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John Rutter is among Britain’s top contemporary composers. His accessible choral works bring many diverse styles to life, from serene melodies to bombastic brass fanfares. His music has successfully found its way throughout North America and Europe and shows no signs of stopping. Rutter also has a reputation of being “Mr. Christmas” due to his large and exemplary collection of Christmas carols which bring the joy of Christmas to singers and listeners alike.
Rutter was born in 1945 in London. His first formal musical education took place at Highgate School, where he was a choir member. As a member of Highgate School’s choir, Rutter sang together with John Tavener. The school also had a very successful boys’ choir which recorded Benjamin Britten’sWar Requiem, under the direction of Britten himself. Other remarkable musical moments from his youth include his participation in a performance ofCarmina Burana at the Proms when he was just 11 years old. This moment proved to be pivotal for Rutter, as it was then that he discovered “the special magic that voices and instruments create when they are put together”.
His choir director expected the members of the choir to compose regularly, a task which never dazed Britten, who deemed it completely normal. At the young age of 18, Rutter composed theShepard’s Pipe Carol. This was the beginning of a decade of carol writing which coincided with the strict serialism of the 1960s.
Rutter has become known especially for his Christmas music, which consists of many simple carols and touching melodies. His most famous carols include Shepherd’s Pipe Carol, Star Carol, Nativity Carol and the Donkey Carol. His output of carols includes about two dozen works. Together with Sir David Willcocks, Rutter also edited four volumes of Carols for Christmas.
Rutter’s passion for music led him to study the subject at Clare College, Cambridge, where he focused on composition and conducting. At the age of 30 he became music director of the college until the number of commissions became too overwhelming after the success of hisGloria in the United States. Rutter chose to give up his fellowship and step-down from the director position to focus completely on composition.
Despite having found his niche in Christmas carols, Rutter’s larger-scale works are most certainly not to be ignored and have earned him a respectable reputation. The most famous of these works include theGloria (1974), Requiem (1985)Magnificat (1990) Psalmfest (1993) and the Mass of the Children (2003) . Despite the brilliant nature of these works, Rutter is sometimes dismissed as a serious composer due to his extensive carol writing, a fact which does not greatly concern him.
His orchestral and instrumental music has remained in the background. Rutter stated in an interview withThe Guardian in 2000, “I’ve become associated with Christmas, but I don’t fight too hard because I have a special place in my heart for its music. It’s the first music I remember actually enjoying when I was a kid, and as a member of my school chapel choir the carol service was the high point of the singing year”.
Rutter believes the form to be a worthy genre of music. When defending the carol Rutter often educated “anyone who says they are a kitsch, naff art-form that they are actually a very old art-form. They are the first form of vernacular choral literature that we have in this country because back in the 15 th-century when Latin was used for everything else in church, English was permitted for carols”. He believes that this indicates the medieval clergy’s soft spot for Christmas.
Out of his diverse collection of (non-Christmas) miniature works, A Gaelic Blessing is among his best. Many musicians jokingly refer to the work as A Garlic Dressing. This wonderful work, which lasts a mere two minutes, was commissioned by an American Methodist Church. The text is very comforting and is accompanied by luscious strings. This work is particularly popular at both celebratory and tragic events, such as weddings, christenings and funerals. Other well-known miniatures includeGod be in my head, Carol of the Magi, and This is the day(written for the marriage of Prince William and Kate Middleton). Many of these works can be heard on the recordingJohn Rutter: The Tewkesbury Collection, which was released on the Delphian label. The album features the Tewkesbury Abbey Schola Cantorium, directed by Benjamin Nicholas.
Rutter’s large-scale Gloria received hundreds of performance in just the 1970s alone, leading him to composeMagnificat, which was written for Carnegie Hall. Rutter believes that his success in the US is tied to there being “fewer prejudices about the style of contemporary music in the US”. He further described the US as having a more pragmatic approach to contemporary music, as new works are not bound to the current style.
Though he is pleased to have had numerous commissions, Rutter found that he has had to repeat himself too often. He has no regrets though “because these small things [carols] have gone around the world and made friends for me among all kinds of people”.
Of the larger-scale works, Psalmfest is featured on primephonic on the Naxos Classical label. The album features the entire work, as performed by the choirs of St Albans Cathedral and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, under the direction of Andrew Lucas. This is the début recording of the work as a whole. Psalmfest consists of nine movements each based on one of the psalms of David from The Old Testament of the Bible. The album also includes settings of three more psalms,This is the Day, Lord Thou hast been our refuge and Psalm 150.
"...the most gifted composer of his generation." - David Wilcocks
"For the infectiousness of his melodic invention and consummate craftsmanship, Rutter has few peers." - Evening Standard
"... 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." - The Guardian
"the most celebrated and successful composer of carols alive today." - Sue Lawley