John Rutter (b. 1945)
Requiem and other sacred music
During the late 1950s and early 1960s, Highgate School in North London was renowned as a fervent source of musical activity. The choir at the school was among the finest in Britain, often performing at the London Promenade Concerts and being involved in landmark première performances. As a young chorister there John Rutter took part in the 1963 recording of Brittens War Requiem under the baton of the composer; an experience which Rutter describes in hindsight as one where "I think we knew that we were touching the hem of historys garment". It is little wonder that from within this unique and bustling environment, Rutter, who counts among his contemporaries at the school the composer John Tavener and Nicholas Snowman, founder of the London Sinfonietta, began to develop speedily into the multi-faceted musician of international repute that he is today, while concurrently beginning his inextricable association with the canon of late twentieth-century choral music.
If Highgate School served as John Rutters initiation into the musical world, then it was his going up to Clare College, Cambridge, in 1964 that marked the beginning of his flourishing in that same sphere. It is a close relationship that has lasted almost forty years and one that has manifested itself in several distinct guises. As an undergraduate reading music at the college, Rutter composed the ever-popular Shepherds Pipe Carol when he was only eighteen, and subsequently had it published together with several other pieces before graduating. As a postgraduate student, he forged lasting friendships with Herbert Howells and Sir David Willcocks, then director of music at the neighbouring Kings College, with the latter of whom he later collaborated on the seminal Carols for Choirs series that remains the mainstay anthology for many parish, college and cathedral choirs throughout the world. In 1975 Rutter was appointed director of music at Clare College, with tutorial responsibility for the undergraduates coupled with the daily running of the chapel choir, one of the first in Cambridge to mix male and female voices. Building on the foundations laid by his predecessor Peter Dennison, he started the choirs rise to international fame. This has since been fuelled by his successor, Tim Brown, elected to the same position in 1979, following Rutters departure to concentrate on composition, after the immense success of his Gloria resulted in a deluge of commissions.
One of the works composed in the years following the end of his tenure at Clare College is the Variations on an Easter theme (1983), which closes the present release. Among a rare breed of organ duets, requiring some diplomatic pedal sharing between the players, this work was commissioned for the giant instrument housed in Washington National Cathedral in the United States. Based on the melody O Filii et Filiae, found in the English Hymnal, each variation demonstrates a different array of sonorities, including a gentle, blues-inflected passage at the heart of the work.
Rutter had already established his ability to craft solo organ compositions of sustained interest nearly ten years before in the Toccata in 7 (1974), a sprightly piece, the quirky 7/8 time signature of which gives it its title. Commissioned for an organ album of new works by his publishers, Oxford University Press, the young composers name appeared alongside the grand old men of English church music, including Herbert Sumsion and William Harris. In the same year, Rutter had his first great international success with the Gloria, a vivaciously exhilarating work for choir, brass, organ and percussion. Little was he to know that a decade later this amazing feat would be achieved again in a composition that remains one of the most popular classical works in the repertoire.
The immediate success of the Requiem (1985), composed in memory of John Rutters father, who had died the previous year and whose initials grace the dedication, was nothing short of miraculous. In the first six months after publication it received over five hundred orchestral performances in America alone. The Requiem exudes an aura of consolation, brought about through Rutters own bereavement at the time, and is composed in a language which he describes as "one that [his] father might have enjoyed listening to". It also draws inspiration from its musical ally and near-centennial forerunner, Gabriel Faurés Requiem (1888). This nineteenth-century work had a peculiar and suspect history of endless revisions, prompting Rutter to make his way in 1983 to the Bibliothèque Nationale, in Paris, where Faurés manuscript had recently come to light. Holding in his hand these delicate pages of musical history, with their obbligato interplay of solo instrumental and choral writing, Rutter envisaged a contemporary Requiem Mass far away from the vast, dark orchestrations and dramatic rhythms of those by Berlioz, Verdi or Britten. His would contain personal selections from the 1662 Book of Common Prayer in addition to the texts prescribed by the liturgy and, above all, it would be a "requiem of our time."
The Requiem was conceived concurrently in its orchestral version and chamber arrangement (heard in its première recording here), to allow for a work that would be equally at home in the concert hall or within the liturgical confines of a church service. The tightly constructed arch-like formation lends the Requiem a structural balance that creates a sense of unity across the entire composition. The first and final movements (their texts taken from the Missa pro defunctis) serve as prayers to God on behalf of all humanity, with the opening timpani of the death march in the Requiem aeternam 1 seemingly softened during the final Lux aeterna 7 into a heartbeat prefiguring a slower, more mystical return of the opening material, as if perceived in a dream. Similarly the brooding psalm Out of the deep 2, with its sombre opening violoncello solo in C minor, is echoed in the lighter C major setting of its counterpart psalm, The Lord is my shepherd 6, this time with obbligato oboe. Interestingly, this latter movement bears the same relationship to the whole as Faurés Libera me, in that both movements existed as separate pieces for around ten years prior to being integrated into the fabric of the completed Requiem Mass. Two personal prayers to Christ, Pie Jesu 3 and Agnus Dei 5, frame the central Sanctus 4, with its use of a glockenspiel ostinato reminiscent of the bells traditionally sounded at this point in the Mass. The interrelation of thematic material in symmetrical formation, interwoven with fragments of Gregorian chant, raises the Requiem to an altogether different plane. It ranks among the elite body of Mass settings imbued not only with aesthetic beauty but a sense of technical rigour.
While his recognition grew throughout the 1980s following his setting up of the Cambridge Singers and his record company, Collegium Records, John Rutter maintained intimate ties with Clare College, especially during his most short-lived phase of collegiate affiliation, as a parent. His son, Christopher, came up to the college in 2000 as a computer science undergraduate and choral exhibitioner, singing in the same chapel choir his father had directed more than twenty years earlier. Tragically, during his first year, Christophers life was cut short by a road accident in March 2001. Solace can be found in the fact that although only in the choir for a few months, Christopher sang several of his fathers anthems, including some left as a musical legacy to the college. Among these are two simple, tender blessings: Go forth into the world in peace (1988), dedicated to the choir on the eve of its first tour to America; and A Clare Benediction (1998), written as a gift to Rutters alma mater. Musica Dei donum (1998), with its anonymous text known only from Lassus 1594 setting, was also composed for the choir. It is written as a celebration of music itself and, with its rhapsodic solo flute, was deemed suitably uplifting to be included by Sir Paul McCartney in his memorial collection of nine anthems, A Garland for Linda, published in 1999.
Arise shine (1999), commissioned by Westminster Cathedral for an Advent service, and Come down, O Love divine (1998), composed for the combined choirs of Westminster Abbey, Westminster Cathedral and St Pauls Cathedral, are both première recordings. The latter anthem stems from a source of lesser-known, more intricate works by Rutter, among which the earlier Hymn to the Creator of light must be included. With its dense double-chorus and rich lyricism, Come down, O Love divine is infused with a heritage steeped in the fertile chromaticism of Herbert Howells and opulent scoring of William Harris.
With the perfectionist attitude he brings to his rôles as composer, conductor, arranger and producer, it is not hard to understand why John Rutters music is performed and recognised in abundance the world over. From the musical fervour of Highgate School in the 1950s soon emerged a unique voice, one that has never fallen silent in over half a century.