Salwan Cartwright-Shamoon Interviews John Rutter
Updated: Feb 2
During the Easter period of 2019, the renowned composer and conductor, John Rutter, led the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire’s Chamber Choir and Orchestra in a concert of seasonal music alongside his own Requiem. Salwan Cartwright-Shamoon, then a master’s student in Vocal Performance and member of the choir, had the opportunity to sit down and interview him.
What is Music for you?
Music is my life – simple. I think the thing about music is, as with chess or mathematics or certain other callings in life, maybe even a religious vocation, you don’t choose it, it chooses you. That’s an old cliché but I think it really is true. And you ask what music means to me. I suppose it’s the thing that just makes my life make sense really. I can’t imagine my life without music. Every day is different. There’s always new challenges and although there are many setbacks and disappointments and hurtful reviews and all the bad things, and of course plenty of economic insecurity, if you’re doing something that you love, that makes up for an awful lot.
What would you say the most transformational point in your life was?
I would single out various kinds of landmark moments along the road. When I first joined a choir at school and it was clear that I had a musical gift, that was a significant moment. One of the things I liked about choral singing was that you were part of a team. I was useless in a football or cricket team, but I was some use in a choir, and there was a nice feeling of being able to work with others. Teamwork is very satisfying and doesn’t feel so solitary. So, maybe that was when the seed for my love of choirs was first sown, in those early years when I was probably no more than six or seven years old.
An important transformational period came in my teenage years when I had the good fortune to have a music teacher at school called Edward Chapman who was himself a composer who could actually have become rather renowned. He was a pupil of Charles Wood and had been his composition student at Cambridge in the 1920s, towards the end of Charles Wood’s life. And my teacher, Edward Chapman, imparted what I now realize were probably quite a lot of Dr Wood’s ideas about composition. These included: solid craftsmanship – being on top of the technique; letting the inspiration take care of itself; exercising good taste and judgment; and doing the best job you can. I think those traits were passed on to me. That was a transformational experience because it made me feel that composition was entirely normal. And, of course, I realize that in a lot of schools you wouldn’t encounter that very positive attitude towards composition.
My best friend at school was John Tavener – a very noted composer indeed. We were both taught by Edward Chapman and he sent us out into the world with the belief that we should persevere in composition and be true to ourselves. The advice he gave me (which he probably gave to John Tavener as well) was ‘write the music that’s in your heart.’ And, if you’re any good and what you write is written from the heart, with a bit of luck it will touch other hearts as well.
I was very lucky that by the time I finished school, in a way, my path was set. I went on to study music at Clare College, Cambridge, and, during my time there, I had the good fortune to be taught by David Willcocks, the renowned director of King’s College. At the end of one of our weekly classes in harmony and counterpoint, he invited me to bring some of my compositions to his rooms in King’s the following Monday morning. I put together a little pile of some of my manuscripts, which happened to include several Christmas carols that I had done the term before for a college concert at Clare. The first thing he looked over was a piece called The Shepherd’s Pipe carol. After looking through it, he looked up at me and asked, ‘Would you be interested in this being published?’ I was gob smacked and replied, ‘Really?’ David Willcocks then decided to take my whole pile of compositions and show them to the senior editor at Oxford University Press later that day in London. That was his publisher, where he acted as editorial advisor for all the choral music. So, on Monday he went down to London and spent the afternoon at Oxford University Press and on Wednesday I got an offer of publication in the post. Well, there’s a transformational moment for you because in one leap I’d gone from aspiring composer to published composer. I would never have had the nerve to show my work to a publisher but I didn’t have to because David Willcocks did it for me. That was extraordinary. I don’t know whether in the end a publisher might have heard about what I was doing. I rather doubt it. I was only a student.
Would you say that your role in music and as a composer could be seen as a service in this life?
Oh yes, absolutely. Most composers have felt like that. Benjamin Britten expressed it very strongly saying that a composer should serve his community. I don’t think composers are meant to work in isolation. The idea of that is a very 19th century one: the artist in the garret, the visionary that’s sort of separated from the real world and lives in a world of dreams and wonders. Well, Bach wasn’t like that, and neither was Handel. They were practical guys who grappled day to day with choristers who hadn’t learned their notes, or the opera singers who got temperamental in Handel’s case. Or the impresario who walked off with all the proceeds of the latest opera leaving you penniless. You actually do live in a community as a composer, and I think that you should be at their service rather than telling them what to do. I do see it as a very connected relationship.
The way I look at it (I don’t think this is my thought, but I think it’s true) is that the relationship between a composer and the rest of the world is like a three-legged stool: there’s the composer, the performer(s) and the audience. Those are the three legs of the stool, and if one of those legs is not there, then the stool collapses. I wouldn’t myself ever be inclined to write in a vacuum. I wouldn’t ever think, ‘I’ve got to get this piece written and then I’m going to put it in a cupboard. I don’t care if no one ever performs it.’ I doubt there have been any composers who have really felt like that. It’s true that Bach wrote things like, The Art of Fugue, but he wanted it published, so he certainly wanted people to study and play it.
I think the connection between composer and audience is an important one, but it’s not one where I would ever advise a composer to write down to their audience. Don’t despise your audience: they may actually be more discerning than you think! Connect with an audience but don’t reach down to them. That would be advice that I would give. But, of course, you’re lucky if you make any sort of contact anyway, so maybe the reaching out has to happen, but I would just say preferably not in a downward direction.
Do you feel like your music is music that serves the community or music that needs to come through you as a vessel, or a combination of these both?
To take the first of those questions. I think, yes, you want to serve your community or to serve the situation. If you’re writing church music, I think you are hoping to serve and adorn the liturgy of that service. You need to be aware that you are in church and that what you are writing is not there just for its own vain sake but to be part of what those present will look upon as an act of worship. I have written a lot of church music and I think that aspect is important.
Now, the second question: are you just a vessel as a composer, where some higher power is actually guiding your hand? I don’t know. What I think any composer will tell you is that we have no idea where our ideas come from. We do not know. People would put different interpretations on it depending on their philosophic and religious stance. I mean, some people would say, as Haydn did, that all their ideas came from the good Lord. Now that’s a viewpoint that you probably wouldn’t have found Wagner to be very keen on. But, in the end, it’s so mysterious. As a composer you’re given a brief. You’re asked, ‘Can you set these words and do it by next Tuesday? It’s going to be for a choir of 40 voices, and they’re a little bit weak in the tenor section so don’t make it too difficult’. That gives you a start but where do you really begin? You start with an empty sheet of paper and little by little it fills up.
We don’t really know how we get there. As composers all we can do is create the conditions where if Saint Cecilia does come by with an idea, you’re at least revved up and ready to go at your desk. You’re like a taxi with the engine running and Saint Cecilia comes by and says, ‘Oh, here’s an idea. Run with it.’ It’s no good if you’re asleep or if you’re mowing the lawn that day. And so, most composers and word writers, novelists and poets and so forth, usually believe in discipline. They’ll say, ‘I’ll put in ten hours a day, and I will be at my desk at 9 in the morning and that’s that.’
The hardest bit is always the first bit when you’ve got absolutely nothing. Once you’ve got a nugget you can work with, a germ, a seed, then you can build on it, and sometimes it goes in unpredictable directions. The way that I sometimes explain it is similar to the way that a sculptor works. You start with a massive lump of stone and it’s not until you start hacking away at it with your chisel that you realize what it is that’s taking shape. And bit by bit, the statue within the lump of stone does begin to take shape as you work on it. That’s sort of how it is with composition.
Are we afraid of that process? Yes – scared, rigid, every time starting on a new piece. I think Stravinsky said, ‘nothing compares with the dread of the empty page.’ And he was not exactly lacking in good ideas. It always starts with nothing and then you end up – hopefully in good time for your deadline, but sometimes you’re just there under the wire – with a complete piece. If I were to stop and ask, ‘well, how did I get there?’ I really wouldn’t be able to tell you.
On behalf of the conservatoire I would like to thank John for his time and willingness to do this interview.