Questions to John Rutter: The Cambridge Singers

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

How did the Cambridge Singers come along?

In 1982 I was invited to devise and conduct a Christmas TV special from Salisbury Cathedral. The cathedral choir of boys and men was naturally to feature, but the television director Angus Wright also wanted me to bring along Clare Choir, unaware that I was no longer its director. When I told him this he said ‘well, you’d better put together a new choir, fast’. I approached one of my former Clare Choir tenors, Harvey Brough (by then the charismatic lead singer of Harvey and the Wallbangers) and asked if he could assemble twenty-four of the best former members of the choir, supplemented where necessary by other recent ex-Cambridge student singers, which he did. We needed a name, I called them the Cambridge Singers, and the name has stuck.

Photo by David E. Henderson

Once the television programme was safely over I began to reflect that the Cambridge Singers might have a future beyond just one appearance. Mixed professional chamber choirs were a novelty in the early 1980s, their existence made possible by the growing pool of female ensemble singers who had learned their skills in Oxbridge chapel choirs. The singers were available, there was a wealth of unrecorded choral repertoire to explore, and in 1983 compact discs had just come along as an exciting new medium for recording almost anything and finding a market for it. We made one or two recordings for various labels, but I soon felt it would be better to have my own label so I could record what I wanted, when I wanted. Inspired by the example of the Tallis Scholars whose Gimell label was their own, I started the Collegium label and had a stroke of luck when one of our first releases, the Fauré Requiem in its 1893 chamber version, won a Gramophone award. At about the same time we made a recording of various of my sacred choral pieces with my 1974 Gloria as the centrepiece, and the sales of those two albums generated enough revenue to finance our next recording, which was of Christmas carols.

Photo by Nick Rutter

The Cambridge Singers – generally about 28 of them – were still largely drawn from the ranks of former Cambridge chapel choirs, including Mark Padmore and Gerald Finley among others who went on to distinguished solo careers. The guiding principles of the Cambridge Singers were (1) we would concentrate on recordings rather than live concerts and tours, and (2) our members would be mostly drawn from the ranks of full-time professional ensemble singers, supplemented when appropriate by a few who had received professional training and had professional experience but had chosen other professions. Everyone was paid equally.

Photo by Nick Rutter

Over the years I inevitably cast the net wider for new members (membership has always been by invitation on a per-project basis), the Clare and Cambridge connections are more tenuous nowadays, but we still operate along similar lines to those I laid down in 1983. We make fewer recordings than we did in the early years when so much less music had been recorded, and we are subject to the same economic reality as all other musicians: the classical record industry has shrunk along with its market, and recordings rarely earn back their costs in sales. Nevertheless it’s gratifying that some of the recordings we made years ago are still alive in the burgeoning streaming market, and we even manage to sell a useful number of CDs to those who still have the equipment to play them on.

I shamelessly record my own music; no performance is ever definitive but it’s nice to have, literally, a record of how I wanted it to go, at least on the day I made the recording. I wish it was economically possible for the Cambridge Singers to meet more often, but we get together only when we have a recording to make, maybe once or twice a year. I like to think that, regardless of the other ensembles and choirs the members sing in, a group style is still there when we meet as the Cambridge Singers. In truth, Cambridge Singers engagements are only a small part of the singers’ lives, but the group, with its changing membership over the years, has a big place in my heart.

Follow the Cambridge Singers on Spotify:

A selection of Cambridge Singers Playlists to stream:

The Complete Cambridge Singers Playlist

A Spring Walk with the Cambridge Singers

Uplifting and Motivational Music 

Relaxing Music: John Rutter and The Cambridge Singers

3 Responses to “Questions to John Rutter: The Cambridge Singers”

  1. Cory Evans

    “Faire Is The Heaven” was the most influential album of my life. It got me into choral music and has influenced so much of my repertoire choices and choir sound. Thank you John Rutter!!! -Cory Evans, Utah State University Chamber Singers

  2. Alan Heatherington

    John Rutter’s music has played an enormous and gratifying role in my conducting career, particularly in my 31 years as Music Director of the Chicago Master Singers. Though my career came to focus on orchestral conducting, CMS was the last position from which I reluctantly retired when Covid led to the cancellation of all our local and tour performances for over a year. In my final tour in English cathedrals from Canterbury to Newcastle, we had the privilege of singing his music for John at St. John’s, Cambridge. Of course he was characteristically gracious and grateful. Thank you, John, for enriching my career and my life in music.

  3. Paul J Davis

    These four blog posts were a thrill, an intimate experience that incorporated background info to discs and tapes I have been listening to for perhaps 40 years. I cannot tell you how enriching these blogs were to my love of Rutter and his singers. They are my daily bread. paul davis