AS regular readers know I don’t feature many modern works, but I have had a request for this, and it is lovely. It is strictly speaking an anthem, not a hymn.
John Rutter was born in London in 1945, the son of an industrial chemist. He started picking out tunes on the family piano at the age of three or four, and has said: ‘That’s when my parents realised they had an oddity.’ He was educated at Highgate School, which actively supported budding composers and arrangers. Fellow pupils included pianist and conductor Howard Shelley, composers John Tavener and Brian Chapple, David Cullen (orchestrator of Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals) and music administrator Nicholas Snowman. At school he sang in the first recording of Britten’s War Requiem, conducted by the composer in 1963. In the sixth form, aged 18, he wrote the Shepherd’s Pipe Carol and entered it into a carol competition being judged by David Willcocks, the renowned director music at King’s College, Cambridge. He did not receive an acknowledgment.
He studied music at Clare College, Cambridge, and conducted an Advent service at which the Shepherd’s Pipe was performed. Willcocks was present and afterwards requested to see the manuscript. Almost immediately, he offered to have it published, and the pair went on to co-edit several volumes of the essential Carols for Choirs series, while Rutter was still a student. He recalled later: ‘When I asked about my piece, he told me, “Hmm, I think it must have improved since I first saw it”.’
Here is the Shepherd’s Pipe Carol sung by the choir of King’s College, Cambridge.
Rutter became Clare College’s director of music in 1975 and took the choir to international prominence. He married his American wife JoAnne in the college chapel. In 1979 he gave up his Cambridge post to focus his energies on composition, for which he was becoming renowned. This led to the formation of his own choir, the Cambridge Singers. The BBC were scheduled to record a programme with him conducting, and had assumed the Clare College choir would be available to sing. However Rutter had left the directorial position at Clare, so with the recording fast approaching, he rang up a number of people he knew and formed the choir almost overnight. Rutter also started his own record label, Collegium, to release recordings of a sacred choral repertoire.
From 1985 to 1992, Rutter suffered severely from myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME, or chronic fatigue syndrome), which restricted his output. Later he wrote: ‘It’s an unpleasant physical illness: it ruined seven years of my life. It probably takes a number of forms, but in my case it started with chickenpox, caught off my infant son. I seemed to make a complete recovery until a year later, when I began to experience unpleasant symptoms. These included abnormal sensitivity to sound and light, violently inflamed eyes and blisters around the head and upper body. There was also nominal aphasia (problems recalling words). This is because the surfaces of the brain are inflamed. The mental fuzziness is compounded because the body can no longer process yeast properly.
‘Like malaria, it cycles on and off, and after an attack, which might last a few days, I felt terrible. I would have a week or two feeling OK, then the cycle would begin again. In the end, with an anti-yeast drug and a strict diet, the attacks grew milder and less frequent and life returned to “normal within limits”, but the memory remains of an awful period that was caused by a virus (identifiable by a blood test).’
He is now a patron of the ME Association.
It was shortly after his recovery, in 1993, that he published the anthem The Lord is My Light and My Salvation. It is a setting of words from Psalm 27 featuring a solo clarinet with various choral groupings.
The Lord is my light and my salvation;
Whom then shall I fear?
The Lord is the strength of my life;
Of whom then shall I be afraid?
Though an host of men were laid against me,
Yet shall not my heart be afraid:
And though there rose up war against me,
Yet will I put my trust in him.
One thing have desired of the Lord,
Which I will require;
Even that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life,
To behold the fair beauty of the Lord,
And to visit his temple.
For in the time of trouble he shall hide me in his tabernacle:
Yea, in the secret place of his dwelling shall he hide me,
And set me up upon a rock of stone.
Therefore will I offer in his dwelling an oblation with great gladness:
I will sing, and speak praises unto the Lord.
Hearken unto my voice, O Lord,
When I cry unto thee:
Have mercy upon me and hear me.
My heart hath talked of thee,
Seek ye my face:
Thy face, Lord, will I seek.
O hide not thou thy face from me,
Nor cast thy servant away in displeasure.
Thou hast been my succour:
Leave me not, neither forsake me,
O God of my salvation.
When my father and my mother forsake me,
The Lord taketh me up.
Be strong, and he shall comfort thine heart;
And put thou thy trust in the Lord.
Here it is performed by the Cambridge Singers.
In 2001 Rutter’s elder son Christopher, 19, was a choral scholar at Clare College, following in his father’s footsteps. On Ash Wednesday he sang in Allegri’s Miserere as one of the quartet members. The next evening he left choir practice and as he crossed the road he was knocked down and killed by a car driven by a fellow student. His funeral was held in the college chapel.
Later Rutter told an interviewer: ‘Life seems to stop. Nineteen years is not really enough. But I found solace in my belief that nobody’s life counts for nothing. We all make a difference, however short our time is. The dark loss of bereavement does turn to something good eventually. I don’t know if Christopher’s death changed my work patterns, but it did teach me that life is sacred and life is good. Don’t waste it.’
There is now a Clare College musicians’ scholarship in memory of Christopher.
Rutter was commissioned to write an anthem for the wedding of Prince William and Catherine Middleton at Westminster Abbey on April 29, 2011. The result was This is the Day, based on several psalms.
In a 2015 interview Rutter said: ‘People sometimes criticise my music for being too sunny. They say it’s too much “honey and flowers”. But that, probably, is what I do best. You’ve got to have hope; somehow to have a sense of a better future.’