The best-selling choral composer is now writing for the harp, but it’s not all choirs of angels.

You’ve often written for harp in an orchestral context, but your new album Blessing, with harpist Catrin Finch, is the first time it’s taken centre stage. What attracts you to the instrument?

Oh gosh, I started my musical life as a boy soprano, and one of the pieces that came round one Christmas time was Benjamin Britten’s Ceremony of Carols, which famously has a harp accompaniment. I was a cheeky little kid, a ten-year-old sort of thing, and I went up to the very grand lady harpist, and I said “Er, Miss”, I said, “can you show me, how does it work?” And she should have said, “Go away, you horrible little toe-rag”, but she gave me a demonstration of all the things you can do on the harp. Since then it’s been an instrument that I always had a place for in my mental sound-picture.

The harp is a typecast instrument in a lot of ways. You’ve said that “angels” were the starting point for your Suite Lyrique. Is it impossible not to slip into those associations?

Ah, I did say that. But one also has to go beyond cliché in what the harp can do. Maybe this album wasn’t the place to do that, as a lot of it is in familiar, comfortable territory. But one of the things I admire about Catrin is that she said to me, “Look, the harp isn’t just milky and watery, and slithery glissandos, and angelic… It can be hard as a diamond.” It’s capable of a range of tone colour and expression, which you hear to the full if you listen to Catrin’s recordings of Bach’s Goldberg Variations. She does things with it that no other harpist can. On Blessing, you will hear some bits as sharp as needles and some bits that are gentle and warm.

You conduct on this disc and are very busy at the podium. Do your concert engagements take away from time you would rather be composing?

I always had a passion for conducting; it’s my chosen form of performing. I couldn’t be a composer who just sits in a study aloof and never engages with performers. I would have been happier in the 18th century where there was no barrier with composing and performing; it was all one. It has taken away from the time I would be composing but it has given something to the composing as well, because I have always been closely in touch with performers, which has affected the way I write.

In order to write sacred music, does a composer have to be tapped into the spiritual? Is that a necessary part of your process?

You certainly have to have a sense of faith. That is not usually difficult for a musician, as musicians move easily in the realm of the mysterious and the transcendent. I don’t think it matters whether you are a signed-up believer of one particular faith. I was asked very specifically when I did this album, to include at least one or two of my sacred pieces as transcriptions without the words so people could enjoy them in a different way.

Are you a practising Anglican?

I am a reverent believer at the time I am working on a sacred piece. When I take a sacred text I believe every syllable of it while I am setting it to music because I think it’s part of an artist’s job to enter into states of being which are not necessarily his or her own. As long as I’m writing or conducting I am a firm believer and when I have finished I go back to being what I am the rest of the time, which is Agnostic. I think with some things you just have to say that you don’t know and there are no answers. That’s not a problem for me; I have been able to write music for the church and I feel very much at home with churches. I support them and I think, for the most part, they are a force of good, and I sort of want to be buried in one [laughs]! If somebody gives you a score of Beethoven’s Eroica and says, “Is it true? Is Napoleon really the inspiration behind it?” I would say you are asking the wrong questions. If you asked, “Is it inspiring? Is it memorable?” I rather feel that way about faith: it’s inspiring, it’s memorable, it’s something that stays with you and there are many good things you can draw from it.

Apart from hearing your own carol arrangements ad nauseam, what does Christmas mean to you?

It re-awakens the child in me every year, no matter how you might try to be cynical about Christmas. People always ask me, “Do you still sincerely enjoy Christmas?” And the answer is yes – I really, really do. For just a few magic days the voices of politicians are stilled, we get together with families – sometimes that’s good; sometimes that’s difficult – but it is something we should do every so often. It’s the world as it could be, just for a little while. I think that’s so important. I love the music of Christmas; I always have, right from when I was a choirboy, the carols we rehearsed always brought a special pleasure. I still get a little tear in my eye when I hear Away in a Manger sung by a choir of children. It is a special time of year and we have the weather for it slightly more than in the southern hemisphere. 

The Christmas calendar for musicians can get quite businesslike… 

Sometimes we have to check our good taste at the cloakroom door and enjoy Christmas for what it is. It brings together good taste and bad taste. We all sometimes make fools of ourselves; maybe drink a little too much. For a musician, as you rightly say, it’s one of our busiest times of year. I have a whole raft of Christmas events, the biggest being the annual Royal Philharmonic Christmas concert in the Albert Hall in London, which has become absolutely part of my Christmas: 5,000 people singing their hearts out in Hark the Herald Angels Sing – it’s a great sound and brings people together. I am looking forward to it. It’s coming around.

John Rutter’s Blessing is out now on Deutsche Grammophon.