One of the world’s best-loved contemporary composers of choral and instrumental music alike, John Rutter is also an important and respected music editor. I recently had the very great pleasure of going to meet with the man himself at his Cambridgeshire home on a beautiful August morning.
We talked about his work as a composer, his use of Sibelius, and especially about his work as an editor. He has had a long and fruitful relationship with Oxford University Press, and as well as contributing both critical editions and original compositions to the famous Carols for Choirs books, is the chief editor on the Oxford Choral Classics series, a growing collection of books that will be familiar to choral singers everywhere. More after the jump.
One of the first
John has used Sibelius since its earliest days on the Acorn platform as Sibelius 7, and fondly reminisces about the days when he could call Ben or Jonathan about an idea he had or a feature he needed in Sibelius, only to receive a visit a day or two later from one or other of the Finn twins, armed with a floppy disk replete with an updated version of Sibelius 7 that would fix whatever issue he might have spotted, or added whatever small new feature he needed.
As such, John has played an important role in the development of Sibelius as a computer program, and his passion for high-quality, clear music notation remains undimmed. As we talked, he pulled various scores down from his well-stocked shelves, showing me his preferred design for tuplet numerals in Breitkopf & Härtel editions (he prefers the italic version of a font called Nimrod for tuplet numerals to the ones in Sibelius’s Opus font, which he finds too bold), how Halstan would use a thicker tenuto line, and so on.
John maintains at least two old Acorn computers so that he can continue to run Sibelius 7 on them as needs permit; several of the volumes in the Oxford Choral Classics series were originated in Sibelius 7, and so he has hundreds of pages of meticulously-prepared scores that he has to maintain, in case OUP decide that they want to produce an octavo edition of a single piece from one of the books.
Oxford Choral Classics
I asked John how the series came about. He said that he approached OUP about producing a series of books of interesting and essential repertoire for choirs that would, crucially, be inexpensive. At the time, the costs of engraving the hundreds of pages of music required for a single volume using traditional plate engraving or notesetting techniques would have run into the tens of thousands of pounds, and this was one of the main reasons why large volumes of music tended to be so expensive.
So John offered to do all of the editing and typesetting of the first book in the series, Opera Choruses, himself at no charge to OUP, on the basis that they would pass their cost savings on to their customers by making the books as cheap as possible. OUP even negotiated with a paper mill to buy an entire day’s or week’s output at a discount in order to print the books as inexpensively as possible without compromising on the quality. The books are printed on a kind of paper often used for bibles: it’s very thin, but quite resistant to tearing, and surprisingly opaque, so that you can’t see through to the other side.
The series has been phenomenally successful, and John is working on editing the fifth book in the series, a volume of British sacred choral music, and of course the whole book is being prepared in Sibelius — though now in Sibelius on Windows, rather than Sibelius 7 on his old Acorn computers.
I asked John what else he was working on at the moment; he said that he was working on a new carol, which he was approached to write by a local charity, and a harp concerto for Catrin Finch, who was appointed official harpist to the Prince of Wales in 2000 and has recently released an impressive album of Bach’s Goldberg Variations. He no longer writes on commission, as he finds the pressure of deadlines an unnecessary hindrance at this point in his career, but he does listen to suggestions.
I asked him about his process; he says that he likes to get away from his house to compose, and has a small cottage a few miles away with a piano, a small kitchen and a view: when he wants to get serious composition done, he heads out to his cottage after breakfast and will work there all day, writing at the piano. He doesn’t compose directly into Sibelius, though he finds the software invaluable when it comes to preparing the final scores for publication.
His desk was also covered in half-corrected proofs from his publisher, small piles of copies of his newly-published scores, and well-marked scores that he uses when conducting, a reminder of his many musical activities. Although approaching his sixty-fifth birthday, John shows little sign of retiring from musical life, for which we must all be very grateful.
A light lunch
John and his wife Joanna kindly extended an invitation for me to stay and join them, together with his two assistants, for lunch. His assistants has been working that morning on recordings in the studio connected to the house; as well as composing, arranging or editing much of the music he has recorded, John has played a part in production, engineering and even designing the sleeve notes of many of the recordings that he has released over the years.
I was humbled that he remembered from our earlier meetings that I had spent a few years as a lay clerk in the cathedral choir at Ely, and we talked for a while about the wondrous Lady Chapel, a favourite recording venue for Rutter’s own choir, The Cambridge Singers, which has featured on many of his albums.
After a pleasant morning in the Rutter household, leaving quiet south Cambridgeshire for the bustle of north London was something of a jolt: but as I returned to my desk to continue working on ways to improve Sibelius yet further, I once again had reason to be grateful for the time and experience that accomplished musicians like John Rutter are willing to share to help improve the software that helps keep so much of the musical world ticking along.