The prodigious English composer is a true master who deserves to be known for more than his much-loved carols, says Clare Stevens
For millions of people around the world, Christmas begins with that ethereal treble voice floating into a darkened chapel in the opening solo verse of Once in Royal David’s City.
But for many, the essence of the festive season is distilled in something altogether jollier: the dancing arpeggios of an orchestral flute introducing John Rutter’s Shepherd’s Pipe Carol, a vivid story told through text and music, both by Rutter, bringing a touch of whimsical enchantment to a programme of seasonal favourites in a metropolitan concert hall.
Who is John Rutter?
John Rutter is one of Britain's most eminent composers and particularly famous for his arrangements of Christmas carols and sacred music
How old is John Rutter?
John Rutter was born in London on 24 September, 1945.
Where did John Rutter grow up?
Rutter grew up in North London and for his first ten years, his family lives opposite Baker Sreet tube station in a flat above The Globe pub, run by his grandmother.
His father, a scientist, enjoyed music and could play the piano a little by ear; his mother was more interested in literature and theatre. At Highgate School he came under the inspiring influences of Martindale Sidwell, organist of Hampstead Parish Church, and the school’s director of music, Edward Chapman, whose chapel choir Rutter soon joined.
Who did Rutter study under?
Chapman had been a pupil of the Irish composer Charles Wood, renowned for his church music, and Rutter sees a clear line of music descent. ‘Wood was what would be called a very conservative composer, I suppose,’ he admitted in Giving Voice to my Music, David Wordsworth’s recently published book of conversations with choral composers; ‘but the music is always so beautifully crafted and well-heard. He was a great devotee of counterpoint and fugue, which I am too, really; it’s a way of learning how to make the notes do what you want them to do, and not let them run away.’
Among Rutter’s musical contemporaries at Highgate was another budding composer who would develop a very different style – John Tavener. He and the young Rutter were best friends and in 1963 sang with the chapel choir on the first recording of Britten’s War Requiem, conducted by the composer.
Though at the time a somewhat overwhelming experience, it reinforced the idea that a career as a composer was possible. Rutter went on to study music at Clare College, Cambridge. There, too, he was a member of the chapel choir, which he later directed with distinction for several years.
The demands of running a collegiate choir proved to be incompatible with fulfilling the increasing number of composing commissions that were coming his way, so he stepped down from the post in 1979. However, his close association with the choir continued, gaining additional poignancy in 2001 when his son Christopher was killed in a road accident in Cambridge while a choral scholar at Clare. Christopher was the dedicatee of the choir’s recording of Rutter’s Requiem and a selection of shorter works, conducted by his successor Timothy Brown and produced for Naxos by Rutter himself.
An invitation from a television company in 1982 provided the impetus for Rutter to set up his own Cambridge Singers, a professional mixed-voice ensemble that went on to provide definitive recordings of most of his choral works, released on the Collegium Records label he founded a few years after founding the choir.
John Rutter's Carols for Choirs anthologies
The composer’s name is closely associated with Christmas carols, and in particular with the Carols for Choirs anthologies published by Oxford University Press (OUP).
The original volume – the familiar ‘green carol book’ – was edited by David Willcocks, then director of music at King’s College, Cambridge, in collaboration with Reginald Jacques; but the latter was in poor health and John Rutter, then a postgraduate student at King’s, was brought in to assist with Volume 2, published in 1970.
The ‘orange book’ is full of his arrangements and original pieces, including the Shepherd’s Pipe Carol, written when he was just 18 and one of the manuscripts he had produced some years prior to that volume’s publication when Willcocks had asked to see some of his compositions. Willcocks was so impressed that he passed them on to colleagues at OUP with a recommendation that they should be published.
What has Rutter composed?
Rummage around in Rutter’s catalogue and you will find a few orchestral or instrumental works, some pieces for solo organ and a handful of chamber works, plus some recent anthologies of transcriptions for solo piano of some of his best-loved choral pieces, a lockdown project.
There is even a Beatles Concerto, a lush medley of the big tunes presented in the style of Rachmaninov. But most of his writing has been for choirs, ranging from exquisite short pieces such as his heart-stopping setting of the Aaronic Blessing, The Lord bless you and keep you, composed in memory of his teacher Edward Chapman, to substantial cantatas such as his Gloria and Magnificat.
The latter was chosen by Amy Bebbington, director of training for the Association of British Choral Directors, as a test piece for her conducting students at last summer’s Sherborne Summer School of Music. ‘It is perfect for this sort of situation,’ she says, ‘because it requires a diverse skill set and is complex enough to challenge skilled conductors, but the difficulties are not insurmountable in a single masterclass. Our singers, players and conductors all thoroughly enjoyed it.’
Besides Christmas carols, there are sacred and secular works for many occasions, such as the radiant Look at the world, a harvest anthem with a text on the theme of the environment; hymn anthems such as For the beauty of the earth and All things bright and beautiful; and The Sprig of Thyme, a suite of 11 folksong settings. More recently, Joseph’s Carol is a musical tribute to the accomplished team of scientists at the University of Oxford who worked on the Covid-19 vaccine, recorded by Bryn Terfel and the Oxford Philharmonic Orchestra for a streamed concert in December 2020.
It is also typical of Rutter’s generosity that the score of his setting of an anonymous Ukrainian Prayer, composed at short notice for a London choral workshop in March 2022, has been made available free of charge to choirs through his website (though they are encouraged to donate an appropriate amount to a Ukrainian charity), and may also be recorded without special licence.
What pieces is Rutter most famous for?
Asked to pick a favourite Rutter piece, many musicians choose Hymn to the Creator of Light, written for the dedication of Gloucester Cathedral’s Herbert Howells Memorial Window on the composer’s centenary during the 1992 Three Choirs Festival.
David Hill, the current musical director of The Bach Choir, describes it as ‘one of John’s finest anthems, demonstrating his skilled use of harmony. The bi-tonality in the opening section reminds me of how much of an influence Vaughan Williams and Holst have been on our composers, and one can hear this so clearly in this work. Add to that the zest and energy of the middle section, Walton-esque in many ways, and the chorale woven into the final section, and I believe it is one of the strongest anthems of its genre within the 20th century canon of sacred music.’
His anthem This is the Day is sung at the wedding of Prince William and Catherine Middleton at Westminster Abbey, and was heard by millions on global TV.
What makes Rutter so special?
Hill praises Rutter’s ‘endless ability to produce beautifully crafted, memorable melodies – all sitting on strong, imaginative harmony. There simply isn’t a note in the wrong place, and to crown all of that, he is a master of orchestration and detail. Many people won’t realise just how much of a musicologist and academic he is, undertaking all the research for editing and providing notes on other composers’ works in the many superb anthologies he has produced.’
Hilary Campbell, musical director of Bristol Choral Society and various London-based choirs, and a composer herself, identifies Rutter’s pragmatic approach to choral writing as one of his strengths. ‘He enables even the least experienced singer to feel that they have mastered a corner of a work, whether through repetition or unison melody or a simple idea that gradually evolves into something radiant and thrilling,’ she says, adding that ‘he is able to give the impression, through inventive and expert orchestral writing, of choral lines which sound complex and challenging but which singers are able to learn and perform with relative ease.’
Choral conductor and editor Jonathan Wikeley shares this view that Rutter’s technical assurance is the key to singers’ enjoyment of his music: ‘The voice leading is just so; the ranges work for all the voice parts; you’ll never get a tricky vowel on a high note; and he knows how choirs work, so the chord structures will naturally help the balance and blend in the choir.’
Now of an age when most people would be putting their feet up, John Rutter still conducts large-scale concerts and runs Singing Days around the world, enabling choirs to explore music by himself and other composers without the pressure of a public performance. Last year he launched ChoirGuides, a series of individual voice recordings (featuring the Cambridge Singers) and accompaniments to help singers learn their parts for some of his best-known works and arrangements. Through his blog and media interviews he is an outspoken champion for the musical profession as well as for choral singing. He’s truly an international treasure.
Illustration © Matt Herring