Questions to John Rutter: First Musical Memories

What are your first musical memories?

I must have been no more than three years old, attending a local nursery school where a rather formidable lady came in every day after lunch to entertain us with her accordion. I found the sound of this instrument so terrifying that I hid in the cloakroom. My attitude to the accordion has softened slightly since then, but I admit I have never written for it. Everything changed at kindergarten a year or two later, where each day began with a school assembly – prayers, an introductory piano piece from the easier classics (Merry Peasants, Rustles of Spring and the like), and a hymn for us all to sing. I loved the singing and wished it could go on all day. My first school report, kept for years by my parents, said ‘John sings well . . . if he sings softly’. Meanwhile at home I discovered the out-of-tune upright piano that stood unplayed in a corner, and began to pick out the tunes I had sung at school or heard on the radio, sometimes making up little pieces of my own. At the age of five or six I couldn’t read or write music, so they fortunately haven’t been preserved for posterity. Neither of my parents were musicians but they must have sensed I needed piano lessons and sent me along to a lady called Mrs Melville who also gave piano lessons to the young choristers at Westminster Abbey. After a while she must have realised I had all the makings of a truly hopeless pianist, but she did like my little compositions and encouraged my singing – and, bless her, she gave me a key to music’s magic garden by teaching me to read music (remember Every Good Boy Deserves Fruit?) so I could begin to put my ideas on paper. I think it was Mrs Melville who suggested I should audition to be a chorister in one of the London cathedrals – at seven or eight I was the right age – but this idea went no further. Instead my parents sent me to the junior department of Highgate School in north London, a school with a strong musical tradition, and I started there shortly before my ninth birthday.


Who were your early teachers and influences?

They were the teachers at my school. Not coming from a musical family there was no music-making in our home – no family string quartet or singing around the piano – but there was plenty of music at school. Lots of us played instruments (I got no further than the class recorder group), but the school’s pride and joy was its choir, which I eagerly joined. Our reputation was such that we were chosen to take part in what I believe was the first UK performance of Carmina Burana at the BBC Proms, giving me my first taste of being onstage at the Royal Albert Hall, a venue I have loved ever since. Our choir director in the junior school was the somewhat peppery and short-tempered Martindale Sidwell, who combined his job at the school with being organist and choir director at the nearby Hampstead Parish Church. He must have been a fine musician, he raised his church choir to cathedral standard, and he always treated me with kindness and encouragement, but others recall him as irritable when sober and unpredictable when not. He could last only about twenty minutes without a cigarette; midway through our class music lessons he would stick a recording of some familiar classic on to the antique gramophone in the classroom, tell us to listen to it, and disappear. They were twelve-inch 78s which lasted just over four minutes, long enough for him to take a few desperate puffs in the playground. That was my first introduction to the classics.

Martindale Sidwell was succeeded as junior school music master by the affable Reg Thompson who gave me my first stage experience, as the little crippled boy Amahl in Menotti’s Christmas opera Amahl and the Night Visitors. It was an amateur church production, probably not as good as the reviewer in the local paper wrote it up to be, but I think I rather enjoyed hobbling around on my crutch warbling Menotti’s music to an admiring audience. Today Menotti is one of the forgotten figures of opera, and perhaps his music doesn’t stand up too well in comparison with Puccini or Britten, but I do still admire his poetic lyrics and his compelling sense of drama. Amahl was in my final year at junior school, I was twelve years old, and it was time to move on to senior school.

8 Responses to “Questions to John Rutter: First Musical Memories”

  1. Agatha (Atie) van Doesburg

    I’m assuming your parents did encourage you to sing!! Maybe you should bring Amahl back into the limelight. I was brought up with music, my uncle played the piano and we’d stand round singing, and later we acquired a piano, but more for my brother. I did have some lessons, which was good for the sight-reading I needed when I finally (as an adult) starting singing. Thank you for all your beautiful compositions. And I wish I could join you in Cambridge! More Come And Sings please ❤️

  2. Steve Thomas

    Thank you for all your excellent music and for sharing some of your history in this blog. I also played Amahl and have sung in choirs for over 50 years. Your choral recordings are amazing examples. I only wish that the groups with which I sing could sound that good.

  3. RA

    Laughing at some of these very sweet and humble beginnings. Nothing illustrious musically at an early age, and how very encouraging that is for the rest of us! Love that there was so much music at schools and how it charmed your young fancies. Thank you for these tender memories.

  4. Connie Herbon

    Thank you, John. This is so interesting!
    As a retired music teacher, your work with us at Morningside College in Sioux City, Iowa, remain a highlight of my teaching career.

  5. Alan Wenrich

    Quite interesting, given Mr Rutter’s incredible choral genius I assumed he came from a musical family. Thank you his interview.

  6. Jane

    Thanks for sharing the story of your early years. I’d love a photo of you as Amahl! That is such a sweet operetta. I looked all over NYC (we live on Long Island) for a production so I could take my grandchildren, but alas none were to be found. I wish someone would broadcast Amahl on BBC so we Americans could enjoy it. Notice I didn’t mention an American company….we only watch TV from Brittan!

  7. Gerda Blok-Wilson

    I find the story about the accordion so fun! I was dying to take piano lessons in my youth but my parents weren’t wealthy enough to squander money on impulse dreams so they enrolled me in discount accordion ones to see if I really would be committed. Age 12. I flew through the levels in weeks. Gained an old grandfather piano to start and never looked back with my music career. I do love the accordion with certain genres especially traditional.

  8. Matthew Paton

    From elementary school music, to chorister at Episcopal church. High school next and I only sang in church until choir director heard me and convinced me to join. Now 50 years later I no longer sing but miss it badly. Love your music and sang quite a few. Most enjoyed your Requim. A joyful end to life.