performance, there are things you could have done better, and there are things you may be pleased with.  But it was an event, like a football match that happened at a moment in time, and you can never recapture it.  So, there’s no sense worrying about it.  You can learn from it if possible, and you can take a shower, have a drink and a pizza, and enjoy yourself with friends, and relax until the next time.  Composition is not fun because it haunts you day and night until it’s completed.  You’ve created a lunar landscape, and you’re walking around on it.  You can’t come back down to Earth until the last note is being put to the score.  I look upon composition as my wretched compulsion; something that I just have to do time after time.  It is like smoking
not that I smokebut it’s a bad habit that I can break myself of.  The fun, the therapy, the relaxation, and much of the joy is in music-making, because it’s a social pursuit.  You do it with people.  In composition you have to be alone, and that, after a while, gets lonely.  It’s very demanding.  You’re not awfully good company when you’re working on a piece.  Its certainly no fun for your family, and when you finish a work, you may get a brief moment of exhilaration, but then the old itch starts up all over again.  Well, on to the next piece, but what should I do?  I should be starting on it, but maybe it can wait.  Music-making is defined in chunks of time.  You do your very, very best at it.  It demands all your concentration while it’s happening, and then when it’s over, it’s over.

BD:   Hopefully it lingers with the audience.

Rutter:   I hope so.

BD:   Thank you for coming to the Chicago area to perform.  We look forward to it very, very much.

Rutter:   It’s been my pleasure.

BD:   Will you be back again?

Rutter:   I will be back in the United States during the next year a number of times, though most of my concert appearances now are in New York.  It’s a little bit nearer to England [laughs], but Chicago certainly has a fond place in my heart.  On my very first visit to the United states, I was shown around Chicago by two very close friends who live here, and I came back a number of times since, both as a visitor to a suburban high school to do a summer seminar, and to meet with friends such as Bob Harris, who runs the choral program at Northwestern.  Now I can make new friends in St. Charles, but that’s fine.  There’s something about Chicago... perhaps it’s the fact that it has all the metropolitan excitement of New York, without the sense of danger or alienation.  It’s also got the craziest ethnic mix in the whole world, which is wonderfully exciting because that’s what music has always been about.  Music is so international, and Chicago is a great home of music.  I’ve listened avidly to recordings of the Chicago Symphony and the Symphony Chorus for many years, and someday I hope to hear them both live and in the flesh... but I never seem to have enough time when I’m here.

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© 1991 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded in St. Charles, Illinois, on July 11, 1991.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB in 1995 and 2000.  This transcription was made in 2020, and posted on this website at that time.  My thanks to British soprano Una Barry for her help in preparing this website presentation.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.

Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.