A musical thank-you to the Oxford vaccine team

John Rutter
Monday, December 7, 2020

John Rutter on his Christmas tribute to the city's scientists

Recording John Rutter's new work in Oxford's Sheldonian Theatre
Recording John Rutter's new work in Oxford's Sheldonian Theatre

I have just been standing on the very spot where Haydn directed his Oxford Symphony in 1791. So yes, I’m in Oxford, in the geometrically beautiful Sheldonian Theatre where he received his honorary degree and where degrees are still conferred. I’m guest-conducting a little piece I was invited to write as part of a musical tribute and Christmas greeting to the Oxford vaccine team, and if ever a group of people deserved a pat on the back, it surely must be this dedicated team of scientists on their mission to save the world.

As a composer, I think I understand a little of what they must have been experiencing this year: I know how it feels to work in the back room – which can be a lonely place, with no public recognition or appreciation until your labours are all over, and a constant feeling of deadline pressure. Even if no one actually nags you, the weight of expectation can lie heavily on your shoulders, which perhaps can spur you on to greater efforts but is more often just stressful. All of us involved in the musical tribute joined in because we wanted to say that as musicians we feel for you as scientists and are thinking of you.

When I was wondering what to write, something drew me to the figure of Joseph, the character in the Christmas story who seems to get overlooked and sidelined. I’ve always felt rather sorry for him; he must have felt he was travelling a long dark road to Bethlehem, and his thoughts about Mary’s inexplicable condition must have been ... well, complicated. Yet at the end of their journey a miracle happened, and that gave me the seed of what became Joseph’s Carol.

Any composer will tell you that it helps to know who you are writing for, and I was overjoyed to learn that we had Sir Bryn Terfel on hand as soloist, with the excellent choir of Merton College, and the Oxford Philharmonic Orchestra who have made such an impressive contribution to music in the city of dreaming spires since they were established 22 years ago. As part of a 30-minute programme, we have also had memorable contributions from Alexandra Lowe, representing the Royal Opera House’s young artist scheme where the stars of the future are nurtured, and from 14-year-old Alexander Olleson, representing Oxford’s Christ Church Cathedral where he was a chorister.

The whole project was the brainchild of the orchestra’s founder-director Marios Papadopoulos. He rang me up during the autumn with an embryonic idea to recognise and thank the vaccine team ... ‘maybe a little something you could write, solo voice and string quartet perhaps?’. It grew. I am here amidst a teeming throng of musicians, camera and lighting crew, roadies in masks wiping down music stands and vigilant Covid officers making sure we observe social distancing. The Vice-Chancellor has just given an address of welcome. Classic FM’s John Suchet is presenting. As this extraordinary year draws to a close, I feel inspired to be witnessing so much human effort and expertise gathered together in Oxford to make two simple but momentously important statements: ‘thank you’ and ‘musicians will never be defeated, we will always be there for you and for everyone’.

It’s too early to tell what 2021 will bring for music, musicians, and indeed the whole arts sector. When a storm strikes, you have to wait till it passes over before you can assess the damage. Will we be looking at a shrunken and cash-starved musical profession? Perhaps. For sure, the new arts landscape will test everyone’s resilience and powers of recovery to the limit. We will probably not see international touring return as a mainstay of our musicians’ income for some time. Not every orchestra, opera company and musical ensemble will survive. Classical music (how I dislike that term which seems to marginalise those of us involved in it!) has always needed its princely patrons, and the Oxford Philharmonic is fortunate in having some generous supporters, but where is support across the whole arts world to be found now?

One by-product of the pandemic has been the unprecedented amassing of wealth by global tech companies, headed by men including one reckoned to be the richest person on earth. If I were in any position of influence in the arts world (I only write the raw material) I would mount a concerted and relentless campaign to remind these global titans that if the world they are increasingly ruling over is to be a world worth living in they should give back some of the money they have made out of you and me, to support the arts. Their tax-avoiding companies have profited massively from Covid; they should help those who have suffered from it. The arts are not a frill; they are the lifeblood and hallmark of a civilised society.

The Oxford Vaccine Team tribute will be streamed at 18.30 on December 18 on Oxford Philharmonic Orchestra’s YouTube Channel. Classic FM will stream it at the same time on Classic FM’s Facebook. You can watch a preview below:

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