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In autumn of 1997, Butt returned to the University of Cambridge as University Lecturer, Director of Studies for Music at King's College, and Fellow of King's College. He also became the founding director of King's Voices - a mixed chorus "founded in October 1997 under the direction of Dr John Butt (director of studies for Music at King's, 1997-2001) to give the women of King's the opportunity to contribute vocally to the musical life of the College." Musicians that he inspired during this time include the organist Robert Quinney and harpsichordist and director Julian Perkins.
Since October 2001 he has been the Gardiner Chair of Music at the University of Glasgow; he also served as Head of the Music Department from 2001 to 2005. Since 2003 he has conducted the Dunedin Consort (a professional vocal ensemble in Edinburgh, Scotland); his title with the consort as of August 2012 is "Music Director." At the end of the 2013/14 academic session, Butt was also appointed Interim Director of Music of the Glasgow University Chapel Choir, after James Grossmith left that post to become chorus master of the Royal Swedish Opera.
He has published numerous articles for scholarly publications and for general-audience publications. Books have included
Bach Interpretation: Articulation Marks in Primary Sources of J.S.Bach (Cambridge University Press, 1990; the book is based on Butt's doctoral thesis, and is described as the "first comprehensive assessment of J. S. Bach's use of articulation marks (i.e. slurs and dots) in the large body of primary sources." In 1992, the book won the first William H. Scheide Prize of the American Bach Society.)
Bach - Mass in B Minor (Cambridge Music Handbooks, 1991)
Music Education and the Art of Performance in the German Baroque (Cambridge University Press, 1994)
Playing with History - the historical approach to musical performance (Cambridge University Press, 2002; shortlisted for the book prize of the British Academy);
Bach's Dialogue with Modernity: Perspectives on the Passions (Cambridge University Press, 2010 ISBN978-0-521-88356-6; the book examines Bach's St. Matthew Passion and St. John Passion in detail, situating them with respect to pre-modernity and modernity, and considering issues they raise with respect to artistic subjectivity, rhetoric and performance practice.)
He co-edited the Cambridge Companion to Bach (1997) - for which he contributed two articles on Bach's metaphysics - was consultant editor for the Oxford Companion to Bach, and joint editor (together with Tim Carter) of the Cambridge History of Seventeenth Century Music (2005).
Butt's first recording as a conductor, made in 1994 for the Centaur label, featured music of Orlando Gibbons sung by the U.C. Berkeley Chamber Choir with viol accompaniment; for the disc, he also recorded keyboard works of Gibbons on the organ. Since 2005, Butt has conducted eleven recordings of the Dunedin Consort and Players for the Linn label, many featuring reconstructions of a specific historical performance. These include:
2010: J.S. Bach's Mass in B minor. This is the first recording to use the new critical edition by Joshua Rifkin, which follows Bach's final version of the score from 1748-50 exclusively from beginning to end. (Other editions have included elements from a 1733 version of the Kyrie and Gloria, and some posthumous changes by Bach's son, C.P.E. Bach).
2012: Handel's Esther in the first reconstructable version of the work, from 1720; Butt reconstructed the performing edition from Handel's autograph and three other historical sources.
2013: J.S. Bach's St. John Passion, in a liturgical reconstruction based on Good Friday Vespers services in Leipzig. In March 2013 the disc was named "Record of the Month" by Gramophone (magazine) and "Recording of the Month" by BBC Music Magazine.
September 2013: J.S. Bach's Brandenburg Concertos with the Dunedin Consort. It was a Gramophone (magazine) "Choice" in October 2013. and was a finalist in the Baroque Instrumental category for the 2014 Gramophone Awards; it was also nominated for the International Classical Music Awards in the Baroque Instrumental category. In this recording, the ensemble used the pitch standard of A=392 or "tief-Cammerton," a whole tone below the modern standard pitch and associated with the French royal court at the time; Butt notes that many German-speaking courts, including the one at Cöthen where Bach wrote these concertos, "attempted to emulate French practice." He also mentions instruments from the time and place pitched to this standard. Still, he notes that "While Cöthen court pitch was likely to have been somewhere near this, it is unlikely that pitch was ever standardized as precisely as we might often assume or wish."
March 2014: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's Requiem with the Dunedin Consort. This is the first recording of David Black's new critical edition, published in 2012, of the Franz Xaver Süssmayr completion of the Requiem. The recording seeks to re-create the forces used at the first complete performance in January, 1793; it also includes a performance of Black's reconstruction of a December 1791 performance of the Introit and Kyrie sections. Also performed is Mozart's Misericordias Domini, K. 222. In May 2014, the disc was named "Recording of the Month" by Gramophone (magazine). and in August 2014, it won the Gramophone Award for 2014 for Best Choral recording. In November 2014, it was listed among the nominees in the Choral category for the 2015 International Classical Music Awards. In December 2014, it was listed as one of the five nominees for "Best Choral Performance" in the Grammy Awards.
John Butt and his wife Sally have five children He is the nephew of a professional musician, and son of the distinguished biochemist Wilfred Butt - who was, Butt says, "a keen amateur" musician and was at one time a member of the chorus of the London Philharmonic Orchestra. When an interviewer for the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment asked John Butt about his preferences, he expressed enthusiasm for the practice of tai chi, the films of Alfred Hitchcock, the symphonies of Anton Bruckner (adding, "I can't understand why so many people find Bruckner boring"), and the In Search of Lost Time novels of Marcel Proust (the central character, he said, is "a bit of a weed in many respects, but what a complex, detailed and wonderfully ironic weed! No-one else captures so strikingly the paradoxes of consciousness and the little inconsistencies and delusions that we all try to hide from the world"). He also told the interviewer, "I feel that most of the things at which I am successful are only a matter of momentary luck!"
On 17 September 2014 he published a letter in The Herald supporting the "No" position in Scottish independence referendum, 2014, and arguing that independence would damage classical music. He argued that "Classical and contemporary music surely flourish best in a multi-cultural, international, environment, one that is extraordinarily well provided within the UK (and which would be even better if more Scots were to reclaim some of their ownership of it)," decried the "insidious synecdochal reductionism of the independence cause," and concluded, "Such a simplistic attitude suggests that the risks of looking inwards and losing the dynamism of Scotland's own cultures are very real once we begin to live behind the Tartan Curtain."