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Poor old John Rutter

December 19, 2010

The Sans Day Carol (arragned by composer John Rutter and sung here by King’s College Choir, Cambridge University) is a festive favourite of mine. It’s title roots it in Christmas, so too its simple joyful melody which embeds itself in the mind of the listener and insodoing defines the meaning of the word ‘Christmas’.

I first sang the Sans Day Carol when I was a member of the school ‘Junior Choir’ during our school carol service thirty years ago in the cathedral of St Edmundsbury. The event tapped probably established my borderline obsession with things ‘looking right and proper’. In what was a considerable choreographed event, the Junior Choir processed in from the choir stalls while the rest of the School choir – number 200 as I recall – processed up the nave at the same time. Everyone congregated in the middle of the Cathedral.

It was a dramatic sight. For an hour and a half on a snowy Friday afternoon, all eyes in the congregation were on us in the massed choir. And for those of us who craved attention, that was a special experience.

St Edmundsbury Cathedral

Up until that point, the choirs had rehearsed the Sans Day Carol on Friday nights after school. Junior Choir congregated upstairs for half of the rehearsal while the senior rehearsed in ‘The Old Hall’ downstairs. Both groups joined to run through the music to the service accompanied by a twangy grand piano in the corner.

As end of term beckoned so too the strange Friday when lessons were abandoned, replaced by a final assembly, and then a bus to nearby Bury St Edmunds for a special final rehearsal before the afternoon service. The rest of the school – 600 or so – would join us for that. Those of us who sang basked in our day-long ‘special status’. It would all be different at the beginning of the next term, for sure.

And the year we sang the Sans Day Carol for the first time, I recall being blown away at how completely different an experience it was singing along to the cathedral organ compared to that out-of-tune piano we’d suffered and got used to for so many weeks during rehearsals. It was – to coin a phrase – the icing on the cake.

As I progressed through school, so I moved on up into the ‘Senior Choir’ and the ‘Chapel Choir’. The Carol Service was always the high point. And while there are many other pieces which remind me of those magical end-of-term pieces of theatre, none transport me back as John Rutter’s arrangement of Sans Day Carol does.

And there’s a reason for that. It’s not just the power of memory. It’s not just that the music floats over the dramatic backdrop of St Edmundsbury Cathedral. It is because Rutter’s arrangement – and that of his music we sang in subsequent years – is so much fun to sing. Had he written something quite dull, then it wouldn’t have been enjoyable to sing and it wouldn’t have been burnt into my memory.

The inevitable shame is that the very accessibility of his music – the almost democratic nature of it – is the very thing which musical snobs criticise him for. Melodic writing accompanied by the kind of chord progressions found in jazz and pop music – like Rutter’s Shepherd’s Pipe Carol (below) makes his music mainstream.

And mainstream is bad in classical music. If it’s written to please the soul – or indeed if the listener knows fairly confidently that his soul will be warmed by anything Rutter has written before it’s played for the first time – then it’s validity as a piece of music is somehow lessened. Which seems a great shame.

All this regardless of the fact that every time Rutter’s music is performed or purchased, the composer gets a royalty. He’s a composer who makes money by giving his listeners something they want. So he’s a good businessman too.

I know this because I often find myself straddling that line between thinking ‘Oooh it’s Christmas, I must here the Sans Day Carol’ and looking over my shoulder, wondering whether people think it’s a bit naff.

Then I remind myself. There are gradations. Where Andre Rieu’s success with the chocolate box album Forever Vienna makes my blood run cold, John Rutter’s compositional style succeeds in rooting itself in a collective experience – the very essence of Christmas itself.

Will there be a time when Rutter’s music is not sneered upon? It seems unlikely to me now. Mind you, I remember how me and my University pals used to snort with derision at our friend Ian’s inexplicable obsession with Abba long before the Abba revival swept the world.

You never know. He might just achieve the respect he justly deserves.

One Comment
  1. Nichole permalink

    I’ve loved John Rutter since I played movements of Suite Antique for my flute exams – the music was on the Grade 7 and Grade 8 syllabuses (syllabi?!).

    It made sense, after buying the piece for my G7, to also play movements from it for my G8 exam, rather than going for the more popular Poulenc sonata. Both pieces were technically as challenging otherwise they wouldn’t have been listed as Grade 8 pieces, but my examiner ripped me to shreds for choosing to do Rutter – criticising me in the exam and explicitly saying that he would mark me down for choosing ‘easier’ music.

    It’s so sad that classical music’s ‘value’ is now judged by how easy it is to listen to. If it’s pretty enough to be played on Classic FM, then it must be for the proles. :-/

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