On John Rutter’s ‘Hymn to the Creator of Light’…

November 3rd, 2016

www.phillipcooke.comWhether you like it or not, John Rutter is the pre-eminent choral composer of our times. When future musicologists look back at the late twentieth-century (and beyond) they will single out Rutter as the most performed, most discussed and most imitated composer of choral music in the English-speaking world. Tavener may get a look in, maybe Britten or Leighton may get a mention, but for sheer weight of activity, it has to be John Rutter. Is this a problem? Does this give a fair representation of choral music in our times?

In some ways the answer is irrelevant, because whether you like or loathe it, John Rutter’s music is a staple part of choral music-making in the Anglican world – from school choirs to cathedral choirs, from parish churches in Nottinghamshire to university chapels in New Hampshire it is sung on a regular basis by and to many people (whether worshipers or not) who instantly feel an attraction to the cantabile melodies and simple harmonies. It is easily dismissible music (not least by the composer himself who has an uncanny knack of downplaying his abilities), partly due to its obvious simplicity, partly due to its origins in ‘light’ or popular music (again, something that Rutter is happy to flag) and partly due to its success and prevalence. It is easy to paint Rutter as the bête noire of contemporary choral composers – giving an unfair impression of what choral music should sound like, seeming to reject or refuse to acknowledge any of the musical developments of the mid-twentieth-century. At best he is referred to as a ‘craftsman’, or a ‘tunesmith’ with the references to trades here being in a pejorative sense rather than a master of an art. Perhaps these labels are fair – I may have used them myself.

But there is a problem with easily labelling Rutter and his work, and that problem is his motet from 1992, Hymn to the Creator of Light. For if ever there was a work to change opinions or make you ‘double-take’, it would be this.

This work was written for the three choirs of Gloucester, Hereford and Worcester Cathedrals and was written to be sung at the dedication of the Herbert Howells memorial window that was unveiled at Gloucester Cathedral (more on that later) during the Three Choirs Festival of 1992. To say that this work is as far from Rutter’s ‘standard’ work as possible would be an understatement – the scope, the ambition, the virtuosity, the harmony…virtually everything is different – Hymn to the Creator of Light is the fly in the ointment of pigeonholing Rutter and his music.

From the very beginning the work flies in the face of what we assume from a Rutter work – it begins in unison, quietly, with the marking ‘lento misterioso’ (slow and mysteriously), the harmony is insecure and the time signature fluctuates. The choir is split in two and the second choir responds to the opening in parallel, unrelated major triads – all of which are unheard of in the composer’s other works. From this, the piece moves to far-flung harmonic areas, vastly different textures and constantly changing metres – all of which excite and confound the listener, particularly if you were expecting For the Beauty of the Earth. Rutter makes full use of the two separate choirs with antiphonal (from one side of the performance space to another) exchanges between the two, particularly in the more strident ‘Allegro energico’ (fast and energetically) section. The work never settles in a key, shifting and squirming from one area to another – more interested in sonority and colour then in any relation to a home key.

Perhaps a little of the more ‘traditional’ Rutter seeps in, in the final third of the work – the ‘Andante Tranquillo’ (Calm, tranquil) where a seventeenth century German hymn-tune is worked into the music and harmonised in a lush fashion by the composer. Here much of the energy and tension of the earlier material dissipates as the work relaxes into a secure E major and more homophonic texture. However, in a masterful stroke he returns the opening material at the very end, combining the two in a poignant and heart-felt conclusion.

If one was being unkind, one might look a little deeper at the reason for the composition of Hymn to the Creator of Light and the style of this work. As mentioned, the work was written for the dedication of the Howells window in Gloucester, Rutter had met and worked with Howells several times in the 1970s (including commissioning a work from Howells, The Fear of the Lord for his choir, the Chapel Choir of Clare College, Cambridge in 1975) and has since orchestrated and completed some Howells works. Is Hymn to the Creator of Light therefore, just an elaborate pastiche of late Howells? It certainly sounds in a similar vein to Take Him, Earth, for Cherishing and the later unaccompanied choral pieces, all those appogiaturas and declamatory outbursts. Is this Rutter at his most original, or paradoxically, at his least?

In the end, I don’t think it matters. Hymn to the Creator of Light is a spectacular piece that if anything is only let down by the nagging thought – what if Rutter could have written more like this?


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