Questions to John Rutter: High School and University

This blog post is part a series, in which John answers the questions he is most frequently asked.

What were your high school experiences?

Highgate was a boys’ school with a remarkable director of music and two remarkable choirs: a large concert chorus which gave an annual oratorio performance with the school orchestra, and a select chapel choir which sang at all the chapel services. I was drafted into both, and in retrospect I see how extraordinary it was that the concert chorus, over 250 of us, included almost half the school, giving us the experience of performing Haydn’s Creation, Bach’s B minor Mass, and even Tippett’s A Child of our Time (we struggled with that one). The composer was in the audience, unsmiling, which taught me a valuable lesson for later: when attending a performance of your own music, try to look pleased and never fall asleep.

Highgate School Chapel, North London by Jim Osley, via Wikimedia Commons

The chapel choir took its responsibilities seriously. We sang much of the music associated with cathedral choirs – Byrd, Purcell, Bach, Brahms, Stanford and so on – and, a high point of our singing year, a carol service closely modelled on the renowned Christmas Eve Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols at King’s College, Cambridge. As my voice morphed from treble to alto, settling finally somewhere in the bass clef, I got to know some of the annual favourites like Charles Wood’s Ding dong! Merrily on high and Pearsall’s In dulci jubilo rather well during my five years in the choir. From time to time we were invited to take part in outside engagements, the most notable of which was the original 1963 recording of Britten’s War Requiem in which we were the boys’ choir. Watching the composer direct his huge team of performers with utter assurance and professionalism was an eye-opening experience. In addition to his other extraordinary gifts, Britten was an inspiring conductor: economical in his gestures, crystal-clear in his intentions, speaking only when something needed to be said, somehow making his performers give better than their best.

I was fortunate to attend a school where such rich experiences were to be had, and presiding over it all was a director whose memory I and numerous other Highgate musicians hold in gratitude and affection: Edward Chapman, a lithe, alert figure in his late fifties. He had been Organ Scholar at Pembroke College, Cambridge in the 1920s, a student of Charles Wood (he of Ding dong! merrily on high and much other church music), and he was a gifted composer and organist. He had taught at Highgate for over thirty years, and had transformed music in the school from a fringe activity of far less importance than sport into its lifeblood. He encouraged generations of Highgate boys to pursue music, not least composition, and it was thanks to him that I became resolved to follow in his footsteps to Cambridge.

Among my contemporaries was the eccentric and highly gifted John Tavener, already composing prolifically. He was about seventeen when he wrote an ambitious biblical cantata called Genesis in which we, his school friends, took part. I was given a simple organ part suited to my modest skill, and I also copied the instrumental parts, helping me to acquire a skill that stood me in good stead later in the penniless early stages of my career. I certainly must count John among my early influences, though I felt as much overshadowed as inspired by him. I doubt whether either of us looked far into the future – what teenager does? – but it was clear he would find fame and fortune. John and I saw less of each other in later years because he went on to study composition at the Royal Academy of Music with Lennox Berkeley while I was at Cambridge, but we were touchingly brought together at Edward Chapman’s memorial service in the school chapel in 1980. John and I were each invited to write a choral piece for the occasion; he wrote his solemn and beautiful Funeral Ikos, I wrote The Lord bless you and keep you. Neither of us could have known that our two heartfelt tributes to a dear, rather reserved and enigmatic man would go around the world, but I like to think he would have quietly proud of us.

I do know he was pleased that I wanted to go to Cambridge. I didn’t have the faintest idea which of the university’s thirty colleges to apply to, and was happy to follow the suggestion of my sixth-form language teacher John Dare to try for his old college, Clare, a decision I have never had cause to regret.

What possibilities did Cambridge open up? Who were your influences there?

It was December 1963 and my parents had just received a telegram from Clare College informing them that I had been awarded an Exhibition in modern languages (a lesser scholarship worth £40 per annum as opposed to the £60 of a scholarship). ‘Please wire if accept’, it read. That was how communication was carried out then if it was urgent. They did accept. I considered myself lucky: my headmaster regarded music to be a subject of study only for the conspicuously gifted like John Tavener, and I was told to apply for a scholarship in modern languages, a much safer bet. I had never set foot in either France or Germany, and my grasp of their two languages was, well, theoretical and sketchy. You gained entry to Cambridge in those days by sitting an examination held in Cambridge itself over a three-day period, during which you were also interviewed by your prospective college. I went through this ritual, but when it came to interview time, honesty prevailed over prudence and I confessed to Dr John Northam (senior tutor at Clare and a world authority on Ibsen) that I didn’t actually want to study French and German; music was my goal. An imperturbable man, his sang froid developed during World War II when he worked in high-level military intelligence, he took a calm puff at his pipe (allowed indoors back then) and said ‘You’ll have to see Dr Temperley about that’. He was the tall, scholarly, bespectacled Music Fellow at Clare, and he offered me an immediate solution: if I was willing to sit last year’s music scholarship papers in the evenings while sitting this year’s language papers by day, the college would consider my application sympathetically. They did, and I was duly admitted to Clare to read for a music degree, the happy result of a false-flag operation. I bless Cambridge for many reasons, but the first of them was its flexibility in allowing me my heart’s desire and giving me the freedom to pursue it – all at nil cost to my impoverished parents, in those days of fairly ample student grants

Clare College

Was I privileged? Yes, hugely. But so was my entire generation of British youngsters who had the doors of our expanding number of universities opened to them for the first time on the basis of merit alone, with financial support from the government generous enough that lack of parental income was no deterrent. Most of my Cambridge contemporaries were first-generation students with no family tradition of higher education. We were glad and grateful to be at Cambridge; student unrest, riots, and demands for this and that lay four or five years into the future.

Freedom was the greatest opportunity that Cambridge music students enjoyed. There is more organised tuition for undergraduate musicians now, but in 1964 we were mostly left to ourselves. There were lectures – some of them sparsely attended – a weekly class in harmony and counterpoint, and a weekly ‘supervision’ (the Cambridge name for a one-to-one tutorial). That was about it. We had acres of free time to use as we wished. Some studied diligently, others laid the foundations of their later careers by conducting or performing, though others did – not much. Those of us who were natural self-starters did best.

My supervisor was a composer, less than ten years older than me, named Patrick Gowers. He lived in London but came to Cambridge one or two days a week to supervise. Today he is remembered for a small but high-quality legacy of cathedral and organ music, and for the subtle and finely-crafted music he wrote for films and television, notably for innumerable episodes of a television version of the Sherlock Holmes stories. As a composition teacher he was ideal for me, being undogmatic about style and unsympathetic to serialism, the approved language of contemporary composition in the 1960s. Patrick’s intellect and musical fluency were awe-inspiring: I witnessed him, without prior thought or apparent effort, write in ink a Bach-style chorale prelude with intricately canonic accompanying voices – and he let me go my own way. I’m afraid that I never managed to live up to his expectations, despite a double first in my degree exams (the only one in my year) and a composition prize. At the time, and in later years, he told me what an under-achieving disappointment I was to him. This burden of guilt was lightened only recently when my composer friend Nigel Hess, another Gowers pupil, revealed that he had been told exactly the same thing, despite a distinguished career writing excellent music mainly for theatre, films and television.

John Rutter with Sir David Willcocks

It was in my weekly harmony and counterpoint class that I first encountered the legendary David Willcocks, who took time out from his exacting job as director of King’s College Choir to teach this weekly class. He took me aside at the end of one of these sessions and said ‘Mr Rutter, I understand you have been composing. Please bring some of your music to my rooms next Monday morning at nine, I would like to look at it’. Among the slender offerings I brought along were some carols and carol arrangements, some of which I had written for a college Christmas concert, plus the Shepherd’s Pipe Carol which was a relic of my school years. David looked through the pile and finally said ‘Would you like these to be published?’ He was, and for many years remained, the general editor of all the sacred choral publications issued by Oxford University Press, and it was thanks to him that an offer of publication – plus an annual retainer of £50 a year – arrived in an impressive crested envelope two days later. OUP has been my principal publisher ever since, and I would never have made the leap from aspiring composer to published composer if I had not met David Willcocks, a life-changing encounter. David became a lifelong friend, mentor and champion of my work until his death in 2015. At his invitation I co-edited four volumes of the Carols for Choirs series with him, and was proud to have my name on the covers along with his.

There were other notable Cambridge figures I encountered during my student years: Philip Brett and Raymond Leppard, both of whom left to take up posts in America; Peter le Huray and Margaret Bent, who kindled my interest in palaeography; the kindly, donnish Philip Radcliffe, a music historian with seemingly total recall of the most obscure composers and compositions; my genial young Director of Studies Hugh Macdonald, who managed to fit his teaching duties into a busy life as editor of the complete Berlioz edition and bass player in a jazz group; and George Guest, the long-established director of St John’s College Choir, who lectured reluctantly but directed his choir fervently, and entrusted me with my first Cambridge commission, an Advent carol for St John’s called There is a flower. I learned gratefully from them all, but soon discovered that the greatest teachers are experience and a willingness to teach yourself.

JR composing 2I loved Cambridge and wanted to stay on after I graduated, so I took a one-year course for the postgraduate degree of MusB, where I specialised, unsurprisingly, in composition, and also in musical palaeography, the study and deciphering of old manuscripts, which has remained an interest of mine ever since. Give me a fifteenth-century manuscript of a motet or votive antiphon and I’m happy for hours. The MusB year went by swiftly, and without really thinking about it I moved on to a PhD. The three years of time this bought me were what it took to become established as a working composer, with commissions starting to flow in – and to realise that my future lay in composition and perhaps conducting, rather than in academic life as a musicologist. The composition thrived, the PhD died. Do I feel ashamed about this piece of unfinished business? Not really, though I sometimes still have bad dreams about it. Mostly, I am just thankful that I was given three years to discover where my true path lay. No one at Cambridge ever reproached me for dropping out at this final stage of my student career, and in fact I received an astonishing offer from my old college in 1975, just about the time it was clear my PhD thesis was never going to be delivered.

To be continued in the next blog post…

Funeral Ikos
The Lord bless you and keep you  
Shepherd’s Pipe Carol 
There is a flower

6 Responses to “Questions to John Rutter: High School and University”

  1. Mary Tweed

    Kudos to you, Sir, for not listening to the naysayers & forging ahead with determination! And for divine intervention, for placing Prof. Willcocks & others in your path! We are blessed because of this and your inspiration! t.y. for all the beautiful choral works! P.S.: I hope your swans are well! Best wishes from a casual composer across the Pond..Mary

  2. Melinda Hinners-Waldie

    Fascinating, We are lucky you stayed for those 3 years!

  3. James Hart Brumm

    Fascinating to read all of this, and a great reminder at the twists and turns one’s professional career might take, and that these are not failures; they are unanticipated developments, as we all see through a glass darkly. Your journey into professional composing reminds me of mine into professional hymn-text writing and church history, not quite what I anticipated in my college days.

  4. Michael Smedley

    Often when two famous people figure in a situation, it is easy for a third one to be missed. I believe that with the two famous Johns at Highgate was a Brian. Brian Chapple, who has written a large collection of music, much of which is choral. I had the pleasure of performing a number of his pieces with Oxford Pro Musica Singers. We did of course, sing many pieces by the two Johns but thoroughly enjoyed Brian’s work too!!

  5. Ruby Struck

    Did enjoy singing your music in a church choir where I was introduced to it. How amazing that years later I would sing under your Baton when my Junior League Chorus was invited to do so in Carnegie Hall in New York. Have been a fan ever since and so impressed meeting you.
    So interested in learning about how it all started.

  6. Barb Savidge

    Reading your comments was like running my fingers thru thousands of exceptional diamonds. My heart skipped a beat at the very mention of John Tavenner. You are where & who God made you to be. I sang in a chorus conducted by you at George Mason U in Virginia many years ago. You are loved! ❤️????❤️