Hampstead's John Rutter is king of the Christmas Carol

PUBLISHED: 15:05 11 December 2008 | UPDATED: 15:41 07 September 2010

Given the state of world affairs, it s hard to predict the supply of peace and goodwill among the nations in the next few weeks. But people will certainly be singing about it. And as they do – in cathedrals, churches or mud-hut missions from Nebraska to N

Given the state of world affairs, it's hard to predict the supply of peace and goodwill among the nations in the next few weeks. But people will certainly be singing about it.

And as they do - in cathedrals, churches or mud-hut missions from Nebraska to Nairobi - you can be sure that it will, at some point, involve music by John Rutter - Hampstead-born, Highgate-educated and the Mr Christmas of the choral industry.

Walk into any carol service and you'll probably walk out humming his Shepherd's Pipe Carol or What Sweeter Music or one of the 20 other modern standards he's fed into the repertory alongside cupboards-full of anthems and larger

concert scores like his

Magnificat and Gloria which get sung year-round.

In Tokyo, there's a choral society dedicated solely to his music. In America, he's as close as a "serious" composer can get to being a household name.

It was no accident that the two big, national services of mourning in New York for the victims of September 11 both featured Rutter's Requiem.

And when we spoke, he'd just come back from Carnegie Hall where he was conducting his Mass Of The Children, performed by singers from across the 50 states.

Now he's well into his festive schedule which includes a Rutter-heavy Christmas choral concert in Sweden and similar dates with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in London and Guildford.

"There was a time," he says, "when the London orchestras were too grand to do these sort of Christmas things. But now they've come to realise how useful they are as audience entry-points for the rest of the year.

"A Christmas concert brings in people you'd never get for a Shostakovich cycle, including first-timers who might be persuaded to come again.

"And there's something rather special about supposedly hard-bitten professional musicians giving their all for Hark The Herald Angels while everyone sings along.

"If nothing else, Christmas is an inclusive festival. You have to leave your fancy good taste at the door if you want to get anything out of it."

Brought up just off the Finchley Road, Rutter got interested in music as a boy at Highgate School in the 1960s which he remembers as "a sort of golden age" for the school's musical life.

"There was an inspirational teacher called Edward Chapman who was there for 30 years and, realising I was a bit of a tunesmith, encouraged me to be exactly that - against the grain of the times, which didn't really favour tuneful music.

"He gave similar advice to John Tavener who was one of my illustrious contemporaries there - as was the pianist Howard Shelley and David Cullen who went on to become Andrew Lloyd Webber's orchestrator and right-hand man.

"And Nicholas Snowman, who always said that when he grew up he wanted to run Glyndebourne - which he did, for a while, as well as the South Bank Centre.

"It was an incredible collection of people when you look back and count them.

"I owe a lot to Nick because we had rather a good deal going between us. I used to do his homework for him and in return his parents used to take me to concerts. So it was thanks to the Snowmans that I got to know plenty of music - although if the school had realised how it came about I don't suppose it would have approved."

Choral singing, on the other hand, was very much approved at the school.

"It had a well-connected choir which sang on legendary recordings like the original Britten War Requiem. I'll always remember the sight of Galina Vishnevskaya, the soprano soloist, throwing a fantastic wobbly on the first day and storming out - you could still hear the screams from the Green Room.

"Being young, I though this was what always happened in recording sessions, and they've been a grievous disappointment ever since."

After Highgate, Rutter went to Cambridge and it was in 1966, while he was an undergraduate reading music at Clare College, that he wrote the first and most famous of all his carols - the Shepherd's Pipe.

Still a student, he was asked by David Willcocks - who ran the choir next door at King's - to join him as co-editor of the influential Carols For Choirs anthologies which just about every church in the English-speaking world has in its vestry. Then his own entrepreneurial spirit took over.

From 1975 to 79, he was director of music at Clare. But at the same time he was writing furiously, taking jobbing work as a composer - he helped William Walton revise his opera Troilus and Cressida - and effectively setting up a one-man industry with his own commercial choir, the Cambridge Singers, to record his own music for his own record company.

None of this won him much in the way of critical plaudits. Rutter's music is of the easy-listening variety - tuneful, popular, conservative, more Classic FM than Radio 3.

It's also music that declares its sources without shame. You hear it and think, 'Ah yes, Bernstein, Britten, Walton, Faure...'

But that said, his writing is immaculately crafted. He has a gift for melody that most composers would kill for - if they were honest - and it touches people's lives in a way that most contemporary writing doesn't.

It's no wonder that the musical establishment regards him with suspicion.

"The problem is that, when you write choral music, it mostly has to be within the technical competence of amateurs and the wrong kind of amateurs at that.

"It's fine these days to compose for the London Symphony Orchestra or the rehabilitation of Glasgow razor gangs. But write for the Basingstoke Choral Society and you're dead.

"As for being derivative, I am. But so was Handel. It's only since the late 19th century that stylistic influence has been something you're supposed to resist.

"I take sounds in the air and use them. And I try to use them affirmatively - to write music that people will enjoy singing. I'm not ashamed of that."

The affirmative quality in Rutter is one of the attributes which have made him de facto composer-in-residence to the Anglican communion - so it's surprising to discover that he's actually agnostic.

When I press him on the truth of the Christmas story in all those carols, he prevaricates.

"That's like asking if a Beethoven symphony is true. It's not a question that gets you very far. The questions I'd ask about the Christmas story, or Beethoven, are, 'Is it inspiring, is it uplifting and does it have something to say to us today?' The answer is yes, yes, yes.

"I take the same line as Vaughan Williams who said, 'OK I'm agnostic, but I wouldn't be who I am if it weren't for Christianity.' It's given me my values and a strong sense of faith. But I'm a fellow-traveller rather than a believer."

Even as a fellow-traveller, though, Rutter's scores are cherished by vast numbers of the truly faithful. And across the world, there must be many a Desert Island Disc list that includes his benediction The Lord Bless You And Keep You, written for Edward Chapman's memorial service at Highgate School Chapel in 1981.

"I owed that man a lot," says Rutter. "He was a real scholar, incredibly thorough - what he put us through at Highgate made the Cambridge music tripos a walk-over - but incredibly encouraging too.

"The only thing he didn't teach me was how precarious the life of a composer is. But then, I guess, I haven't done too badly from it."

John Rutter's Christmas Celebration with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra is at Central Hall, Westminster, on Saturday December 20 at 3pm and 7.30pm. To book tickets, call 020-7608 8813.

mjwcritic@gmail.com


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