After the huge success of their recording of Rutter's Requiem (featured in last year's Top 20), Polyphony, conducted by Stephen Layton, turn their attention to another popular work of John Rutter—Gloria. Also included on the disc are some first-recordings including the delightful unaccompanied works A Clare Benediction (written for Clare College, Cambridge) and Come down, O Love Divine—a double-choir piece premiered by the combined choirs of Westminster Abbey, Westminster Cathedral and St Paul's Cathedral in Westminster Abbey in 1998.
The City of London Sinfonia (involved in numerous recordings of Rutter's work) are joined by the fine brass ensemble, The Wallace Collection.
Ever since my musical life began, church music has played a significant and cherished part in it.
We could of course guess as much simply from John Rutter’s output as a composer without the need for that statement from him. But then again we might not appreciate quite how deep is the well from which he draws as the list of his works to sacred texts grows ever longer.
The passion started at Highgate School in London, where Rutter sang as a boy soprano in the school choir – and not any old school choir. This was, after all, a period when Highgate School’s vibrant musical life was nurturing other exceptional talents – fellow-composer John Tavener, for example, and the pianist Howard Shelley. In his teens, Rutter became an accomplished organist; then, as a student at Cambridge University, he had only to inhale the atmosphere to become heady with the glories of Anglican church music resounding from college chapel to college chapel.
By the mid-1970s he was director of music at his old college, Clare. Here his conducting talents lifted the chapel choir – the first in Cambridge to mix male and female voices – to international recognition. Subsequently a string of recordings with his own Cambridge Singers have been a mirror to an ever-widening exploration of the riches of the sacred music repertoire. (And if quantities of that music could be recorded in the exquisite visual and aural surroundings of the fourteenth-century Lady Chapel at Ely Cathedral, just north of Cambridge, then all the better.)
This, then, is the backdrop to the remarkable contribution Rutter’s own sacred music has made to the repertoire. And as he has become progressively more reluctant to write to commission, we can only assume that turning regularly to the church for inspiration comes as naturally as breathing. Which is not to say that he doesn’t write with specific performers and occasions in mind. Far from it. This album is testament enough to that, not least to the extraordinary relationship Rutter has with choirs in the USA. Few in his native Great Britain will realise just how regular the trips to many parts of the States have become – including dozens of conducting engagements at Carnegie Hall in New York where he has become, as it were, part of the furniture.
Gloria (a concert work, despite the use of a religious text) in fact marks the occasion of Rutter’s very first US engagement. The work was commissioned by the Voices of Mel Olson in Omaha, Nebraska, who invited Rutter to direct the first performance in 1974. The words come from the second section (the Hymn of Praise) of the Ordinary of the Mass, which in the liturgy follows the ‘Kyrie’. The familiar opening words are those of the angels proclaiming the birth of Jesus, as found in the second chapter of Luke’s Gospel. Rutter’s setting is based largely on one of the Gregorian chants with which the text is associated. He describes the three movements as ‘… roughly corresponding to traditional symphonic structure’, the mood of the sections being respectively ‘… exalted, devotional and jubilant by turns’. The use of organ, brass and percussion makes for plenty of Waltonian punch in the outer movements and yet also for a hauntingly ethereal middle section.
I will lift up mine eyes has everything to do with that same first journey to the United States – and the selfsame Mel Olson. Gloria received its premiere in the concert hall on a Saturday, while I will lift up mine eyes (with words from Psalm 121) was first performed by Olson’s church choir and orchestra – at the First United Methodist Church in Nebraska – during worship the following day. I will lift up mine eyes is marked by the gentle subtlety of its rhythmic flow, recalling Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms – based on a lyrical 7/4 metre but with teasing excursions elsewhere.
I will lift up mine eyes is now a constituent part of the nine-movement Psalmfest, along with two other works which appear on this CD, The Lord is my light and my salvation and Praise the Lord O my soul. The Lord is my light again has a United States connection. It was written in the early 1990s at the request of a friend of Rutter’s who was at the time the director of chapel music at Duke University in North Carolina. A sufferer from AIDS, he knew that his time was short and had taken particular comfort from the words of Psalm 27, which Rutter sets here. The music, featuring a prominent, liquid clarinet obbligato part, mirrors the psalmist’s restless but fruitful search for consolation. The exuberant Praise the Lord O my soul – featuring words from Psalm 146 – was written as a commission from the Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity, Lancaster, Pennsylvania, to celebrate its 250th anniversary in 1980. The forces used here return us to the sound-world of Gloria – brass, timpani and organ.
In 1993 nine of Rutter’s psalm settings composed over many years were duly agglomerated into Psalmfest. This was given its first performance in June of that year at the Morton Meyerson Symphony Center in Dallas, Texas – the singers being the combined high school choirs of Garland, Texas, under Rutter’s direction. Five days later Psalmfest was heard at Carnegie Hall.
Lord, make me an instrument of Thy peace (written in 1980) also has a United States connection, having been commissioned (as one of a group of three anthems) by the Texas Choral Directors’ Association. The famous words of St Francis of Assisi are coloured by a setting which Rutter has admitted owes something to the music both of Stephen Sondheim and Gustav Mahler – quite a burden for a miniature to carry! The original version of the work suggests the male-dominated make-up of the TCDA in 1980, being scored for tenors and basses with piano. Rutter has subsequently made two arrangements, the one heard here being for SATB with strings and harp.
To everything there is a season – a setting of the famous Biblical words from Ecclesiastes – was composed in the mid-1990s as one part of an intended larger choral work based on reflective and philosophical passages of the Old Testament. To everything there is a season thus far remains, however, the only section of that work to have been completed and as such remained in manuscript (and in the proverbial bottom drawer) until discussions over the content of this CD suggested it might be included. Its flowing musical lines are dedicated to the three school choirs in the USA which jointly gave the first performance.
Rutter’s years as director of music at Clare College, Cambridge, from 1975 to 1979 inevitably inspired plenty of music. Much was to make its way onto the album of Christmas music which (along with Rutter’s joint-editorship of the legendary Carols for Choirs volumes) helped significantly in bringing his name before a wider public. Clare College has remained close to Rutter’s heart in the years since 1979 (he lives a few miles from Cambridge), producing recordings of the choir himself, in addition to offering further gifts of music. Two works designed to round off chapel services in contemplative mood can be found here. Go forth into the world – with words from the 1928 Anglican Book of Common Prayer – was written for the choir and its current director of music Tim Brown to take on a tour of (guess where?) the USA, in the 1980s. The brief, tender Clare Benediction was written in the late 1990s – written in both senses, as the words are Rutter’s own. Two versions exist – SATB unaccompanied is the one heard here.
Come down, O love divine and Te Deum were written for ceremonial occasions, each taking place in a world-renowned English cathedral. Come down, O love divine (to fifteenth-century words by Bianco da Siena) was composed at the invitation of the Musicians’ Benevolent Fund for its Festival of St Cecilia service at Westminster Abbey in London in 1999. (It was sung by the combined choirs of the Abbey, Westminster Cathedral and St Paul’s Cathedral.) The festival takes place yearly both to honour the patron saint of music and to focus attention on musicians in need, upholding the widespread tradition of charitable St Cecilia’s Day services which goes back hundreds of years. The text of this work, as befits an occasion recalling the inspiration of a patron saint, summons divine love and ‘ardour glowing’ from on high. The words drew from Rutter some of his most searching, introspective and intense music, which at times recalls the sounds conjured up by that other great twentieth-century provider of music for Anglican worship, Herbert Howells. Does this reflect the fact that the work’s dedication also mentions the distinguished musician, the late Sir Thomas Armstrong, who was a close friend of Howells? Whatever, this is a ravishing, yet haunting addition to the Rutter corpus, and a real challenge to any choir.
Te Deum is a setting of fifth-century words which – sung to a variety of chants – form part of the traditional Anglican morning service of Matins. Rutter’s exuberant version (originally matching choir with organ but subsequently scored for brass, percussion and organ, as heard here) was composed in 1988 for the Centenary Service of the Guild of Church Musicians. This was held in Canterbury Cathedral, the very heart of the world-wide Anglican communion. Rutter himself was made a Fellow of the Guild of Church Musicians in that year – an honour subsequently followed by the conferring on him of a Lambeth Doctorate of Music, received from the Archbishop of Canterbury in recognition of his services to church music.
The unaccompanied I my Best-Beloved’s am, which inhabits something of the same world as Come down, O love divine, was written for a concert in Canterbury Cathedral given by the BBC Singers under Stephen Layton in October 1999. The concert’s theme was the seven sacraments, and as there appeared to be no appropriate piece to represent the sacrament of marriage, Rutter stepped into the breach. The text combines words from the Latin nuptial responses in the old Tridentine rite (given a plainsong treatment) with passionate words of personal faith by the seventeenth-century poet Frances Quarles.
As is already clear, friendship pure and simple is one key inspiration for Rutter’s music. As the bridegroom to his chosen was written for the wedding of Jeremy Taylor and Mary Mure, two members of Rutter’s own Cambridge Singers. The text is fourteenth-century, by John Tauler (with modest alterations by Rutter himself). There are few better examples of the classic Rutter talent for writing gracious, melting melodies that caress the mind for days. Another lilting, gently rocking tune embraces the words of Thy perfect love, written in 1974 at the request of a friend, John Preston Bell, for his parish church choir in the tiny village of Meopham in Kent, south of London. The words are by an unknown fifteenth-century writer. Both these last two works subsequently received the orchestrations heard here.
John Rutter himself was to have written these notes. That he did not was due to the fact that at the time in question his 19-year-old son Christopher had just been killed in an accident on a Cambridge street. Chris had followed his father to Clare College as an undergraduate, singing in the chapel choir as a choral exhibitioner. It could not be more appropriate that this recording of his father’s sacred music, so much of it consolatory in nature, should be dedicated to Chris’s memory.
Andrew Green © 2001