Dancing Before the Ark — An Interview with Carl Rütti, Robert R. Reilly (Chrisis, Mai 1999, USA)

Robert Reilly recently spoke with Swiss composer Carl Rütti on the occasion of his 50th birthday. Born in 1949, Rütti grew up in Zug, Switzerland. He has been widely recognized for his compositions in England, whose great choral tradition inspired him at an early age. Reilly was able to explore the deep faith and religiosity that informs Rütti’s compositions.

Reilly: Your musical education was instrumental, was it not? You studied piano?

Rütti: Yes. My instruments were piano and organ.

Did you ever seek to study composition formally?

Yes, I did. But when I showed my music to the music professor, he said that it was silly to compose in a tonal way in this day and age. So there was no need to go to a composition professor.

Why did he say it was silly to compose in a tonal way?

He felt that, after Schoenberg, you could not compose tonal music anymore. But I felt in a tonal way, so I did not think it necessary to study composition theory. I simply studied counterpoint and harmony.

I think one of the most frightening things Schoenberg ever said was that he "was cured of the delusion that the artist’s aim is to create beauty." What has always surprised me is how many people followed him in that perverse conviction.

Maybe they were sure that this was the right way. I was never sure that this was the right way. I think beauty is important everywhere.

What do you think about contemporary music?

I think that, after Schoenberg’s twelve-tone music, one had to go on and on. You couldn’t go back anymore. That’s why every composer went a bit further. And then, John Cage called the following event the premier of his newest work: He let a concert piano drop down from a helicopter and smash on the ground. With the destruction of instruments and Cage’s noncomposition, in which a pianist sits at the piano for four and a half minutes without playing, you can’t go any further. After these events, we were free. That released all the composers of our time. So, there’s no more need to go on any further, because the final stage had been reached.

So, what do you feel free to do?

Simply to write the way I want to write.

And what is the way you want to write?

The way I feel. When I start a work, I don’t know the way I’m going to write it, but I have a certain vision of the sound and of the structure, and then I try it at the piano.

You told me that when you showed a Swiss composer your music, he said it was charmingly naive. Has that kind of condescension continued, or are you finally getting some respect?

In Switzerland, it has continued for quite a long time. But in England, I’ve had another experience. In the Gramophone, for instance, I’ve gotten a marvelous review.

You are a prophet unappreciated in your own land, but they love you in England?

Yes, that’s it, though I’m very much appreciated for my writing for amateur choirs here.

How were you drawn to liturgical music?

I was in high school in Engelberg in a Benedictine monastery school and there I got a certain sense of liturgy. I’m Catholic, you know. I was singing Gregorian chant in the monastery school as a soprano and, later, as a baritone. We sang almost everything in our Mass. We could sing with organ or a cappella. So I was very used to liturgy.

How were you drawn to composition?

I don’t know exactly. I think it really began when I was in England. Before, it was just improvisation. I played in a jazz group. So, I improvised a lot. And then in England, I heard this extraordinarily high standard of choral singing. The voices are like keys. You can play on them like you can play on a piano. And that’s why I started to compose for choir first.

Do you consider yourself primarily a liturgical composer or a religious composer?

I would say a religious composer.

In other words, the same sort of religious vision infuses all of your work?

Yes, you can say that.

You seem unafraid to address the deepest mysteries of Christianity in your music. And that must take great faith.

Yes. If I take a commission for a new work, it’s always a very strong act of faith, because I have no ability to compose. I just have the hope that I’ve got the inspiration for it. And probably that’s why there’s a certain sense of faith in every work.

Could you say anything more about the role of faith in your music?

If you would ask me whether I think God exists or not, I would say it’s exactly the same as if you asked me whether I think the sun exists or not. It’s so obvious that God has to exist. I see this through my work. When I think that, for about 25 years, I have had one commission after the other, but usually they are grouped for certain instruments or themes, though the commissions come from completely different people. For example, I was recently asked by three different people to write for brass. One is a psalm for brass band and choir, one is a competition piece, and one is a piece for a farmer who sings a very archaic Alpine psalm over his cows and land every evening to bless them for the night. And so, there they are grouped together. I think the real commissioner of my music is God. So I’m always sure that when He asks me to write a piece, He will give me the ideas. And it has worked for all 25 years now.

That sense of inspiration is powerfully conveyed in your work. You make the transcendent perceptible. And it’s profoundly moving in that very strange combination of something that is so traditional, yet completely fresh. I think it is your unique inspiration and gift to achieve that. What’s also curious is the way you have achieved this. I’ve written quite a bit about Pärt, Tavener and Gorecki, as well as a number of other tonal composers who are your contemporaries. What’s interesting about Tavener is that he has gone to the Orthodox style of music; Pärt, that he has returned to Medieval organum and Renaissance styles; and you, yourself, seem steeped in chant and Renaissance polyphony. But at the same time, there would be no mistaking your music as anything other than modern because of the rhythms you use. Tell me about how that evolved in your work, how you became so deeply engaged in the Renaissance style, yet used within it this extraordinarily lively sense of rhythm?

Maybe the Renaissance style was from my exposure to choral singing in England. When I first heard an English choir, they had this way of singing, especially in Renaissance music. They had to sing a lot of lines and in quite close harmonies. Every voice had to be very pure and without vibrato. And this fascinated me. The work which inspired me most was Scarlatti’s Stabat Mater for ten parts. I heard it performed by the BBC Symphony Chorus. For me this was the beginning of writing motets for ten-part voices. In regard to rhythmical music, I was once at a concert in 1975 in Fribourg when Stars of Faith, a gospel group, gave a concert. I was very taken with this music.

Now that you have mentioned gospel music, let me say I’ve read several reviews of your work in the Gramophone and in magazines here in the United States. None of them mentioned the first thing I wanted to ask you about your style, and that is: Have you been influenced by Black spirituals?

Yes, certainly. I remember back in high school I once had this gramophone record of Black liturgy. I think it was American. When the minister gave his sermon, he got more and more excited, and the people in church answered back. Then a piano came in. And the minister was singing the prayers and all the community was answering in a very rhythmical way. This intrigued me.

I’m glad to hear you say that because I hear the same kind of uninhibited impulsiveness of Black spirituals in your music. And I was wondering, since you are a Swiss composer, whether I was hallucinating, or whether the influence was really there.

Yes, of course. As a young boy, I was always interested in the Black music of the United States. And I’ve tried to improvise at the piano in this way.

You certainly have integrated it into Renaissance polyphony in a most exciting way. It’s not something one would expect to hear, and it comes with such a rush of excitement. I would say more than that, because what you achieve in your music is a sense of the sacred, particularly in manifestations of innocence, purity, and freshness.

In the Bible, there is this story about King David when he was carrying the sacred ark to the temple. He danced in front of the ark in such a way that his wife was shocked by it when she saw it. I think this is a very deep meaning of liturgy.

What do you mean by that?

I mean that liturgical music, like the "Gloria," has to be very exciting and very rhythmical. That is proved in the Bible by King David dancing in front of the ark. He lost all sense of himself.

The first time I heard the "Ite Missa Est" of your Missa Angelorum, and more than just the first time, the hair actually rose on the back of my head. It was extraordinary, thrilling. There, the transcendent is perceptible. But that is the last part of the Mass you wrote. The Missa Angelorum is interesting in that you didn’t write it all at once.

Yes, it was my very first commission in Switzerland for boys and male choir. I was asked to write an easy Mass for amateurs. I wrote several parts, but it was too difficult for them. Then, when the BBC Symphony Chorus asked for more music, I gave it to them. I rewrote it in another style especially for the BBC Symphony Chorus. They asked for a "Gloria" to be added. Finally, at the suggestion of Ian Moore of the Cambridge Voices, I added the "Ite Missa Est." I found the "Ite Missa Est" took on the same spirit as the "Gloria."

I have never heard an "Ite Missa Est" such as the one you have written. What was your inspiration for it?

It was just a thank-you. That’s the language I sought in the whole "Ite Missa Est."

It’s like a thank-you from all of Creation.


And it starts rather dolefully. It starts in the lower registers and then builds into the higher registers, and then all of sudden all of creation is breaking out in this uninhibited way. The thanks cannot be restrained. It is simply thrilling.

It has to be.

I was listening again last night to your "Nunc Dimittis," and I couldn’t keep a dry eye. I was profoundly moved. That piece is such a gem. You really have captured something very special.

In the "Nunc Dimittis," you realize this moment when this old man, Simeon, comes into the temple and sees all his visions are now fulfilled. And he sees this light that he predicted. The English choral sound represents this light. I think the BBC Symphony Chorus recorded it very well.

The tenor singing Simeon in that piece, Christopher Hobkirk, did a magnificent job.

If you only realized that he’s the youngest of all of them! You would expect an old man to be singing this. But I think it works out.

The voice fits and expresses it so movingly because the soul is always young.

That’s right. The soul is always young.

Let’s talk more specifically about your other works. I know that the Missa Angelorum has been recorded so beautifully by the BBC Symphony Chorus on the ASV label, but you have also written a Stabat Mater. Was that your tribute to Scarlatti?

In a certain way, yes. But there is a another reason I wrote this Stabat Mater. At a party in London, a lady came to me and told me about her friend’s tragedy. This woman’s friend had a son who was 17 years old. He fell ill for two weeks and then died. He had been a marvelous cellist. So this girlfriend of hers asked me to write a Stabat Mater commemorating this boy, called Adam. I wrote it for solo cello, because he was a cellist, and for mezzo soprano, because his mother was a mezzo soprano soloist singer, and for choirs and string quartet. There is no commercial recording of this yet.

I’m also intrigued by your composition on the Song of Songs, which you have turned into the Songs of Love, a beautiful anniversary gift for your wife. That’s the first time I paid attention to the character of your instrumental writing, because I thought the cello was used so beautifully throughout that piece. The whole composition is glorious.

Thank you very much. My wife played the cello for some years and we did a lot of music together. That’s why I chose the cello for this. I think the cello is a marvelous instrument to express feeling. That is why it worked so well to make the cello the main instrument in the Stabat Mater.

In your oratorio, Verana die Quelle (Verena, the Source), I can hear your very interesting handling of instruments in a chamber ensemble. You write in a very exotic and evocative way. It makes me want to hear your orchestral pieces.

There are not very many, though I have written an orchestral piece based on the life of St. Francis.

For your oratorio, how did you happen to come on the subject of Verena, a fourth-century saint from Egypt? Was it the connection that she came to Switzerland?

Verena is a special work because, first, it was just a cycle of paintings by a painter called Maria Hafner. She was very much attracted by Verena and she tried to put all her thoughts about Verena in her paintings.

Had you heard of Verena before that?

I did, of course, because every second girl in Switzerland is called Verena. It’s a very common name. And there are lots of small chapels called Verena. Where I grew up and often went for a walk, there’s a Verena Chapel. So I knew Verena, but I didn’t know her life was so very exciting. Then, after these paintings, the painter went to a poet and asked her to write poems about the paintings. After all that, they came to me and asked me to write the music, based on the text connected to the paintings. So I was the last of all three of them.

Your most recent recording is the Veni Creator Spiritus. This is an extraordinarily ambitious work for 40 voices in eight choirs. Can you tell us about it?

I was asked by an English choir that always sings Thomas Tallis’s Spem In Alium to write a new work to go with the Tallis. I took this risk because, when I was a boy, I thought that to sing 40 parts was simply impossible. But I found out that it really is possible. So I took the chance to write exactly in the same configuration as Tallis: 8 choirs of 5 singers, and for the same group—always three men, two women, times eight. As they were positioned in an octagon, I also had a chance to let their sound turn around me from one place to the other, or to stand in one choir and go through different kinds of sound impressions so that, as a listener, you get the feeling of water playing over you.

The recording is beautiful. But I envy you the chance of hearing this live, so that the spatial aspect could have its impact. It must be quite extraordinary.

It really is. And especially the ending, when the whole church around you is singing in different rhythms. And then immediately, all the baritones come in with the plain chant, "veni creator spiritus," in long notes. This is very fascinating to listen to.

It must have a physical impact.

It really has. It was performed twice, once in Ely and once in London.

And well received?

Very well, yes.

The people who are reading this interview are probably not acquainted with your work, though I have mentioned your Missa Angelorum several times in Crisis. Of the five recordings that are available here in the United States, which one would you tell someone coming to your music for the first time to listen to first.

What would you suggest?

That’s not fair. I’m afraid I would simply tell them to take it in the order that I discovered your music, which would be, first, the Missa Angelorum on the ASV CD, with the "Magnum Mysterium" and the "Nunc Dimittis." Verena is so exotic I might tell them to come to that later, maybe after the Songs of Love. The last thing I heard was the Veni Creator Spiritus, which is just magnificent. Now that you’ve made me answer my own question, what do you think of the answer?

I think that’s a very good answer.

Robert R. Reilly is the music critic of Crisis.