Born in London, the son of an industrial chemist and his wife, Rutter grew up living over the Globe pub on London's Marylebone Road. He was educated at Highgate School, where his fellow pupils included John Tavener, Howard Shelley, Brian Chapple and Nicholas Snowman; he then read music at Clare College, Cambridge, where he was a member of the choir. He served as director of music at Clare College from 1975 to 1979 and led the choir to international prominence.
In 1981, Rutter founded his own choir, the Cambridge Singers, which he conducts and with which he has made many recordings of sacred choral repertoire (including his own works), particularly under his own label Collegium Records. He resides at Duxford in Cambridgeshire and frequently conducts many choirs and orchestras around the world.
In 1980, he was made an honorary Fellow of Westminster Choir College, Princeton, and in 1988 a Fellow of the Guild of Church Musicians. In 1996, the Archbishop of Canterbury conferred a Lambeth Doctorate of Music upon him in recognition of his contribution to church music. In 2008, he was made an honorary Bencher of the Middle Temple while playing a significant role in the 2008 Temple Festival.
From 1985 to 1992, Rutter suffered severely from myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME, or chronic fatigue syndrome), which restricted his output; after 1985 he stopped writing music on commission, as he was unable to guarantee meeting deadlines.
Rutter also works as an arranger and editor. As a young man he collaborated with Sir David Willcocks on four volumes of the extraordinarily successful Carols for Choirs anthology series.
He was inducted as a National Patron of Delta Omicron, an international professional music fraternity in 1985. Rutter is also a Vice President of the Joyful Company of Singers.
In 2011 Rutter was invited to compose an anthem for the wedding of Prince William and Catherine Middleton - "This is The Day".
Rutter's compositions are chiefly choral, and include Christmas carols, anthems and extended works such as a Gloria, the Requiem and the Magnificat.
The world premiere of Rutter's Requiem (1985), and of his authoritative edition of Faure's Requiem, took place with the Fox Valley Festival Chorus, in Illinois. In 2002, his setting of Psalm 150, commissioned for the Queen's Golden Jubilee, was performed at the Jubilee thanksgiving service in St Paul's Cathedral, London. Similarly, he was commissioned to write a new anthem, "This is the day", for the Wedding of Prince William and Catherine Middleton in 2011, performed at Westminster Abbey during the service.
Dr. Rutter conducted The Gift of Life: Six Canticles of Creation in its world premiere at Preston Hollow Presbyterian Church in Dallas, Texas on April 19, 2015. The piece, composed of six movements (including the previously composed "Hymn to the Creator of Light"), was commissioned by David and Miranda Lind in memory of Mr. Lind's mother, and in honor of Terry Price, the director of the church's music department.
He has also written an opera for young people called Bang!
Rutter's work is published principally by Oxford University Press in England and by Hinshaw Music in the US. It has been recorded by many choirs, but he conducts his own recordings principally on his Collegium label.
Rutter's music is eclectic, showing the influences of the French and English choral traditions of the early 20th century as well as of light music and American classic songwriting. Almost every choral anthem and hymn that he writes has a subsequent orchestral accompaniment in addition to the standard piano/organ accompaniment, using various different instrumentations such as strings only, strings and woodwinds or full orchestra with brass and percussion.
Despite composing and conducting much religious music, Rutter told the US television programme 60 Minutes in 2003 that he was not a particularly religious man yet still deeply spiritual and inspired by the spirituality of sacred verses and prayers. The main topics considered in the 60 Minutes programme, which was broadcast a week before Christmas 2003, were Rutter's popularity with choral groups in the United States, Britain and other parts of the world and his composition Mass of the Children, written after the sudden death of his son Christopher while a student at Clare College, Cambridge, where Rutter himself had studied.
In a 2009 interview Rutter discussed his understanding of 'genius' and its unique ability to transform lives – whether that genius is communicated in the form of music or other media. He likened the purity of music to that of mathematics and connected the two with a reference to the discovery made by the early Greeks that frequencies of harmonic pitches are related by whole-number ratios.
Rutter's music is very popular, particularly in the USA. In the UK it receives a more mixed reception: most hold him in high regard, as illustrated by the following quotation from a review in the London Evening Standard (25/09/2005): "For the infectiousness of his melodic invention and consummate craftsmanship, Rutter has few peers," while one conservative British composer, David Arditti, didn't regard him as a sufficiently "serious" composer, saying that Rutter is "hard to take seriously, because of the way in which his sheer technical facility or versatility leads to a superficial, unstable crossover style which is neither quite classical nor pop, and which tends towards mawkish sentimentality in his sugarily-harmonised and orchestrated melodies." The Guardian remarked that "it is as a writer of carols that he has really made his mark ... His larger-scale works – particularly the Gloria (1974), Requiem (1985) and Magnificat (1990) – are also well established in the choral repertoire." David Willcocks considered Rutter "the most gifted composer of his generation."Gloria (1974)
The Beatles Concerto (1977)
Mass of the Children (2003)
The Gift of Life: Six Canticles of Creation (2015)
Most of these works are original compositions, including new musical settings of standard texts, whilst others are arrangements of traditional hymns.Wind in the Willows
Brother Heinrich's Christmas
The Reluctant Dragon