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Hyperion Records

CDA67245 - Rutter: Music for Christmas

Recording details: January 2001
All Saints, Tooting, United Kingdom
Produced by Mark Brown
Engineered by Julian Millard
Release date: October 2001
Total duration: 71 minutes 24 seconds


'It’s hard to imagine them better performed than by the award-winning British choir Polyphony' (The Mail on Sunday)

'The performances by both choir and orchestra are ideal in tone, style and accomplishment … A Christmas treat' (Gramophone)

'A treat for all Rutter fans! … the program is bound to satisfy anyone seeking a balanced program of Christmas choral music done with sensitivity and taste' (American Record Guide)

'Superb performances which are beautifully recorded’ (International Record Review)

'Those of you for whom Rutter is a new name are in for a very special treat. From the jaunty Shepherd's Pipe Carol, with its vivid portrayal of the starry sky above Bethlehem, to the sublime and deeply moving What Sweeter Music, Rutter's music is impeccably crafted, melodically rich and entirely infectious. More than a stocking-filler, this disc is surely one of the highlights of the year' (Classic FM)

'The carols of John Rutter are becoming as traditional at Christmas as mince pies, so rich is his output … [An] extraordinary disc. Rutter’s music is impeccably crafted, melodically rich and entirely infectious … this disc is surely one of the highlights of the year' (Classic FM Magazine)

‘when the chirpy Shepherd’s Pipe Carol, the instantly singable Star Carol, or the literal sound effects of the charming Donkey Carol are wrapped up in such glittering, top-quality packaging as Stephen Layton’s Polyphony and The City of London Sinfonia, its seasonal allure is sealed. Finely Polished performances, served up with a warm and festive mulled-wine sensation’ (The Scotsman)

'Lovingly rendered by Polyphony under Stephen Layton, this should be a disc of choice not only for this year but as well as for the years to come' (Fanfare, USA)

'Polyphony beautifully continue the English tradition with joyful refinement' (HMV Choice)

'[Rutter] could not have asked for better performers' (The Evening Standard)

'The performances are uniformly excellent; Stephen Layton and his Polyphony vocal ensemble have shown a previous affinity for Rutter’s work and this effort simply reaffirms their commitment to and love for this very special music. Outstanding' (

'Les arrangements sont ingénieux’ (Diapason, France)

Music for Christmas
Second Amen  [0'53] English

It has been said of John Rutter that he has become the musical equivalent of Dickens, synonymous with the season, and this magnificent choral collection represents the kind of Rutter repertoire that has been colouring Christmases around the world for more than three decades. Christmas music has always remained very dear to Rutter, who admits that as a student, the carol service was the 'highlight of the year'. 'Christmas', he remarked, 'is for many people the only time of year when they have contact with choral music'—an observation that will rapidly establish this CD as the absolute must-have Christmas record of the year. It is stunningly recorded by Stephen Layton, who once again directs Polyphony and the City of London Sinfonia following their equally magnificent release of Rutter's Gloria and other sacred music (CDA67259).

The absence of this 'come-in-and-warm-yourself-by-the-fire' disc in January is guaranteed to leave a chill as bitter as the north winds! It is the perfect antidote to cold winter evenings, the idyllic soundtrack to the season, and will prove a great source of inspiration, nostalgia and joy to a great many people.

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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
Rutter’, a journalist wrote not so long ago, ‘has become the musical equivalent of Dickens, synonymous with the season.’ Of Christmas, that is. Then again, wags might observe that Dickens wrote just the one Christmas Carol, whereas this album represents a mere dip into the Rutter repertoire which has been colouring Christmases around the world for more than three decades. And while the composer could run a finger up and down his full list of works to emphasize that it embraces far more than just the Yuletide dimension, he seems happy enough to go along with the idea that to a large degree Christmas music made his name. ‘The carols were my calling cards’, he says.

You don’t get to write quantities of music in one genre without having a solid sympathy for its surrounding ethos and tradition. Christmas and Christmas music have long been in Rutter’s blood – even able to stir, he admits, a touch of sentimentality:

When I was a student at Highgate School in London our Christmas carol service was the highlight of the musical year – closely modelled on the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols made famous by the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge. So I grew up cherishing the opportunity to sing this music in the school’s chapel choir. And our director of music, Edward Chapman, encouraged us as students to compose carols as a way of experimenting with a miniature art form, although in fact I wrote my very first carol because I found out that a certain fellow-pupil – John Tavener, no less – had written one! That spurred me on!

I think I’ve also inevitably been drawn to writing carols because there’s such a strong native tradition. Christmas carols were the earliest form of vernacular choral literature permitted by the Church, back in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. So even before the Reformation you could hear carols that combined English and Latin texts. In the nineteenth century Bramley and Stainer put together the first really important collection – Christmas Carols New and Old – and through the last century many leading British composers wrote carols: Britten, Vaughan Williams, Holst and others. They created as fine a modern tradition as you could find in any other country in the world. The Christmas carol is, after all, one of very few musical forms which allows classically trained musicians to feel it’s permissible to write tunes without worrying about a kind of composers’ ‘political correctness’! You have to remember that when I was younger it was very much harder to convince yourself you were allowed to turn out music which had a key signature. But at least you had the freedom to be a tunesmith for the month of December!

And apart from anything else, says Rutter, writing carols brings with it the added frisson and incentive of the knowledge that Christmas is for many people the only time of year when they have contact with choral music.

John Rutter first met with wide recognition in the early 1970s thanks to his work on the follow-up to Oxford University Press’s hugely successful Carols for Choirs volume, that magical mix of familiar numbers and carefully selected lesser-known music which became part of the very fabric of Christmas. He was invited by David Willcocks to co-edit Carols for Choirs 2, which duly brimmed with the ‘arr. Rutter’ byline:

I think I’d gained something of a reputation for carol-writing and arranging as an undergraduate at Clare College in Cambridge. David Willcocks was of course in charge of the choir next door at King’s College. He’d worked on the first Carols for Choirs with Reginald Jacques, but by the time OUP came along asking for a follow-up, Jacques had unfortunately died. David heard there was someone on the scene in Cambridge working with carols … and so I got the job.

Carols for Choirs 2 in turn begat its own follow-ups, containing still more examples of the Rutter art. And the most casual glance down the list of pieces shows that in many cases Rutter has written tunes to his own words. Not a case of having literary ideas above his musical station, he insists; just what regularly has emerged from the creative process:

Often I haven’t been able to find words to fit a melody that’s come into my head – so I have to do the job myself. Sometimes a fragment of text will come to mind that sparks off a process whereby words and music develop together. In the case of Shepherd’s Pipe Carol, for example, all I had to begin with was the rhythmic phrase ‘… on-the-way-to-Beth-le-hem’. That prompted a range of questions which inspired the development of the text: who was going to Bethlehem? … Why? … and so on. I’ve found the business of writing words increasingly rewarding, although it’s much harder than composing. I don’t pretend to be a writer … I’ve no lofty ambitions! What I’ve learnt though is that simplicity is the key element; and that you’re not writing poetry which would be spoken – what matters is how it works with the music.

As for the art of the arranger on display in this album, Rutter is inclined to see it as something more ephemeral than out-and-out composition:

Arrangements very much tend to reflect fashionable musical styles of the period in which they were written. As a result they can get to seem very dated. Many of my arrangements hark back to the kind of light music prevalent in the ’60s and ’70s, so I’m amazed they’re still being performed! If I was arranging that same material today, my style would be far more austere. But I’ve never wanted to write pastiche … you know, Quem pastores or something in period style.

Shepherd’s Pipe Carol, celebrating the piping of a shepherd boy on his way to see the Christ-child at Bethlehem, is quintessentially festive Rutter – sprightly, syncopated, rhythmically taut, and a must on any short-list for the nomination of a Rutter signature tune. It was written in the 1960s for a concert performance with orchestra given at Clare College, Cambridge, while Rutter was still an undergraduate. He fancies the inspiration may just have been the experience of singing as a boy soprano in Menotti’s legendary Christmas opera Amahl and the Night Visitors: ‘I think the piping heard as Amahl heads for Bethlehem with the Wise Men may have stuck in my mind.’ Rutter also relishes the unlikely but apparently true story that the carol was something of a talisman in the Baltic States in the fraught days before Soviet control finally broke down: ‘I’ve heard that it was secretly circulated on photocopies and by fax … choirs were singing it as a kind of badge of resistance!’

The wistful, unaccompanied There is a Flower, to words by the fifteenth-century poet John Audelay, was written in the mid-1980s at the request of the legendary organist and choir director of St John’s College, Cambridge, George Guest. It was first sung at an Advent carol service – a form of service which had become (and remains) immensely popular in the heady musical climate of Cambridge University, especially given that undergraduates leave for home several weeks before the season of Christmas truly gets under way. The opening solo recalls the talents of a particularly fine treble in the St John’s Choir at the time in question, whose name nonetheless seems lost to posterity.

Linking the messages of Christmas and Easter, the Sans Day Carol is a variant on the still better-known The Holly and the Ivy. A traditional carol from Cornwall, it first gained wide currency following its inclusion in the Oxford Book of Carols, edited in the 1920s by Percy Dearmer, Martin Shaw and Ralph Vaughan Williams, that indefatigable collector of traditional folk songs and melodies. For ‘Sans Day’, incidentally, read ‘Saint’s Day’ – the carol apparently celebrated a local Cornish saint. Rutter fashioned his arrangement while still an undergraduate.

Mary’s Lullaby dates from the period when Rutter was director of music at Clare College, between 1975 and 1979. It owes its inspiration to the panic of a television producer who calculated, following a camera rehearsal for a recording of Christmas music featuring the Clare chapel choir, that his programme was going to come in around three minutes short: ‘He asked whether I could by any chance write him something for the choir to sing the following morning!’ Rutter recalls. The dreamy Mary’s Lullaby, in the gently flowing triple-time typical of so many of Rutter’s slower carols, was the result. It is dedicated to the composer’s wife, JoAnne.

The widely known and hauntingly beautiful I wonder as I wander may or may not be an authentic Appalachian folk carol. It was claimed as such by the collector John Jacob Niles, but some have harboured the suspicion that it is in fact all his own work. Rutter hangs on its spare lines an arrangement which combines simplicity and a quiet intensity.

Both Jesus Child and Donkey Carol were written in the 1970s for performance by the choir of St Albans School in Hertfordshire, England, at the request of its director of music at the time, Simon Lindley. Jesus Child brings a touch of Caribbean colour to the dark days of December, while the 5/8 rhythm of the Donkey Carol suggests the cheerfully lopsided gait of the animal bearing the Virgin Mary to Bethlehem.

Wild Wood Carol is an extract from Rutter’s musical version of Kenneth Grahame’s timeless children’s classic The Wind in the Willows, written in 1981 for The King’s Singers. The carol forms an interlude covering the winter journey of Mole and Rat to Badger’s house. Although the text of the ‘musical fable’ as a whole was the work of the late David Grant, a friend of the composer from Clare College days, the words for this one number are by Rutter himself.

The come-in-and-warm-yourself-by-the-fire sounds of the secular carol The very best time of year testify to the massive popularity of Rutter’s music in the USA and the acquaintances made on countless tours of the country. This piece was written for two American choir-director friends, Gene and Audrey Grier, with whom Rutter worked on several of his early trips. Candlelight Carol (1984) was the result of a request from John Romeri, director of music at the Church of the Assumption in Pittsburgh, for a carol celebrating the Virgin Mary.

The arrangements of Away in a manger and Silent night (featuring a beguiling descant) were both made around 1980 as part of a project devised by the American publisher Hinshaw Music to put a fresh spin on well-loved carols. Angel Tidings, also an arrangement, was written in the 1960s for inclusion on one of two EMI LPs featuring the Clare College choir. Rutter came across the Moravian traditional carol in the Cambridge University Library, although on finding the text ‘impenetrable’ he opted for providing his own words.

Christmas Lullaby (1989) and Star Carol (1972) were both written for The Bach Choir and its then conductor, Sir David Willcocks, for performance at the choir’s hugely popular Christmas concerts in London’s Royal Albert Hall. These events had been part of Rutter’s life since childhood, when he attended as a member of the audience. He subsequently graduated to the job of making last-minute musical arrangements backstage. Christmas Lullaby was written to mark Willcocks’s seventieth birthday, as one of three commissioned carols – the others being by William Mathias and Willcocks’s son Jonathan. Star Carol answered the brief to write a piece with a refrain which could be learnt and sung by children during the concert – they were to enter at the point ‘See his star shining bright’.

Dormi Jesu (1999) and the ravishing What sweeter music? (1988) were both written for the choir of King’s College, Cambridge, and its director of music Stephen Cleobury – for performance during the college’s Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols which is broadcast around the world on Christmas Eve. The words of Dormi Jesu (also known as The Virgin’s Cradle Hymn) come from a German print depicting the Virgin Mary which was discovered by the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge. John Rutter created the string arrangement especially for this recording. What sweeter music? (with words by the poet Robert Herrick) represented, says Rutter, ‘… the first opportunity I had to put pen to paper for the choir in my long and friendly association with King’s College. I particularly enjoyed the opportunity to write for the slot in the service immediately after the reading about the journey of the Wise Men – the chance to highlight in the text the idea of the gifts that we can bring.’

Love came down at Christmas, to words by Christina Rossetti, was written in the late 1960s at the request of OUP. ‘I seem to remember that Christmas was approaching’, says Rutter, ‘and Oxford University Press got to thinking that there’d been no new carol from me that year – so duly commissioned one!’ Carol of the Children dates from the late 1970s, when it answered a request from Rutter’s doctor, who wished to offer a piece of music to St Colette’s School in Cambridge as a thank you present for his children’s education.

Angels’ Carol, of 1980s vintage, was written, Rutter recalls, as a ‘… lap of honour’ to be jointly sung by the winners of a now defunct choirboy and choirgirl of the year competition in London. He later arranged it for mixed-voice choir. And talking of final laps of honour, the CD also contains the second of Rutter’s two luscious choral Amens, written – as was the first – for the choir of Clare College, Cambridge.

Will there ever be a large-scale Rutter work for Christmas? ‘Well, I’ve often been asked that’, he says. ‘But I think essentially I’m a miniaturist as far as Christmas is concerned. I find myself drawn to two main elements of the carol – festivity and brevity. I’m less keen on telling the whole story!’

Andrew Green © 2001

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