Commenting recently on the death of Sir Stephen Cleobury, formerly director of music at King’s College, Cambridge, the British composer John Rutter said something striking. Rutter, who is publicly described as an agnostic, observed that Sir Stephen had always wanted to make people of all faiths and of none welcome to the world of church music. King’s College chapel was, through its music, to speak to all.
It was a striking comment not only because it was apt about Stephen Cleobury, but also because it spoke of John Rutter.
Rutter is blessed with a capacity for writing appealingly for many different kinds of listener and performer, and his style is easy to recognise. Much of his music, for instance, has either an organ or piano accompaniment, and a chamber orchestra version. In this there are heard common patterns: harp and solo flutes or oboes, often with lyrical rising melodies that recur throughout the piece. He makes the most of semi-tone transpositions, often taking his music through a number of keys, leaving an aura of transformation and uplift. There is plenty of counterpoint between women’s voices and men’s and a Howells-like build up to a climax and down again.
Some of the short pieces have become remarkably familiar on both sides of the Atlantic: For the Beauty of the Earth, The Lord Bless You and Keep You, Look at the World. One work has become so well known that it is almost always called affectionately by its nickname. The composer titled this piece A Gaelic Blessing and its gentle grace is to be heard in services of all moods. But the work, with fondness, is usually described as “The Garlic Dressing”.
Some words have music indelibly associated with them. It takes a sure-footed composer to set them afresh. Another British composer, Philip Wilby, audaciously took the text “If ye love me” as an anthem. Now those words, one might think, were long ago defined as the property of Thomas Tallis. But Wilby wrote something completely new, which has become almost as widely sung as its counterpart. Rutter achieved something equivalent with CF Alexander’s All things Bright and Beautiful, usually sung to one of two well-known hymn tunes. Yet Rutter remakes it and changes our aural memory. The delicate melody of his setting, with its exquisite rhythmic shape, is hard to forget.
Educated at Highgate School, London (along with the very different composer, John Tavener), Rutter read music at Clare College, Cambridge. He was subsequently director of music there and set the foundation for the outstanding singing of the Clare choir that continues today. Indeed, through workshops and lectures, Rutter has helped many choirs, including ordinary parish ones, to grow in quality. As a speaker, he has a captivating charisma born of a passion for good singing. And that shows particularly in his work with his own Cambridge Singers. Beautifully blended, expressive but not sentimental, the Cambridge Singers are persuasive evidence of Rutter’s understanding of the human voice.
Rutter’s many anthems have ecumenical success. And his adaptions/arrangements of Christmas carols, many included in Oxford’s Carols for Choirs, are so popular that Rutter might be said to be part of the very sound of Christmas. His arrangements of The Twelve Days of Christmas and the Sans Day Carol are, for instance, sung everywhere. There are also his highly popular original compositions for Christmas, including the Nativity Carol (“Born in a stable so bare”) or the glittering Star Carol. Seeing “John Rutter” on a carol service sheet is an assurance that Christmas is proceeding to plan.
His work includes large-scale pieces too. Rutter’s chamber edition of Fauré’s Requiem gave us the composer’s 1893 version, an intimate setting for organ and chamber ensemble designed as a liturgical Mass. And something of Fauré’s moods and textures inform Rutter’s own Requiem (1985), the structure of which it partly imitates. Mass of the Children (2003) offers some exquisite melodic and harmonic writing, two years after the death of Rutter’s son.
Illness prevented Rutter from accepting commissions for years. But the dedications of his publications tell of extensive recognition from choirs, particularly in the United States and Britain. He is as dedicated to professionals as to the work of regular parish church musicians for whom he has provided so much.
Once, I played Rutter’s Toccata in Seven for organ at the end of a Mass in Oxford. Unexpectedly, an arm came over my shoulder and turned the page.
I was grateful. When I had finished, I looked round to thank my welcome helper. It was John Rutter, who proved to be a friend of the priest. He smiled kindly and said: “Thank you.” The tiniest practical example of the generosity of this wonderful musician who gives so substantially in his writing for modern worship.
Francis O’Gorman was organ scholar of his college in Oxford and remains an active musician. He is Saintsbury Professor of English Literature at the University of Edinburgh and tweets at @francis_ogorman
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