‘These talking pictures will never catch on’

These talking pictures will never catch on – (attributed to Samuel Goldwyn, 1928)

I have just received another of Medium William’s emails. He is a Nigerian astrologer, who with uncanny insight tells me he has sensed from my astral emanations that I have experienced a difficult year. To receive his amazing predictions for 2021, I just have to send him my credit card details and open the attachment to his email. I think I can predict that if I follow his instructions I will experience a sudden heavy financial loss.

Do I want to know what 2021 holds for me? Not really, I’ll find out soon enough. As the old Danish proverb has it, it’s hard to make predictions, especially about the future, and composers soon learn that their professional lives are shaped more by random circumstance than careful planning. I think back on my career. If there had not happened to be an inspirational music teacher at my high school, I might have taken my headmaster’s advice and embraced an academic career – so by now I would be a frustrated retiree with not enough to do. Had the same director of music not recommended that I study music at Cambridge (I hadn’t a clue about universities, not many of us had back then) I might have gone to Oxford and would never have met the legendary David Willcocks, thanks to whom my music began to be published. Later on, had an American choir director named Mel Olson not randomly come across my early published work and commissioned me to write the Gloria, I might never have gone to America, the first of what became a flood of opportunities to compose and conduct there . . . and I would never have met my wife, then a young alto in the Californian university choir which had invited me to be musician-in-residence. As the saying goes in theological circles, if you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans.

That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t bother to make plans or take decisions; I sometimes think of my life as a never-ending battle to beat back chaos, create order, and meet one deadline after another. But, in the end, we aren’t in control. The ‘jarring, jarring seeds of matter’ referred to by Dryden in his words for Purcell’s Ode for St Cecilia’s Day will always collide in unpredictable ways, though it’s comforting to think that our dear patron saint has, it says in the same chorus, the power to turn them into ‘one perfect harmony’. My constant, and deeply inspiring and consoling, companion during this year has been Masaaki Suzuki’s 55-CD box set of Bach’s 200 or so surviving church cantatas. Bach’s Lutheran librettists may sometimes have been a little too fond of pain and death for my liking, but, for me, Bach does bring the world into perfect harmony like no other composer can.

I face 2021 and all its uncertainties with equanimity. Maybe that will change if the larder empties or the lights go out, but in these difficult times I often think of my parents. They rarely spoke of the war, though they were both in the eye of its storm, not knowing from day to day whether their home and their places of work would still be standing after the nightly blitzes which devastated London, or indeed whether they would still be alive. They didn’t romanticize the blitz spirit, they just got on with things and did their best day by day, adapting and responding to every situation as it arose. Let’s not try to make inevitably inaccurate predictions about where ‘the cultural sector’ (as politicians irritatingly refer to us) will be in a year’s time, let alone five years’ time. We just need to do our utmost to keep it alive until things improve, remembering that pandemics, like wars, eventually come to an end. Happy 2021!


Some of my favourite inaccurate musical predictions:

‘This vulgar and tuneless so-called opera will soon be consigned to the dustbin of history’ – French music critic, after the première of Bizet’s Carmen (1875).

‘Today I have discovered something which will ensure the supremacy of German music for the next 100 years’ – Arnold Schönberg, of serialism (1921).

‘No gags, no girls, no chance’ –attributed to Mike Todd, theatrical impresario, on seeing a preview of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma (1943), which went on to be the longest-running musical of its time (2212 performances).

‘The poor boys have lost their talent’ – Mary Martin, Broadway star, on hearing a private preview of Lerner and Loewe’s My Fair Lady (1956), which overtook it (2717 performances).

‘We don’t like their sound, and guitar music is on the way out’ – internal company memo rejecting the Beatles following their audition for Decca Records (1962).

12 Responses to “‘These talking pictures will never catch on’”

  1. Sharon Campbell

    The only prediction I can accurately make for 2021 is that classical music will remain a constant in my life to motivate, soothe, inspire and connect. I am grateful for parents and school music teachers as well who instilled this love early on for me, a hobbyist musician. I am particularly grateful for having discovered the Global music app which allows me to listen to Classic FM and feed my anglophile needs from where I listen in upstate New York. All the best to you in 2021.

  2. Jocelyne Rancourt

    Quel beau message d’espoir en cette fin d’année 2020, si difficile pour nous tous, pauvres humains! Cette pandémie nous ramène à l’essentiel et nous rappelle qu’en voulant toujours tout contrôler on passe à côté de la vie et du bonheur.
    C’est souvent, lorsque l’on croit que tout est perdu, que le magnifique s’offre à nous.
    Pour ma part, ce fut de découvrir, en 2015, votre musique, grâce à un brillant et talentueux chef d’orchestre. Depuis elle est mon inspiration, et ne me quitte plus.
    Merci Maestro et Bonne Année 2021!!

  3. Robert Wolz

    Yes, Mr Rutter, your words are true. Nobody saw what we experienced this year, and it is certainly better not to make any bold predictions for 2021. I recognize in your words what the philosopher Seneca meant by “tranquillitas animi”. For the new year I wish you luck, health and God’s blessings! Thank you for your wonderful music, which leads to this balance and peace of mind.

  4. Sandra Landgren

    I admire you as a composer, a musician and a talented and inspiring director. You came over to Wisconsin, a few times in the 80’s and early 90’s to share your music and talents with us music teachers. I was very fortunate to have met you and even purchased you a beer. Gene Greer had these workshops. You were and are such an inspiration to myself and to millions around the world. We have many of your cds. It is so spiritually moving to sing and listen to your compositions. My life has been enlightened by meeting you and singing your choir music. Also listening to your Cambridge choirs perform your works. I am 71 and if I knew you were in our vicinity I would come to see you. Madison and Eau Clare was where I was privileged to see you. May 2021 be a blessed year for you and your family.

  5. Anne Vansweevelt

    beautiful words, beautiful music, beautiful truth,
    happy 2021, John Rutter
    and thank you dear maestro

  6. Ann Mills

    I have long said that when I die I will sit in the Bach wing of Heaven. It gives me great pleasure to know that you will be there, too!

  7. Laura H. Teague

    I have admired your music for many years, and one of my cherished memories is singing “Messiah” in Carnegie Hall in a group of about 500 under your direction. I also admire your insight. This year has taught me so much, and if I can get through to the vaccination without succumbing to the virus, I will consider the year a valuable learning experience. Yes, I like to make plans and used to become distraught when the plans fell through. This year I have canceled many plans, learned to be much more patient, and realized that my top priority is my health and that of my family and friends. Nothing, no trip or holiday gathering, is worth getting sick.

  8. Rosie

    Your music fills my soul and makes each day worthwhile. You sooth and calm when things get frantic, you lift and inspire when things seem hopeless and you keep me company when I am lonely. Thank you for being there with so many of us as we journey down life’s pathways. May the Lord bless you and keep you, The Lord make His face shine upon you, and be gracious unto you;
    The Lord lift up the light of His countenance upon you, And give you peace.”

  9. Pamela Smyth

    Dear Mr. Rutter–I sit here this first night of the new year, reflecting on the calls I received beginning New Year’s Eve–all from friends with great needs for emotional, spiritual, and physical healing–and I am not a counselor–just a retired teacher–but one who knew that music was to be her life’s work from the age of eight. I was one of those children who loved to practice the piano more than eating or breathing and had to literally be dragged off the piano bench to get ready for school. While I never had the opportunity or piano proficiency to qualify for music school, having walked away from the piano early on for fear of playing in a recital and never returning until far too late, I found music everywhere I went in the world of teaching–and the need to teach choral music found me and a voice teacher to help along the way. Now, as I listen to your beautiful album, The Choral Music of John Rutter, I am being prepared to pray for those in need of comfort, strength, and God’s presence. Your music came to me via a friend in Southampton this morning, of all things, who mentioned Spotify–and so I signed on again–and in the “Daily Mix” they made for me, found you. Thank you for your words of grace and wisdom here this day and for your lifetime of creating these works of art. I did my MA on the transference of Amadeus from play to film, thus writing my four year long project to the soundtrack day and night, a true labor of love. You have given me great peace and comfort this night. May you continue to walk and grow in the garden of God’s creations and bring forth all that He has for you to create and to share with those so in need of your gifts. Thank you, John.

  10. Ruth E. Richardson

    Listening to music has, and is, my bedrock since becoming a widow and living on my own. I have a loving family but they have their own homes. It would have been easy to be lonely especially during the pandemic but music, your music, has saved me from that. Thank you.