John Rutter: The choir master

John Rutter is the world's most-performed choral composer, and he has a special affection for Christmas. Michael Church watches him working, at his medieval cottage near Cambridge

"If I haven't made a Christmas musical event happen somewhere, it's not really Christmas for me," says John Rutter. "And where better to celebrate it than the Albert Hall?" That's what he's just done, conducting the Royal Philharmonic, plus the Farnham Youth Choir, plus the Gentlemen of St John's, in what he calls his "annual Christmas party" under the hallowed Victorian dome. The programme included gems such as his "Shepherd's Pipe Carol" and Brother Heinrich's Christmas, the musical fable which is his own answer to Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf.

Shortly before this event, he'd conducted his Mass of the Children at his annual Thanksgiving concert in New York's Carnegie Hall. Before that, he judged the BBC's Chorister of the Year competition: a heartening experience, he says, "as it reassured me about the choral health of the young people of Britain today". Next week he'll plan his forthcoming round of "singing days", which are his way of contributing to that health: choral events in churches and school halls where all-comers are welcome to take part. "And what I most hope is that after it, if people aren't members of a regular choir, they'll join one. Communal activities like this are something we need to rediscover."

Today, the world's most-performed choral composer is at his medieval cottage in the village of Duxford, near Cambridge, editing the recording of a work he wrote two years ago. In 2001, his student son Christopher was knocked down and killed in a road accident, and for the next two years - apart from writing an anthem for the Queen's golden jubilee - he hardly wrote a note. But he'd been invited to write a work for Carnegie Hall, and, in 2003, suddenly decided to add a children's choir to its resident chorus and orchestra, and thus fulfil that commission. "I remembered my formative moment as a pupil at Highgate School, when I sang in Benjamin Britten's War Requiem under the baton of Britten himself. That taught me how enriching it is for a child to perform with professionals, and I wanted to write a piece to bring together children and adults in the same way." Thus did his Mass of the Children emerge.

So was this work, which opens with a Britten-esque vernal sweetness, an elegy for his son? "No, but more than one person has come up to me and said they can sense Christopher written all over it." Did writing it exorcise his grief? "You can never do that. But in some way I did feel happier for having written it. I don't feel I've yet commemorated my son with music in the way that I would like - perhaps I may yet find a way to do that. One of the wonderful things about being a musician is that you can give voice to things which are hard to articulate in words. We shall see."

Composing such music brings a different sort of duty: he replies assiduously to everyone who writes to him. "I would say to any composer who is thinking of writing a requiem: Don't do it, unless you're ready to deal with a lot of bereavement letters. Everybody who listens to any requiem weaves into it their own personal griefs and losses."

Yet most of his music stays resolutely on the sunny side of the street. "A friend of mine one said to me: "Your music wears a smiling face." If you want angst, Shostakovich 10 is always there. I love that sort of thing, but I tend not to write it. Yet Dame Felicity Lott told me she couldn't easily sing 'The Lord Bless You and Keep You' because she kept crying, and she asked if it was written for somebody very special. And I replied that I'd written it for my school music teacher's memorial service, so yes. Now, if a seasoned performer can be moved to tears by an innocent little piece like that, there's something going on that I'm not really in control of.'

Having just turned 60, he's consciously easing up. "It's a milestone, and I don't see why I shouldn't play in the sandpit, and just do things I enjoy. Like most freelances, I work seven days a week, but I no longer want to be on the treadmill the whole time." He's given up commissioned work, though he still responds to interesting challenges. Julian Lloyd Webber keeps asking him for a concerto, as does the young harpist Catrin Finch: both, he insists, will get written, as will a "pageant" work for a cast of thousands to celebrate Liverpool's enthronement as City of Culture 2008.

His daily routine remains unvarying. After dealing with mail and e-mails he drives to his composing cottage in the middle of a field five miles away, where he works until it's time to come home and cook dinner with his wife. Then it's back for the late shift, from 8.30pm till after midnight. "And no alcohol while I'm composing. I love good wine, and I'm picky about my malt Scotch. I know they all make you drunk the same way, but the feeling is different. No, I enjoy the good things of life, but composing is work."

And he simply can't stop doing it. "My wife tells me I'm a workaholic, but that's not how I feel. My life is defined by music, and I'd be heartbroken to be cut off from it, and from the friendships and gossip and encounters it brings. Being a musician is the key to a very happy life."

'The John Rutter Christmas Album' is out on Collegium

Arts and Entertainment
By Seuss! ‘What Pet Shall I Get?’ hits the bookshops this week
Books
Arts and Entertainment
The mushroom cloud over Hiroshima after Enola Gray and her crew dropped the bomb
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Elliott outside his stationery store that houses a Post Office
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Rebecca Ferguson, Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible Rogue Nation

Film review Tom Cruise, 50, is still like a puppy in this relentless action soap opera

Arts and Entertainment
Rachel McAdams in True Detective season 2

TV review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... for the fourth time

    Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... again

    I was once told that intelligence services declare their enemies dead to provoke them into popping up their heads and revealing their location, says Robert Fisk
    Margaret Attwood on climate change: 'Time is running out for our fragile, Goldilocks planet'

    Margaret Attwood on climate change

    The author looks back on what she wrote about oil in 2009, and reflects on how the conversation has changed in a mere six years
    New Dr Seuss manuscript discovered: What Pet Should I Get? goes on sale this week

    New Dr Seuss manuscript discovered

    What Pet Should I Get? goes on sale this week
    Oculus Rift and the lonely cartoon hedgehog who could become the first ever virtual reality movie star

    The cartoon hedgehog leading the way into a whole new reality

    Virtual reality is the 'next chapter' of entertainment. Tim Walker gives it a try
    Ants have unique ability to switch between individual and collective action, says study

    Secrets of ants' teamwork revealed

    The insects have an almost unique ability to switch between individual and collective action
    Donovan interview: The singer is releasing a greatest hits album to mark his 50th year in folk

    Donovan marks his 50th year in folk

    The singer tells Nick Duerden about receiving death threats, why the world is 'mentally ill', and how he can write a song about anything, from ecology to crumpets
    Let's Race simulator: Ultra-realistic technology recreates thrill of the Formula One circuit

    Simulator recreates thrill of F1 circuit

    Rory Buckeridge gets behind the wheel and explains how it works
    Twitter accused of 'Facebookisation' over plans to overhaul reverse-chronological timeline

    Twitter accused of 'Facebookisation'

    Facebook exasperates its users by deciding which posts they can and can’t see. So why has Twitter announced plans to do the same?
    Jane Birkin asks Hermès to rename bag - but what else could the fashion house call it?

    Jane Birkin asks Hermès to rename bag

    The star was shocked by a Peta investigation into the exotic skins trade
    10 best waterproof mascaras

    Whatever the weather: 10 best waterproof mascaras

    We found lash-enhancing beauties that won’t budge no matter what you throw at them
    Diego Costa biography: Chelsea striker's route to the top - from those who shared his journey

    Diego Costa: I go to war. You come with me...

    Chelsea's rampaging striker had to fight his way from a poor city in Brazil to life at the top of the Premier League. A new book speaks to those who shared his journey
    Ashes 2015: England show the mettle to strike back hard in third Test

    England show the mettle to strike back hard in third Test

    The biggest problem facing them in Birmingham was the recovery of the zeitgeist that drained so quickly under the weight of Australian runs at Lord's, says Kevin Garside
    Women's Open 2015: Charley Hull - 'I know I'm a good golfer but I'm also just a person'

    Charley Hull: 'I know I'm a good golfer but I'm also just a person'

    British teen keeps her feet on ground ahead of Women's Open
    Turkey's conflict with Kurdish guerrillas in Iraq can benefit Isis in Syria

    Turkey's conflict with Kurdish guerrillas in Iraq can benefit Isis in Syria

    Turkish President Erdogan could benefit politically from the targeting of the PKK, says Patrick Cockburn
    Yvette Cooper: Our choice is years of Tory rule under Jeremy Corbyn or a return to a Labour government

    Our choice is years of Tory rule under Corbyn or a return to a Labour government

    Yvette Cooper urged Labour members to 'get serious' about the next general election rather than become 'a protest movement'