An interview with John Rutter

December 5, 2018

Lorraine Brugh is currently resident director of Valparaiso University’s Study Centre in Cambridge, England. She is professor of music and the Frederick J. Kruse Organ Fellow at Valparaiso University, Valparaiso, Indiana.

The interview took place January 31, 2018, in Girton, Cambridge, and preceded a luncheon Mr. Rutter attended, given by Lady Rachel Willcocks, the widow of Sir David Willcocks, at her home in Cambridge. Mr. Rutter also had a publishing deadline that day and had already been at work several hours when he arrived at 10:30 a.m. Mr. Rutter began the interview by explaining the luncheon he would later attend.

John Rutter: This is one of the things that Rachel Willcocks does, bless her heart, since Sir David’s death three years ago. She’s really been born again, as she was his principal caretaker. Did you ever meet him?

Lorraine Brugh: No, I never did.

JR: Oh, what a shame! Many Americans did, as you know, as he loved his trips to America working at summer schools, colleges, universities, and churches. He made quite an impression over the years. It was inspiring that he was active in music until his ninetieth year.

He died peacefully in his sleep and was greatly celebrated by his college, by his many former students, protégés, and admirers. After that she started a new life. She would now be 91 or 92. She is an active member of her garden club, her book club, and is out there. Every so often she hosts luncheons for various of her old friends.

She brings together people who perhaps don’t all know each other, but they all know her. My wife Joanne and I were invited but she can’t do it. She’s ringing a quarter peal. She’s a bell ringer, a change ringer. They’re counting on her; it’s been booked for a while, but I will be meeting Rachel. We do that every few months.

LB: There will be others who join you?

JR: There will. But who they’ll be I’ll find out when I get there. It’s usually about four or five others. It’s nice that she’s still having an active social life. Her daughter, Sarah, who lives in London, comes up to assist her. That’s what’s on the agenda for lunch. She is a dear lady, and, of course, I owe a huge debt to David Willcocks.

LB: That’s actually my first question. I know he gave you the opportunity to edit 100 Carols for Choirs together.

JR: That came later, of course. Our first collaboration was on Carols for Choirs 2, the orange book, that volume 2 of the series that throughout the English-speaking world became pretty standard.

That all came about because I had decided I wanted to study music at Cambridge while I was still in high school. I applied, not to King’s College, where David was a renowned choir director and a member of the university music faculty. I thought at King’s I might just get swallowed up, because it is a college with such a strong musical reputation.

What I did, which I never regretted, is I applied at Clare College, which is their next-door neighbor right along the banks of the Cam. Of course, that didn’t prevent me from going to choral Evensong at King’s College, which I did, and at St. John’s.

Back in those days, the two choirs that counted were King’s and St. John’s, the two that have boy sopranos. That all changed later when the first men’s colleges became mixed, but that’s ahead in the story.

I really met and got to know David Willcocks in my second year as an undergraduate when he took what they used to rather quaintly call “Harmony and Counterpoint” class, all rather academic and old-fashioned in its way. I was one of a class of seven or eight that he took every week. At the end of one of these classes, he took me aside and said, “Mr. Rutter, I understand that you’ve been composing. I hear that you have written some Christmas carols.” I thought “Oh my goodness, me, I’m in trouble.”

He was known really as Mr. Christmas. He transformed our musical celebration of Christmas with the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols as he ran it at King’s College, with his own wonderful descants of some of the standard Christmas hymns, and his radiant arrangements of some of the traditional carols. He was very strongly associated with the celebration of Christmas in peoples’ minds.

I think he might have been a bit annoyed that here was this young upstart who was also presuming to write and arrange Christmas carols himself. That was the exact opposite. What he actually wanted to do was to see what I was up to, and to give me encouragement, which was incredibly generous of him. What he said was, “Look, would you bring a selection of your compositions to my rooms at King’s College at 9 o’clock on Monday morning, and I’d like to look through them?”

So, very nervously, with a sheaf of music under my arm, I went to his elegant rooms at the top of the Gibbs building in King’s College, and without a word he looked through the pile, and at the end of it, said, “Would you be interested in these being published?” Now that’s an offer you don’t refuse when you are a young student.

LB: So, there was more than The Shepherd’s Pipe Carol in there?

JR: Yes, there was. There was my very first Christmas carol, The Nativity Carol, and various arrangements of traditional carols of one sort and another. The next thing I knew he took the manuscripts down to Oxford University Press where he was for many years the editorial advisor for their choral music. Their sacred choral music was really chosen by David Willcocks. It was quite an honor that he was taking my work down to discuss it with the senior editor there.

That was the pattern of his Mondays. He spent the morning doing correspondence and administration at King’s, then he would take the train down to London to spend the afternoon at the editorial offices of Oxford University Press. Then in the evening he would take his weekly rehearsal of the Bach Choir, which was his London choir, a large amateur chorus over 200 voices that was and is of great renown.

Amazingly, I received an offer of publication in the mail the next Wednesday, which was pretty fast work really. Later they refused to believe it at Oxford University Press (OUP) because they say they never move that quickly. We have the dates to prove it, so they actually did.

More than that they said, “Would you be interested in an annual retainer?” which gave them first refusal of anything I might write. The sum was £25 per year, which, even then, would not fry many eggs. It was a gesture. From that day to this, OUP has been my main publisher. So it is thanks to David Willcocks that I made the massive leap from being an aspiring composer to a published composer. That mattered a lot more then than it does now.

Now with website, internet, and sound bites, composers have lots more ways of reaching their audience than they had then. Music notation software allows one to put music on paper so it looks like a printed copy. That also wasn’t possible then. We still worked like medieval monks with pen and ink. Of course, the whole revolution didn’t come until really twenty-five years after that. So I was very fortunate to have a publisher working on my behalf. That’s the story of how my work as a composer began, and how it started to spread worldwide through OUP.

David Willcocks, really having put my leg on the first rung of the ladder, then continued to encourage and support me through the rest of his life. This is mirrored in similar generosity to quite a lot of others who passed through his hands, or came to his notice in one way or another: performers, conductors, other composers, organists, singers. There were many who would say that one of the great influences, mentors, and supporters they had was David Willcocks. He was a great man.

LB: Did he consciously see it as his role to nurture and generate new generations of students and other young musicians?

JR: Yes, I’m sure that he did. He saw his role as a leader, an exemplar. King’s College Cambridge was a role model for choirs around the world. They set standards, higher than had been general in the years before that, which everyone was expected to match if they could, or aspire to.

It wasn’t so much for himself as it was what he wanted to do for his college, for its choir, and for musicians the world over. That’s really what I mean by generosity: his gifts were always put to the service of others. You can’t really say anything better of someone than that.

LB: Your work does a lot of the same thing. (Next I showed him the December 2017 issue of The Diapason. The issue contained the article on Francis Jackson’s centenary.) Do you know the journal?

JR: Yes, I do, although I think when I last saw it wasn’t in such lovely full color. It was a little more austere-looking.

There’s Francis Jackson! He continues to play at a small local church. His dean at York Minster, Viv Faull (the Very Reverend Vivienne Faull, current dean of York Minster), was at one time chaplain of Clare College, and so I remember her from those years. Jackson was very loyal to York Minster. Interestingly, he and David Willcocks were often mistaken for each other because they looked rather alike. Sometimes they were congratulated for the other’s work.

LB: I imagine they were pretty gracious about that.

JR: I think they were.

(I mention my interview with Stephen Cleobury for The Diapason, June 2018, pages 20–23.)

JR: Stephen’s reign at King’s has been even longer than David Willcocks’s. David was the organist/director of music at King’s for seventeen years, I believe. He took office late in 1957 when Boris Ord, his predecessor, became ill and needed help. He had something like a motor-neuron disease. It was a degenerative condition, and first his foot began to slip off the pedal notes. David, who had been organ scholar at King’s, was summoned to assist. When it was clear Ord wasn’t going to recover, Willcocks was given the title director of music and Ord had an emeritus role. David continued until 1974 when he went to the Royal College of Music. Philip Ledger followed for a period of seven years and did a fine job. Stephen Cleobury took over in 1982 and will retire in 2019.

We have had two long reigns with a shorter one in the middle. Now his retirement has been announced, and the advertisement has been placed for the job, which will generate hot competition. A lot of interest will attach to it, and many will apply, I imagine.1

LB: What kind of direction do you believe King’s will go, or would you like to see the direction be?

JR: What has changed is that King’s is no longer in the field by themselves. When David Willcocks took over in 1957 there were only two choirs that the world had heard of in the city of Cambridge. King’s was one of them, St. John’s was the other. They were twin peaks; I would never hold up one over the other. King’s has possibly enjoyed the greater renown because it is traditionally broadcast from the BBC at Christmas time that has gone around the world.

St. John’s does not sing during the immediate period around Christmas, so King’s has slightly had the edge. What a new director now has to accept is that King’s is not alone. There are other peaks in the Cambridge choral world. This is a city of choirs.

Once the men’s colleges began to admit women, and, in the case of Girton, the women’s college began to admit men, the choirs became mixed, made up of very gifted and eager undergraduates who wanted to sing at a high level, and have had the example of King’s and St. John’s to inspire them.

Of course, those mixed choirs are more in line with what is happening in the real world, as men and boys choirs are often becoming difficult to recruit. Adult mixed choirs are becoming pretty standard. My own choir, Clare College, Trinity College Choir, Gonville and Caius, Christ College, Jesus College (they actually have two choirs, as they have both a boys and a girls choir), St. Catherine’s, a lot of choirs are vying for excellence.

What has to continue to happen at Kings, as has already begun successfully, is to accommodate to the thought that they don’t have the field to themselves, and they must remain distinctive. For the foreseeable future I think they will retain a boy’s and men’s choir. They do have a mixed choir that sings on Mondays. They need to maintain their tradition.

They have spread themselves quite widely in the scope of their activities, and that will have to continue. They now have their own record label and webcasts that bring their work day by day to a wide audience.

They give a lot more concerts, recitals, and do a lot more tours than they used to. Whoever runs it will have to have a clear sense of the identity of the choir and its tradition, while being able to successfully swim in a much more crowded pool. In some ways it’s a harder job than it was back in the days of David Willcocks at King’s and George Guest at St. John’s, because it was kind of lonesome up there, and now it isn’t.

When they look back and write the history of what’s happening in choral music in Britain, it will be seen that there was something of a golden age at Oxford and Cambridge, and other universities, where many have seen the value of the fine choir tradition and want to copy it. So Royal Holloway College, London University, and King’s College, London, all now have fine choirs.

One thing about a choir is that it’s useful for drawing attention to the college, because the students tapping away at their laptops doing their degree work isn’t very newsworthy. On the other hand, a choir that gives a recital and wows the audience spreads the awareness of the college, helps with recruitment. There’s no question of that. That’s something that’s been understood for a long time in the United States, where, for example, the St. Olaf Choir has always had a big annual tour. This is something we’re rapidly getting used to here in the UK.

Cambridge has always been an international university, and now it has to compete on a global stage with others. There are Asian students who are so committed and dedicated and they have a choice. They could go to a university in this country or they could go to an American university or Australian one, or wherever they feel there is a center of excellence in their chosen field. Choirs will continue to have an important role in waving the flag for their colleges and universities. That will continue to be an important part of what King’s College does.

LB: Some colleges struggle to get enough resources in the budget to be able to tour.

JR: In the end you may find that you attract more funding than you spend. It’s necessary to spend money in order to recoup the costs. The great thing about a choir is that it is transportable. You can’t send the Clare College cricket team on a United States tour. What would they do when they get there? Whom would they play?

That’s something the new director of King’s College will have to be aware of. You always have to fight your corner in a college that isn’t just about music. There are people who are highly expert in many fields of academic endeavor and question music’s place in the academy.

We have to persuade others over and over again that music is important, and why liturgical music that forms part of the music in the chapel is important. This is not so hard to explain to atheists, but it is to people from a different religious tradition. What’s the point of all this elaborate worship in a university setting?

I heard a senior tutor say, “We’re a degree factory.” The response to that is to ask why we should be the same as every other university. If the college or university has a unique tradition, if the choir is built into the fabric and statutes of the institution that go back centuries, then we should be cherishing and nurturing that.

That’s a point, oddly, that is better understood in the United States than here. I’ve talked to people who are attracting tourists to this country and some British planners have said, “We’re not a museum. We’re a vibrant country that’s doing all sorts of new things, pushing back new frontiers in science and technology.” An American in the meeting said, “What people want is your history.” In a sense it is part of what we should be nurturing.

The atom was split here in Cambridge, new bits of the universe have been discovered. Yet, when we have something rather special and lovely that goes back for centuries, we shouldn’t apologize for what went on, we should celebrate it.

LB: For American choral music, the British choral music tradition is still of great interest and curiosity. Are there other mentors than David Willcocks who influenced you?

JR: I have to go back further than my university days. I was fortunate to attend a boys school where music was a very important part of the curriculum. It was in north London, Highgate School, which had a Christian foundation, dating from 1565. It has a plain red brick chapel up Highgate Hill. At the highest point in London, there it is.

That is where I spent my early years under the really inspirational guidance of Edward Chapman. He had been an organ scholar at Pembroke College, Cambridge, in the 1920s, and was a student of Charles Wood. If you’ve ever sung “Ding Dong Merrily on High,” the chances are you’ve probably sung his harmonization. He was a choral and liturgical musician. He was director of music here at Gonville and Caius College. He was a conservative craftsman of great skill who was rather strict and stern with his students, of whom Edward Chapman was one.

I am the grandson of Charles Wood through music because a lot of his ideas and teachings were passed down to me through Chapman. Oddly, of course, Wood wrote and arranged Christmas carols and compiled collections of them, and I’ve done the same. I can’t explain that connection really. The great thing was that I was encouraged to think that composition was normal, which for a teenage boy is quite unusual. In our school it was OK to write music. We were encouraged to write music for our school orchestra or other instrumental ensembles or the chapel choir occasionally.

One of my slightly older classmates was John Tavener, later Sir John Tavener. He was clearly destined for fame and fortune. We still miss him. He died in 2013, just short of his seventieth birthday, which was very sad.

LB: Did he die rather suddenly? Didn’t he compose until the end?

JR: He had an unusual condition called Marfan syndrome, a congenital malfunction of the body’s connective tissues. Marfan’s people generally grow rather tall and can be double-jointed, which can help if you are a keyboard player, I suppose. Indeed John was a fine pianist and organist. It tends to go with a general malformation of the heart and requires heart surgery, which now has an established technique and outcome. At the time when John and his brother, who also had the disease, had the operation the surgery was pioneering. It did give them thirty years of life they wouldn’t have had. Nevertheless, his health was always precarious.

I remember him mostly as a high school friend. We would show each other our newly written compositions, and I was recruited, among his other colleagues and friends, to take part in whatever was his latest compositional epic. I generally worked on a smaller scale than he did and was rather in awe of him.

There were other musicians there among my contemporaries. I remember in a very different field young David Cullen, who became Andrew Lloyd Webber’s orchestrator and assistant, who worked in the shadows, but whose skill and musicianship were relied on by this renowned musical theater composer. He was at Highgate at the same time, as well as Howard Shelley, the pianist, who has had a fine international career.

There was a whole bunch of us who knew that music was important in our lives. I was not the most obvious among them, really, because I had no outstanding performing talent. I’m afraid your readers wouldn’t enjoy my organ playing.

LB: So I shouldn’t ask about it?

No, well, it ceased at age 18. I felt I owed it to myself to study an instrument to a reasonable standard, and I studied the organ up through the standard exams.

As I worked through the eight levels we have here in the UK, the music gets harder and the scales get faster and more intricate. I managed to put myself through grade 8 on the organ and afterwards, when I got my certificate I thought, “Right, I’m giving up,” because I knew my musical gift, if I had one, was for composing and conducting, not for playing. I can rehearse and accompany music, but I never want to play in public.

Yet, well, oddly, a page of orchestral score paper always felt like home territory to me. I always felt very comfortable with what amounts to the cookery of orchestral writing. The recipe is put together from different ingredients. You have to know what goes with what. If you put too much spice in it masks the flavor of something else.

When writing for orchestra, if one puts too much brass in, it will cover up what is going on in the woodwinds and strings, etc. That was something I learned from the great masters as, in the end, every musician does. I was encouraged to write for all sorts of resources back in high school.

We had an annual musical competition with an instrumental ensemble class. The more instruments you included, the more points you got. So if we had within our house, which was a sub-group of the school, a tuba player who could only play about four notes, you would put him in. So that gave me a taste of instrumental writing, where one had to adapt to the resources you have. None of that music survives, fortunately.

LB: What an environment to live in!

JR: Yes, it really was. Our headmaster always thought I should be an academic. He knew enough of the musical profession to know it was full of pitfalls, disappointments, setbacks, heartbreak, and he was not sure that I would have whatever it took to succeed. Nor was I sure, but I boldly applied to Cambridge, slightly under false pretenses, because I said I wanted to study modern languages, French and German. As soon as I came up for the interviews, I confessed to the senior tutor of Clare, “Well, look, I really want to do music.” And he said, “All right.”

So I was allowed to follow my true vocation. Nobody stopped me, and no one has stopped me ever since. I’m still doing today what I was doing as that little child in my parent’s apartment when I first discovered the out-of-tune upright piano.

There’s a story I’ve told many times, but it’s true. At the age of five or six, as an only child, I spent a lot of time by myself, and I would doodle away in a world of my own, singing along in my little treble voice, and just making up music. In a way, that’s what I’m still doing, all these years later, except, with a bit of luck I get paid for it. And I can write it down, which I couldn’t do then. I only learned to read and write music once I got to school.

LB: Do you think that being able to compose a tune is a gift?

JR: I would always describe myself as 50% composer and 50% songwriter. Really they’re not the same skill. I’ve always been drawn to melody among those twentieth-century composers where I found it. That often meant songwriters. I owe a huge debt to the classic American songwriters, which I would call the golden age of American musical theater, roughly stretching from Jerome Kern to Stephen Sondheim. The thing I learned from them, which I also learned from the song writing of Schubert, Schumann, and others, is that a tune is a great carrier for the sense of a text. It’s like a vector for conveying the text, like shooting an arrow into the heart of the listener.

I would never renounce melody. Of course in twentieth-century concert music and opera, one doesn’t normally go out humming the tunes. The composers of that sort of music are developing music in other ways, discovering new sound worlds, new structures, new interrelationships between music and other worlds of the arts. A lot of contemporary music is inspired by dance, visual arts, poetry, etc. One doesn’t go to it expecting the same thing as attending West Side Story. Although my training is 100% classical, I’ve been influenced by music theater and perhaps, to a smaller extent, pop music.

I have this problem that probably goes with age, but pop music stopped for me somewhere after the Beatles, which is a long time ago. “Here, There, and Everywhere” is a lovely song.

I’m not sure that any one pop musician today has any standing like they did. The world of pop music and media was not so fragmented as today. There were not so many radio and television stations, not as many record labels. If you did attain prominence, it is probably greater than anything you could attain now.

The Beatles were so multi-talented. They were very good: great melodists, inventive poets. Their music retains great freshness. I think that’s where melody fits in to what I do. I’ve allowed myself to be influenced by the fields outside of classical music, but it’s contained within the framework of my classical training, I think.

LB: The Beatles created a new sound world as well. When we studied classical music in the 1970s we came home to our dorm and listened to the Beatles. We didn’t see it as a problem or incongruity to put those musics next to each other.

JR: I don’t think it need be a problem. I must say I’m not too enamored with rock music in church. I think it’s too one-dimensional. I think there is a subtlety about the great tradition of church music, and a depth that is more nourishing. I think so much rock music is loud, and all in 4/4, and thus there isn’t the same potential for responding sensitively to what is probably the greatest body of texts we have. Anybody who is going to set words to music is sooner or later going to come upon religious texts. They have the great quality of vision and poetry. We have the great fortune in this country, and I’m fortunate to be a member of the last generation to experience the King James Bible and the Prayer Book of 1662 on a daily basis. These words are majestic English, written by Shakespeare’s contemporaries, when they knew how to turn a good phrase.

It was ousted about the time I went to university, first the New English Bible, then other translations. We absolutely need the new translations, and I use them, but when I’m looking for words to set, I find there is more resonance in the historic English of the King James Bible or the old Prayer Book. Somehow it seems to invite music in a way I don’t find in contemporary religious writing. This is not to say that we shouldn’t persevere with it. I remember the dean of St. Paul’s (London) once said to me, “Yes, the contemporary translations of the Bible are not all that fantastic. The only way they’ll get better, though, is if we keep persevering with them.”

LB: There are good reasons for changing and updating English language.

JR: Oh, yes. With inclusiveness, and those things, which they weren’t worrying about in the 1600s. At the same time, it’s good to have a sense of historical imagination, so that when we hear William Byrd setting the words, “Prevent us, O Lord,” we know that he didn’t mean “stop us, O Lord,” but “go before us, O Lord.” If we just eradicate that from our religious language, we lose a sense of how flexible and ever-changing language can be.

Or again, “when man goeth forth to his labor,” it refers to the German “Mensch.” “Mann” in German means a human being, where man in English means a male. In English the same word, unfortunately, serves for both. We need to be aware that a little mental switch goes on and we say, “ah, this is Mensch, this refers to the whole human race.” It would be a shame if we lost that completely, though I do see where it is important the people understand the words as they are meant today. However, young people also need to read old poetry and experience old literature. Otherwise they won’t be enriched by this changing landscape of the English language, which has been such a wonderfully flexible instrument through the changes of many centuries, and continues to evolve.

LB: I recently heard a Mass by Jonathan Dove sung at the Bath Abbey. Do you know it?

JR: Yes, I do, and I know Jonathan Dove quite well, a fine composer. Their director of music Huw Williams has not been there very long. He had been at St. Paul’s Cathedral, as one of the three organists there. He then moved to be the director of music at the Chapel Royal at St. James’s Palace in London, and then moved within the last year to Bath Abbey, where they have a glorious acoustic—a stone fan-vaulted roof very much modeled on King’s College. The sound floats around in a particularly beautiful way, I think.

LB: I saw you had done a Singing Day the previous weekend at Bath Abbey. Can you say a bit about what those Singing Days are all about?

JR: That Singing Day was one of about twelve to twenty I do every year. Its purpose is to bring people together to enjoy singing for a day without the pressure of a concert or worship service at the end. I really got the idea from the reading sessions that I was asked to be a part of in the United States, often put on by publishers or universities, denominational summer retreats, where people are handed a pile of music at the door and they sing through it. Generally, the purpose is to acquaint those people with the publishers’ music that they might want to use in their own situation. I couldn’t help realizing that they were getting pleasure out of just being together, singing, and not having to worry about polishing the music to perfection.

So I wondered if that idea could be brought into Britain, where it’s not necessarily all about promoting music as such, but just giving people a chance to sing together. It’s aimed at anybody who wants to come. I accept these engagements if I am free, and if the hosts agree to my simple condition that all are welcome. I have ample opportunity to work with professionals. It’s nice to embrace the whole domain of people who sing for fun. A lot of the people who come do belong to civic or church choirs. It might be a small choir, though, without a sufficient balance of parts. So to be part of a choir of 450, which was the maximum we could fit into Bath Abbey, was rather inspiring because it’s different. I do get people who say they are too shy to audition for a choir. I like it if people bring along youngsters to be introduced, painlessly I hope, to all sorts of choral music. Of course there are those who sight read but are a bit rusty, and it improves their skills just like a muscle that needs exercise. So there are a number of functions.

I try to throw in tips for vocal technique. Particularly the men who come to these events may not have sung recently, or even at all since being a child. They come back to it not knowing how to use their voice properly. A few simple things will often put them back on the track, to be able to control their breath, and make a reasonable sound. So there is some teaching purpose, but really the idea is to spend time singing through a bunch of music. I choose about a 50/50 mix of classical or contemporary composers, perhaps not known to them, and my own works. If I didn’t include some of my own work, people would think it’s a bit strange. So, more than anything else, what I find striking about these events is how people feel they must tell me what pleasure it’s given them at the end of the day. It’s almost a physical thing, really, to just say, “I feel so good.” Of course you might get something similar with a good yoga class or Pilates, but singing can have the same beneficial effect on us—body and soul.

LB: And now, as we know more scientifically about brain theory, we can show that it’s true.

JR: Of course, exactly. Sometimes people have to discover, or rediscover that for themselves. These Singing Days form an enjoyable part of my life, and I hope that they spread a love of singing, or reinforce it among those that have dropped out of choral singing, or put new heart into those who struggle with their little church choir week by week, and need something to power them up a bit.

I have to say that my days of traveling abroad to various universities and churches have come to an end, voluntarily. I decided I had to prioritize my time. I like to be in other places, but I resent the time I spend traveling to and from them. I know it’s quick and easy in comparison to the days before jet travel, but it’s still quite tiring. I value increasingly the time I spend at home recording and composing.

LB: I’d like to hear a bit about what you are thinking about for the future. I saw the recent piece Visions you wrote as a violin concerto with boys choir for the Yehudi Menuhin competition. It seemed like a new area for you.

JR: Yes, I never thought I’d end up writing so much choral music, because I simply compose music. I think we delude ourselves if we imagine we are in control of our lives. I don’t think I ever did, or do, have a grand master plan for my life in music. If I ever had it, it hasn’t turned out the way I thought it would. So many of the paths we take are the result of chance meetings or events we hadn’t predicted. If I hadn’t met David Willcocks, and if he hadn’t been interested in my work, I might never have shown my music to a publisher, and perhaps I might have thought I should teach at a university. If people out there in the world of choral music hadn’t gotten hold of some of my early music and requested more of it, there wouldn’t be as much as there is. More than three-quarters of my total output is choral. I don’t fight that too hard, because, when all is said and done, I love choirs. I grew up singing in them. I feel some sense of coming home to my roots when I write choral music. I love poetry; I love words. Music allied to words is rather special to me.

Sometimes, though, it is nice to go beyond words. That is one of the reasons I thought it would be an interesting challenge to write a work that centers on virtuosic violin writing. It is a twenty-minute work for the winner of the Yehudi Menuhin competition in 2016 and was requested to have a part written for the boys choir of the Temple Church (London), where the concert would be held.

Visions is either the only violin concerto with a part for sopranos or it is the only work for soprano voices that has a violin part quite this elaborate. It’s a hybrid piece, but one which sprang out of the circumstances. I receive many invitations to write things, but the reason I said yes to this one was that it was different and drew inspiration from the history of the Temple Church itself, which, as Dan Brown’s readers will know, has links with the Crusades.

The Knights Templars came back with their plunder from the Holy Land, and given that they thought they had been rather naughty, they should spend it on something worthy. So they founded hospitals, churches, and schools. The round part of the Temple Church was built with money they probably supplied, and it’s modeled on the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. So it was the London base for one of the Crusades. It’s a little hard to speak of this now in a time when the Crusades have become quite politically incorrect. Nonetheless, there is something inspiring about seeing the tombs of the knights, especially when it’s dark in the round part of the church. The rest of the church was bombed flat in World War II, but the round part was sturdy and withstood; the nave did not.

LB: I’ve visited the Round Church in Cambridge, built in a similar way and time, and find the acoustics are splendid.

JR: The Round Church is very similar. In Cambridge it is sadly no longer used as a church. It is sort of a visitor’s center. Of course Cambridge is ludicrously over-churched, and always was. I don’t think that all of those church buildings that crowd around here were ever full, even when everybody went to church. It was like a style accessory; we’ve got to have one. There’s been quite a lot of imagination applied to find a role for them all in the twenty-first century.

LB: The first time I walked into Michaelhouse, a coffee house in a church with choir stalls, an altar, and stained glass windows, I was quite startled. For an American, it felt strange to me.

JR: Michaelhouse Centre is owned by Great St. Mary’s, our university church, which has a thriving congregation. They’ve always had Michaelhouse there, and they scratched their heads a bit to decide what to do with it. I don’t think it’s been used for worship for many years now. It’s not really needed for that purpose, as the university church is just a one-minute walk away. It’s a little bit of a shock, I’m sure.

LB: Do you have the amateur musician in mind when you compose?

JR: If you write for an opera company or orchestra, you’re writing for professionals. If you write for choirs, you are generally writing for amateurs or students. That’s who make up the majority of the world’s choirs. There are a small number of professional European and British choirs, sometimes associated with broadcasting, and certainly university and cathedral choirs that attain a professional level.

The term “professional singer” means something different in the UK than in the United States. Those singers called professional here earn their living solely by singing in professional choirs or vocal ensembles like Tenebrae, Ora, The Sixteen, to name a few. The same pool of singers will populate those groups. There are something like 200 professional small group singers in London. They accept invitations to be in a tour or recording for a group. There is a lot of fruitful interchange.

Many of those singers are from the Oxbridge (Oxford and Cambridge) chapel choirs, and they want to earn their living as singers but they don’t necessarily want to be soloists. They are really on a level that is unrealistic for other choirs to match. The best of our collegiate choirs are on a similar level. They can perform music of similar challenge and complexity, not available to your average parish choir or local choral society. As a choral composer you have to know for whom you are writing. I’ve just been writing the liner notes for Trinity College Choir’s CD of Owain Park’s music, which is terrific—it creates a sound world opening up before your ears, but don’t expect it to be replicated by your local church choir anytime soon.

I don’t write primarily for the apex of the choral spectrum. Rather, I’ve been writing mostly for choirs somewhere in the middle. One has to be mindful of the liturgical context. The surprise to me is that some pieces I’ve written like All Things Bright and Beautiful and For the Beauty of the Earth, the little ditties, which were crafted with the needs and tradition of the American choirs who commissioned them, have begun to filter back over here. I remember thinking, I will never hear For the Beauty of the Earth sung by an English cathedral choir. Just yesterday I looked at the YouTube video of it being sung by Winchester Cathedral choristers, and indeed the Queen Mother wanted it sung at her 100th birthday celebration service, which it was. I could have never predicted that. What’s happened is that the Church of England has moved its own goalposts a bit, and there has been a loosening up and embracing of a more relaxed, informal kind of church music.

I’ve been generally aiming at a choir in a specific location. It’s always a surprise when a piece gets performed somewhere quite different. I wrote my Requiem within the Anglican Catholic tradition, and it gets done a lot in Japan, where there really isn’t a strong Christian tradition. One never knows where music will reach, and that’s one of the amazing things about it. I always try to write for the performers who will be involved in the first performance. I feel a strong obligation to whoever is doing the piece first. I don’t usually think long past that.

LB: Isn’t it interesting that when you write for a particular context, it often finds a new home in a quite unrelated place?

JR: I almost never write for a general purpose, and I don’t accept commissions anymore, as I want to use my time for my own projects at my own pace. Things like Visions could have never happened if I had been overwhelmed with commissions. This was what I thought was a brilliant idea that was presented to me, and I was glad I had the time to do it.

I still seem to be as busy as ever. The nice thing about being a composer is that no one forces you to retire. You carry on until there is no longer any demand for your services, and of course, composers sometimes carry on even when there is no demand. I hope that day won’t come. It’s nice to be wanted.

LB: What do you still want to do and write?

JR: Oh, everything I haven’t ever done. I don’t want to repeat myself. That’s why I’m a bit shy of doing more choral pieces, particularly if they are attached to a particular celebration, a centenary or a conductor’s anniversary. I’ve done all that. I look for the things I’ve never done before, and I must be realistic. John Williams isn’t going to phone me and say, “I really don’t want to write the next Star Wars score, will you do it for me?” That’s not going to happen.

LB: Would you like that kind of invitation?

JR: Oh, yes, I’d love it. Nor is the Metropolitan Opera going to say, “How about a big new opera for 2020?” It’s happened to my young composer friend, Nico Muhly. His new opera, Marnie, has been premiered in London. It has also been performed by the Met who actually commissioned it. That happens to someone of his generation, but not to somebody of my generation whose track record is in another field altogether.

Then again, if Cameron Mackintosh, the great theatrical man who backed many a musical, were to say “How about a big Broadway musical?” I wouldn’t say no if I had the right idea and the right collaborator to do the book and lyrics. Those are things I’ve never done before, so if they came my way, I would love them.

But, I should be very grateful for the opportunities that have come my way, the people I’ve met, the kind musicians I’ve worked with, the fine texts I’ve been privileged to set to music. It’s been a rich and varied career so far. I’ll be honest with you: I don’t usually plan much beyond a week, because you never know what may happen that may change all your plans. It’s always a challenge to keep up with the commitments that I have undertaken, which sometimes take longer than I’d planned, or those additional ones that come along that I can’t anticipate.

I was amused last year when Helmut Kohl, the former German chancellor, died. He was very much the architect of the European Union, and my Requiem was to be used in part at his funeral service in the cathedral in Münster. There was an orchestra already booked when they discovered that his vast bulk and the coffin were so huge, and the pallbearers so many, they weren’t going to be able to squeeze past the orchestra, which was off to one side of the chancel steps. They needed to cut the orchestra right down—twelve players had to go.

They asked if I could rescore the Requiem movement for the reduced forces that would be at their disposal. I think I got the email on Friday, and they needed the parts on Tuesday. So I dropped what I was doing. It was a flagship event, televised all around Europe, and I couldn’t let them down. I hadn’t anticipated that, nor had they.

LB: Did you conduct it?

JR: No, I watched it on television. They did get the coffin past, but only just.

LB: You were holding your breath?

JR: We all were. They were big strong pallbearers.

LB: Do you have guidance or encouragement to American church musicians?

JR: Well, you know, hang in there. I think it’s always the first thing to notice that church music has the complication of not just writing for a concert hall where you’re pretty much in charge. You’re part of a team, which is not primarily about music, but is about worship. One must be sensitive about that. I have been told that one of the most common problems by far is professional-personal relationships between clergy and musicians. It always needs patience and tact and understanding on both sides. When it is achieved, then something rather beautiful can happen.

The problems can be in both directions. Sometimes it’s the musician who wants to introduce change, and it’s the clergy or the congregation who resist. Sometimes it’s the reverse, and it’s the clergy or congregation who want music that’s more pop oriented, and it’s the musician who digs in his/her heels and says, “I don’t want to do that.” How do you meet in the middle? I don’t know.

It can make things difficult. One must be a first-class musician and a first-class diplomat, and to be aware of the winds of change that blow, being able to distinguish between temporary fads that everyone will soon forget, and the changes now that are here for good. It’s impossible really to be a successful prophet 100% of the time, but a sense of discrimination, in an altogether good sense, is probably useful. For example, if there is pressure to scratch singing the psalms in the way you are used to, and the new idea is to do them with three chords to a guitar, one must say, “Hold on one minute. This seems to be catching on and isn’t going to last.”

On the other hand, when there has been a general move to make church music more this or more that, then you must consider whether to go with it or risk being written off as someone who is irrelevant. You should always have as your guiding light the music that is in your heart of hearts. Always be true to that.


1. On May 23, 2018, the Provost and Fellows of King’s College, Cambridge, announced the appointment of Daniel Hyde as director of music at King’s, to take office on October 1, 2019. Hyde currently serves as organist and director of music at St. Thomas Episcopal Church, Fifth Avenue, New York, New York.

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