For more than forty years, the English composer has been a favorite composer for choral occasions. His music was featured in the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton in 2011, and he was the subject of a recent BBC documentary on the history of sacred music.
For many churches, schools and civic singing groups, his works have become mainstays of the repertoire. And that suits Rutter just fine, given his musical upbringing.
“I started my musical life singing, as a choirboy, and that has never really left me,” he said. “I always feel when I write for choirs that I’m coming home.”
Rutter’s latest composition is called The Gift of Life: Six Canticles of Creation, and it will be heard in full for the first time this weekend at Preston Hollow Presbyterian Church in Dallas. The new work draws from uplifting sacred texts, and will be paired with his well-known Requiem – a study in contrasts.
“Requiems, of their nature, are all about death,” he said. “I thought, ‘Well, what’s the opposite of a requiem?'”
Rutter noted that there is no liturgical form that celebrates life, so he had to draw from a variety of new and historical texts.
“You can’t take a ready-made text or set of texts and say, ‘Well, this is a life-iem,'” he said with a laugh.
The new work incorporates one of Rutter’s earlier compositions, Hymn to the Creator of Light, as one of its movements, and features darker, mystical harmonies, evoking strong emotion while exploring themes of light and nature.
“Emotion for me is an integral part of all art,” he said. “It’s a release; it’s an affirmation of our humanity.”
Like many composers before him, Rutter has a lot of questions about where he stands regarding his own religious faith. Yet, he still finds a sense of the divine in the music he writes within a spiritual context.
“Music is transcendental,” he said. “We don’t know what it is about just sounds vibrating in the air that can make strong men weep. … It has powers – healing powers, many people believe – that we don’t understand. Faith has an awful lot of those same boxes that you can tick, you know?”
Terry Price is the longtime director of music at Preston Hollow. Two years ago, he asked Rutter about writing a new large-scale work, to be commissioned by a church member. Rutter completed the work in a flurry of activity over the past few months, and he’s excited to lead its premiere here this weekend – in the same city where his Requiem premiered 30 years ago.
“This was something that I felt good about and thought I would like to be involved in,” he said. “And it was here in a city that I’m very fond of and where I’ve made music a number of times over the years.”
So, given that much of his life’s work involves writing for choirs, does Rutter worry that they may soon become a relic of the past?
“Never – that’s never going to happen,” he said emphatically. “Every child should have a chance to try it. … There will be some who will say, like the little kid I was, this is wonderful, I just wish all day could be singing.
“It was a kind of bliss, an altered state, something I didn’t experience anywhere else in my life. And there will be lots and lots of other children who will feel that way if you give them the chance.”
John Rutter will conduct his music with choir and orchestra on Sunday, April 19 at 7 pm at Preston Hollow Presbyterian Church in Dallas. You can learn more about the free concert at the church’s website.
Listen to the full interview:
If you’ve ever been in a choir, there’s a pretty good chance you’ve sung the music of John Rutter.
A YouTube user has posted videos of excerpts from Rutter’s works on the upcoming program, set to images by the late British painter Sir Stanley Spencer: