John Rutter

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With more than two dozen carols to his name, the British conductor-composer still has a soft spot for Christmas and its musical traditions

Over the years you've become associated with Christmas – what's special about it for you?

It goes back to my days in my school choir in North London. The Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols was a high point for us in the year and I enjoyed the sense of festivity and anticipation that goes with it. And it was largely because of my love of the choral sounds I heard from choirs like King's College Choir in Cambridge that I began to write carols myself. It seemed a short step from singing carols to writing my own. I still look forward to Christmas every year. People always ask me if I really mean it, and, hand on heart, I do. 

What makes a good Christmas carol?

It's got to have a tune you want to join in with. Even if it's a carol for a choir and you don't join in because you're sitting and listening in the congregation, it should either make you get up and want to dance – because of course 'carol' means a round dance – or it should have a lullaby feeling. Then there are Christmas motets, not quite the same as carols; recent popular ones include Judith Weir's Illuminare Jerusalem and Morten Lauridsen's O Magnum Mysterium. I think a carol should have some sort of tune and recognisable rhythm. Christmas hymns like 'Hark the Herald' and 'O Come all ye Faithful' are designed to be sung by a large congregation, and that's a slightly different thing. Christmas and the musical celebration of it is a great sort of casserole, a mélange of sacred, secular, popular, arty, highbrow and lowbrow. That's what I like about it. 

So do you have a favourite carol?

Two favourites are 'In Dulci Jubilo', reputedly sung by the angels on Christmas Eve, then noted down by a monk called Heinrich Seuse. It's such a lovely legend that I like to believe it, and if ever a carol was going to be sung by angels, this is it. A slightly more esoteric one is 'Es ist ein Ros Entsprungen', which is strong, tender and radiant. You can't wear it out. And my favourite Christmas hymn by a mile is 'Of the Father's Heart Begotten' which I think should top every list, and you only ever hear it in cathedrals really. Sometimes the finest is not always the most popular!

You're the subject of Donald Macleod's Composer of the Week programme this week, 21-25 December 2009...

My first reaction was there must be some mistake! He can't possibly want me in the hallowed company of all those composers. But I'm honoured. Although there's not truly enough music of depth and substance in my output to make a week's worth of programmes, they've done very well. It's a bit like This is Your Life – you forget that you've written certain things. But I suppose at the end I felt spurred on to try and write a more varied sort of musical legacy. A lot of my work is choral, and for years I've wanted to have a more balanced musical output with chamber and orchestral music and so forth. If it's not too late I want to write all kinds of other things so if they ever do another Composer of the Week when I'm gone they can choose completely different music.

Which choir will you be going to hear this Christmas?

Family tradition is to go to St Paul's Cathedral for the service on Christmas Eve, which I love. On Christmas morning, the years I can, I go along to King's College, Cambridge. There's a lovely feel about it because it's like the end of term. The choir's had a phenomenally busy December and this is the last day before the choristers go home to enjoy Christmas dinner. It's almost a sense of relief that they've finally reached Christmas.

Interview by Rebecca Franks

John Rutter is in conversation with Donald Macleod in Radio 3's Composer of the Week from 21-25 December 2009

Audio clip: Rutter: 'There is no Flower'

Fear & Rejoice O People-Music For Advent And Christmas
Choir of St John's College Cambridge
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