Performer Focus: Oliver John Ruthven

One of the founding members of Musica Poetica, Oliver John Ruthven tells us more about his musical life and career…

Firstly, can you tell us a bit about yourself, your instrument and your training to date?

My musical life started with the violin, and until I was at University, my heart was set on becoming a professional violinist – but this wasn’t to be. At the age of 7 I became a chorister at Westminster Abbey, and this was really the catalyst for what I do now – the training at the Abbey was of the highest standard, and, even at a very young age, I was expected to deliver professional performances on a daily basis. It was the rigour and discipline of this early training which has enabled me to become a professional musician.

I first encountered the harpsichord when I was in my teens which I studied alongside the violin as my second study. By the time I reached the end of my time at Manchester University, I realised that I was also passionate about conducting, particularly in the field of early music.

On returning to London as a freelance musician I became Musical Director of Hampstead Garden Opera. During a production of Blow’s ‘Venus & Adonis’, one of the cast asked me to accompany her for a coaching session with John Eliot Gardiner. John Eliot subsequently asked me if I’d be interested in the Monteverdi Choir Apprenticeship. For a year in 2010, I was their keyboards apprentice playing harpsichord and chamber organ in the English Baroque Soloists. Without a doubt, this was the most challenging and exciting experience of my musical life.

Oliver John Ruthven

What other music ensembles/orchestras are you currently involved with?

I continue to work with John Eliot Gardiner and as a member of English Baroque Soloists and the Monteverdi Choir. I also played continuo with His Majesty’s Sackbuts & Cornetts, the Little Baroque Company, the London Mozart Players and the Orpheus Sinfonia. I’m very excited to be playing continuo with Stile Antico in 2017, including a concert at the Wigmore Hall in May.

Tell us about some of your more memorable performing experiences…
This has to be during my first time at the BBC Proms in 2010. I was playing harpsichord and chamber organ in the Monteverdi Vespers with John Eliot and the EBS and it was televised and broadcast on the radio. All was going well until I had to leave the stage to climb up the many stairs to the top of the Albert Hall. Up there was placed a small chamber organ and the boys choir of Cardinal Vaughan School. This was for one verse of the Ave Maris Stella, a matter of seconds, but the small organ was to be the only instrument accompanying the boys choir – my presence up there was fairly crucial!

Having got to the allotted door with plenty of time to spare, and went to open it and found that it had been locked. After a lot of frantic searching, I managed to find an open door on the opposite side of the circular gallery. Taking off my noisy wooden heeled shoes so as not to disrupt the performance, I raced around the gallery and made it to th
e organ in the nick of time. There were some bemused faces amongst the Prommers in the gallery as I weaved my way through them in my tails and socks!

And finally, what are some of your ambitions in the musical world?

I am delighted with the progress Musica Poetica has made over the last couple of years. My ambition is that we establish ourselves as an early music ensemble of renown and quality, which stands the test of time. It is a great inspiration to see several superb early music groups making great waves in the musical world – I hope we can do the same.

Hear Oliver John Ruthven and Simon Lloyd perform music for keyboards from the early Baroque as part of Tunder World 2017 on Thursday 27 April at 1.10pm


Crown of Thorns

Crown of Thorns

In the next free concert in the 2017 series the Musica Poetica Consort present a beautiful programme of a cappella vocal music. Join us at 1.10pm  on Thursday 30 March in the tranquil setting of St Sepulchre-without-Newgate in the heart of the city of London. 

Crown of Thorns

Music by two exact contemporaries will be showcased in this event: the all-but-forgotten Johann Christoph Demantius and the never-to-be-forgotten Claudio Monteverdi, both composers living from 1567 to 1643. 

Demantius’ music represents a transitional phase in German Lutheran music from the Renaissance to the Early Baroque. His St John Passion is a fascinating example of the German “motet Passion”, and his motet for six voices Und wie Moses in der Wüsten (And like Moses in the desert) nods to the Italianate style which so inspired Tunder.

In contrast, Monteverdi’s immense output and musical influence through his instrumental and vocal works have placed him as a towering transitional figure between the Renaissance and the Baroque in the annals of musical history.

Nowhere is this transition from the older polyphonic style to the new concertante style displayed more clearly than in his glorious Missa in illo tempore for six voices. Dating from 1610, this was dedicated to Pope Paul V. 

Join Musica Poetica and six of the UK’s best consort singers for this atmospheric Lenten programme as part of the Tunder World 2017 series.


Composer Feature: Johann Christoph Demantius

450 years ago in a little town in what is now the Czech Republic was born the characterful composer and poet, Johann Christoph Demantius. But who was this fascinating composer? We find out more…

Johann Christoph Demantius was born in Reichenberg, now Liberec in the Czech Republic. He married four times, yet living through the upheaval of the Thirty Years’ War he lost many of his children to its hardships. Demantius was actually a direct contemporary of the great Italian composer Claudio Monteverdi – both living from 1567 to 1643. So this year we mark the 450th birthday anniversary of both composers. Yet Lutheran Germany at this time went through a fascinating transition in musical history from Renaissance polyphony to the early Baroque style of composers such as Franz Tunder. 


From 1607, Demantius was Kantor (Director of Music) at Freiburg Cathedral – a post he held for most of his adult life. In addition to a school music textbook entitled Forma musices which was published when he was just 25, he also wrote the first dictionary of musical terms in the German language. He was an influential figure, and it is very likely that Franz Tunder and his contemporaries would have known of Demantius’ work.

In the forthcoming Crown of Thorns on 30 March Musica Poetica will be performing his St John Passion. Dating from 1631, this beautiful work for six voices a cappella is similar to the ensemble of two sopranos, alto, two tenors and bass much used by Monteverdi. 

Although Demantius is known to have been a prolific composer, only a few pieces survive – and it is easy to see why the Passion was one of them. This is probably the last of the so-called ‘Motet Passions’ of the Lutheran church, with later composers responding to the story of Jesus’ crucifixion in a larger-scale, more dramatic style and culminating in the famous settings of JS Bach. This concert will also feature one of Demantius’ motets from his collection Corona Harmonica from 1610: Und wie Moses in der Wüsten.

As for the style of Demantius’ music, it could be described as a successor to that of the great Flemish composer Orlando de Lassus. Und wie Moses certainly bears the hallmarks of a Lassus motet. Yet Demantius created a highly original musical language very different from that of Tunder who was more interested in the latest Italian Baroque innovations, or from the all-pervasive ‘Palestrinian’ polyphony of the period.

Hear the music of Johann Christoph Demantius alongside his contemporary Claudio Monteverdi in Crown of Thorns on 30 March.



Musica Poetica’s free central London lunchtime recitals

Following the success of their 2016 Highgate concert series, Musica Poetica will be relocating to central London. They will be based at the historic  location of St Sepulchre-without-Newgate in Holborn for a series of nine free lunchtime concerts throughout 2017 entitled Tunder’s World.

St Sepulchre-without-Newgate

St Sepulchre-without-Newgate

In this series, the focus of the concerts will be to explore the magical world of Franz Tunder – a composer from 17th century Germany who lived and thrived through a period of great musical change – and he even has an asteroid named after him!

Franz Tunder 1614-1667

Franz Tunder 1614-1667

During his lifetime opera had recently been developed in Venice by Monteverdi, choral singing was becoming more engaging and complex, the organ was fast becoming the dominant instrument in church music and surrounding all this was the flowering of the German Baroque style of architecture.

Schloss Charlottenburg near Berlin

Schloss Charlottenburg near Berlin

Tunder’s world saw the development of a unique German Baroque musical style which paved the way for the music of JS Bach. Tunder’s complete vocal works will be performed in this concert series alongside music by his contemporaries and those he influenced including Claudio Monteverdi, Dieterich Buxtehude and JS Bach.

Here’s a sample of what will be on offer with Tunder’s Ach Herr, lass deine liebe Engelein (O lord, let Thy dear angels) performed here by Lucy Knight and Oliver John Ruthven from Musica Poetica. 75 years later Bach was to rework this text for the closing chorale of his St. John Passion. In a partner project Musica Poetica will be recording Tunder’s complete vocal works in Autumn 2017.

26 January 2017 will see the launch concert in this series of free one-hour lunchtime recitals opening with a sequence of miniature cantatas for the bass voice including Salve coelestis pater by Franz Tunder and his near contemporaries Nicholaus Bruhns and Dieterich Buxtehude.

Discover St Michael’s Highgate

St Michael's Old Print

An atmospheric setting for a musical performance helps create that extra special experience. This will certainly be true of the next concert by Musica Poetica in the magnificent church of St Michael’s Highgate on 15 October.

St Michael’s Highgate

St. Michael’s, Highgate stands higher than any other church in London. As you enter you are level with the cross on top of St. Paul’s Cathedral. The spire is a landmark on London’s northern skyline from the hills to the south. The upper portion has been rebuilt three times, twice following lightning strikes and the third time after damage from enemy action in WW2.

As London expanded rapidly in the C19 and Act of Parliament was passed in 1818 for the Building and the Promotion of Building Additional Churches in Populous Parishes. As a result, 600 new churches were built in different parts of the country including St Michael’s.

St Michael's Old Print

The architect of this dramatic neo-gothic building was Lewis Vulliamy whose designs for the church were exhibited at the Royal Academy. When the church was completed in 1832 in just 11 months and for a mere £8,171 it was said of him that he was “far in advance of his contemporaries at a period when Gothic was but little known”.

Interior of St Michael's Highgate

Interior of St Michael’s Highgate

Inside, the original building seated 1527 people but in 1880 the architect G.E.Street extended the church eastwards forming a new chancel. Today St Michael’s with its lofty nave and side aisles provide the perfect acoustic for musical performances.

Experience it for yourself on 15 October with The 250 Mile Walk as Musica Poetica retrace the steps of JS Bach on his famous pilgrimage to hear the great organist Buxtehude in Lübeck. 

Tickets at £15 include a glass of Prosecco and are available on the door.

Bach’s great pilgrimage


Two hundred miles is some distance on foot. Google maps tells us it will take you about 77 hours. Assuming say an average of 5-6  hours of actual walking a day that would take around two weeks. What is more, imagine the circumstances – it is 1705, it’s northern Europe, October, the nights are pulling in, cold weather, terrible road conditions and where to stay!


This is the very journey that J S Bach made from his home church in Arnstadt to Lübeck to meet and hear the fabled Dietrich Buxtehude – in his day the greatest organ composer in the world. Bach was 20 years old, Buxtehude was 68, and Bach had to apply for special permission for 4 weeks leave until November to make the journey. 


It was not the first time Bach had embarked on an epic journey to broaden his musical experiences. When he was just 15 he had walked a similar distance with his schoolfriend Georg Erdmann to be enrolled in the prestigious St. Michael’s School in Lüneburg.

Young Bach

However, we know that once he arrived in Lübeck and met the great man face to face Bach was in no hurry to leave and he ended up staying for nearly four months. When he got back to Arnstadt he was summoned by the church authorities to explain himself. The following year, after a series of disagreements he moved on to a new position in Mülhausen.

What probably kept Bach in Lübeck was that Buxtehude had composed some very large works for chorus and orchestra in a major series of concerts known as Abendmusik. Unfortunately none of it survives today but it must have been enough of a draw to entice Bach to overstay his leave – whatever the consequences back home.

Marienkirche, Lübeck

The Marienkirche in those days was the wonder of North Germany. On the west wall was a magnificent and enormous organ and the church had four galleries, all filled with musicians.

Other evidence suggests another possible reason for his extended stay – a woman! Buxtehude was keen to marry off his daughter – although apparently not young, particularly attractive or possessing an overwhelming personality! 

But by all accounts she had become part of a package deal in which Buxtehude’s job and her hand in marriage went together! Although probably tempted, Bach did have his eye on another young woman at the time who he would marry shortly afterwards – his second cousin, Maria Barbara Bach.

Maria Barbara Bach

Whatever the reason, one thing was clear, Bach was changed by the journey – not least in the way he was accompanying the hymns, which seems to have been rather off-putting for the congregation. A surviving chorale prelude from this period gives an indication of the unpredictable manner in which he would vary and extend phrases, making it difficult for the singers to know when to come in on the next line! However, the experience of this musical pilgrimage was to affect his writing for the rest of life.

Musica Poetica presents The 250 Mile Walk on Saturday 15 October in a fascinating exploration of the music of Buxtehude and Bach at St Michael’s Church, Highgate.