John Rutter positively loves writing for amateurs, and amateurs simply adore singing his scores. No wonder the pros look down their noses at him. Andrew Green hymns a truly popular composer
Rumour has it that there are hard-bitten music critics who will cheerfully whistle John Rutter melodies in the shower, but could never - ever - own up to this secret admiration in the company of their peers. Ordinary music-lovers have no such scruples. Rutter's following among choirs, audiences and record-collectors around the world is, well, legendary. Heavens... here's a contemporary composer of serious music who actually pays his own way - the last occasion he called on so much as a penny of public subsidy is lost in the mists of time.

No work has done more to create the Rutter legend than his Requiem. Quibble with "legend"? Well, consider this. Six months after the publication of the Requiem in the mid-1980s - before there was even a single recording of it to stir enthusiasm - Rutter's New York publisher reported that 500 sets of the parts had been hired out in the USA. Choral societies across Britain rushed with gratitude to add a singable, winning new work to their repertoires... and discovered that there was plenty more Rutter where that came from.

The fervour continues, not least in the USA, which Rutter visits constantly - more often than not to conduct. I'll bet you a dime to a dollar that no living British conductor has appeared more often in Carnegie Hall, where he has directed a whole range of choral repertoire.

"Our US distributor told me the other day that he'd always assumed John was American," says Celia Ballantyne of Hyperion Records, who issued their own recording of the Requiem last year. The adulation is by no means restricted to the English-speaking world. In the coming months, Rutter will conduct his own music in Norway and Sweden, the Ukraine and Siberia, Japan and Korea - even Germany, where suspicions have long been harboured that all English music lacks gravitas.

Upon my arrival at his unostentatious cottage in a quiet corner of Cambridgeshire, Rutter - when pressed - shows me a few of the hundreds of letters he's received over the years from individuals for whom the Requiem has meant something special at a time of personal crisis. Transparently modest and personable, he emphasises that the letters have been kept not as an ego- priming device, but simply out of respect for the fact that "people took the trouble to put their feelings into words and therefore deserve not to be forgotten". He shuns publicity, in part because experience tells him that exposure - this article included - will bring mounds more mail which his conscientiousness demands must be answered.

The cue for our conversation is the fact that a third recording of the Requiem is about to hit the shops. An ultimate in imprimaturs, this - a performance on the EMI label from the choir of King's College, Cambridge, no less, under Stephen Cleobury. But just a moment. A rummage among piles of CDs and Rutter produces two further recordings, both from the USA (of course) and one featuring the splendidly named Turtle Creek Chorale. So that makes five in total. Elgar would have been deliriously happy with as many recordings of Gerontius in so short a time, had he been turning out oratorio in the hi-fi era.

But, for all his love of the English choral tradition, Rutter's inspiration (aside from the occasional hovering presence of Herbert Howells) was in fact Faure's Requiem.

"I wrote my Requiem in 1985, in memory of my father, who'd died the year before. I was able to look at the then recently-rediscovered manuscript of the Faure at the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris. It was written out almost informally in something like a school manuscript book, from which Faure played at services in the Madeleine. It brought home to me that this wasn't a massive, monumental work, out of reach... but something truly intimate. That gave me the courage to attempt a similar work - although I believe that, whatever the influences are on a composer, his or her own personality will show through. And there are things about the Requiem which clearly mark it off as a work of the Eighties. Both my parents liked music, but they weren't `specialist listeners'. So my aim in writing the Requiem was not to shut anyone out. This, of all my works, I especially wanted to be accessible."

Stephen Cleobury, conductor of the new King's College Chapel Choir recording, had no qualms about agreeing to record Rutter's Requiem. "Like the Brahms and Britten Requiems, it's very cleverly thought-out in its use of material from outside the Mass - in this case, three Psalms. Then you can't ignore the fact that the Requiem displays John's great gift for melody... and the scoring is absolutely meticulous. You have to say the work suits the chapel acoustic perfectly."

Hearing the new recording - in which the Requiem is supplemented by a number of Rutter's shorter pieces - raised in the composer's mind the thought that perhaps the famous King's acoustic has always been the subconscious setting for his choral writing. In his days at Highgate School (where contemporaries included fellow-composer John Tavener), the young Rutter was introduced to King's LPs by music teacher Edward Chapman. "The sense of calm and tranquillity exuded by those David Willcocks and Boris Ord recordings... and the purity of the boy's voices... felt like a home-coming."

Going up to Cambridge as an undergraduate took Rutter into David Willcocks's harmony class, where, in retrospect, he feels the die was cast. "One day David asked to see a couple of Christmas pieces he'd heard I'd written - one of them was the Shepherd's Pipe Carol. He then introduced me to Oxford University Press, where I've been ever since. It set me on a particular course at a time when I might have gone in another musical direction entirely."

Whisperers may whitter that Rutter's musical language betrays him as a compromised composer keen only to keep the cash register ringing. Not so, he insists. "Most of my working life has been devoted to choral music - amateur musicians for the most part, singing to `amateur' audiences. To me, this places certain constraints on the musical language I can use.

"It's got nothing at all to do with money - it's simply that I'd feel embarrassed about my music taking up space on the shelves through not being performed. Other composers feel called to be experimenters, explorers... and I respect them immensely. But the `failure rate' of so much new music is very high. I'd feel I was wasting my time if no one was using a piece. That's just me."

To make his point, Rutter says he has accepted no paid commissions since before the Requiem. Instead, he selects carefully from the never-ending line of "invitations" to write. He accepts no fees either, incidentally, for the many choral workshops he conducts up and down the country - "simply because I'm so concerned about the erosion of singing in our schools - such a threat to the place of choral music in our national life," he explains.

The place of critics seems to be another matter, but "My lips are sealed - I just stay out of their way" is all that Rutter will say of his own experiences, although his comments on the plight of other English composers who wrote tunes are unambiguous enough.

"The critics all but destroyed William Walton... Yet some who'd said he was stale and worn out were among those who later hailed him. As for the wounding and vicious things they used to say about Vaughan Williams..." Say no more.

Before I leave, Rutter gives me a sight of the computer software package that enables him to send glitch-free scores down the line to OUP, ready for printing. He is nothing if not a technophile. Last Christmas he conducted the American On-Line choir in a Carnegie Hall Messiah: the singers were recruited on the Internet, and were even rehearsed by Rutter on-line. "It scotched the idea of Internet-users as `nerds' and showed that the technology can be used to bring people together." An ivory tower would give John Rutter vertigo.

EMI's new recording of the Rutter `Requiem' is released next week