John Rutter

Born: 24 September 1945 in London

{Biography} {Works} {Requiem}


John Rutter is known first and foremost as a composer of choral music, and as The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians puts it, “within this field he has become probably the most popular and widely performed composer of his generation, especially in the UK and the USA.”  It is difficult to argue with that description.

As a young man, Rutter was educated at Highgate School, where he was classmates both with the late John Tavener, another major choral composer of our time, and the pianist Howard Shelley.  He studied music as an undergraduate at Clare College, Cambridge, where he had the good fortune to become acquainted with the celebrated choral conductor David Willcocks.  Publication of his music, with Oxford University Press, started while he was still a student.  After graduation, he taught at the University of Southampton before returning to Clare College in 1975 as Director of Music.  He left the security of that position in 1979 to begin the challenging task of pursuing a free-lance career in music.  He has been staggeringly successful as a composer, conductor, editor, and arranger; the risk he took paid off.  The price he seems to have paid, however, is frequent adherence to a clearly commercial style of composition (“mawkish sentimentality” is one description of his lesser efforts).  As Nick Strimple puts it, “he has produced many little pieces with easily singable melodies and idiomatic accompaniments, and reaped the benefits due an astute businessman who correctly identified his market and exploited it fully.”  In Chester Alwes’s words, Rutter has “closely hewn to music that is commercially viable;” Melvin Unger notes his “amiable harmonies.”  Rather more harshly, Strimple also suggests that “the great promise [of his early works, e.g. The Falcon and Gloria] has remained unfulfilled.”  I suspect that a large number of both choral conductors and choral singers wish that, given his enormous talent and facility, Rutter had stretched things a little bit farther instead of taking the easy way out so often. I feel a little mean for saying this, but I have to admit that singing a bit of Christmas drivel by Rutter, The Very Best Time of Year (for which his sins include both text and music), put me off his compositions for a Very Long Time.

In 1981 Rutter founded his professional vocal ensemble, the Cambridge Singers, with whom he has toured and recorded (both his music and that of others).  They are a superlative group and Rutter is clearly an excellent conductor.  In 1983 Rutter also wisely started his own record label, Collegium—a savvy move that helped to cement his reputation.  And in addition to work as composer and conductor, Rutter has also made important contributions as an arranger and editor of music.  He is well-known for his edition of the 1893 version of the Fauré Requiem (although the edition by Jean-Michel Nectoux is actually more accurate) and for an extensive series of carols edited with David Willcocks for Oxford University Press.  I am personally extremely grateful for his arrangement for women’s voices of Fauré’s Cantique de Jean Racine, since that is the only version of that beautiful work I have had a chance to sing.  But there are many, many superb arrangements of all sorts of pieces throughout his output, and quite a few think that these arrangements are where Rutter’s true genius and lasting contribution lies (Strimple praises Rutter’s “consummate folk-song arrangements.”)  And if not all of his works are of equal quality, Rutter has nonetheless given many singers and audiences great pleasure from his music.  Queen Elizabeth made him a Commander of the Order of the British Empire for his “services to music,” and I would not be at all surprised if the current monarch turned him into Sir John.


Some of Rutter’s best-known pieces include the following works:

Large-Scale Choral/Orchestral

Requiem, The Falcon, Gloria, Te Deum, Magnificat

Choral Suites

Fancies, When Icicles Hang, Dancing Day, Five Childhood Lyrics (the closing “Sing a Song of Sixpence” is brilliant)

Christmas Music

Shepherd’s Pipe Carol, Star Carol, Candlelight Carol, What sweeter music, Nativity Carol

Other Choral

Mass of the Children (written after the sudden death of his son, a terrible tragedy), A Gaelic Blessing, For the beauty of the earth, The Lord bless you and keep you, All things bright and beautiful


Suite antique


Most of the Requiem was written in 1985 (or so state the liner notes of Rutter’s own 1986 recording).  The full premiere of the entire piece was on 13 October of that year at the Lover’s Lane United Methodist Church of Dallas, Texas.  Movements 1, 2, 4, and 7 were performed earlier, on 14 March 1985, at the Fremont Presbyterian Church in Sacramento, California.  This March date makes me a little skeptical of a 1985 composition date.  Granted that this is not the hardest work to sing, and Rutter is a fluent composer, but the notes still have to get written down and the choir needs some time to learn them.  But maybe Rutter dashed off those four movements at the dawn of the new year and posted them immediately to the choir (this was 1985, remember, before e-mail attachments).  We do know that movement 6 was composed in 1976 as a stand-alone anthem.  The mass is dedicated to the memory of his father (L.F.R.), who died in 1984.

The work is for SATB chorus (with some divisi), soprano solo, and two possible sets of instrumental accompaniment.  The smaller group consists of organ and six additional instruments: flute, oboe, timpani (3 pedal timpani), glockenspiel, harp, and cello—an unusual and distinctive ensemble.  The larger group is a small chamber orchestra: 2 flutes, oboe, 2 clarinets, bassoon, 2 horns, 3 pedal timpani, glockenspiel, harp, and strings.

Rutter’s Requiem follows Britten’s War Requiem in using both Latin and English texts.  Rutter, of course, knew the War Requiem, and not simply because every serious choral musician knows this piece—he sang on the first recording of the work, under Britten himself.  And his piece is akin to the Brahms Requiem in its concern with comfort for the living.  But it is closest in character to the beloved Fauré Requiem, which Rutter was to edit a few years after writing his own.

The seven movements of the Requiem take their texts from a variety of sources, and Rutter does an excellent job in matching their different characters musically.

1. Requiem aeternam

In this opening movement Rutter combines the first two texts of the Latin Requiem mass—the Introit “Requiem aeternam” and the Kyrie eleison.  The beginning is dark and brooding with a reiterated timpani beat (“slow and solemn” are the instructions); it is built on the octatonic scale (beloved of Stravinsky and other 20th-century composers) that consists of alternating whole and half steps. But this harmonically spiky introduction gives way in m. 31 to a clear G major and one of Rutter’s famously lyrical melodies sung by sopranos and altos.  The mood shifts again for the Introit (“Te decet hymnus”) but returns to the same lyrical melody of m. 31 for the Kyrie.  A brief contrasting Christe section is followed once again by the m. 31 melody, now scattered in gentle imitation among the voices.  The opening drumbeat returns for this final section.

2. Out of the deep

Movement two begins with an extensive and deeply expressive line for solo cello, providing motivic cells that we singers will pick up.  The cello will return several times throughout the movement whenever singers pause, reminding us of this poignant prelude for the text of the despairing Psalm 130.  Rutter moves us to C minor as an appropriate key for sadness and loss, and he employs literal depth as well; altos and basses alone sing the opening phrase, placed in the lower portion of their ranges, and these lower realms recur throughout.  We do get the positivity of C major with the text beginning “For there is mercy with thee,” leading up to a fortissimo climax on “and in his word is my trust” and we return to major for “And he shall redeem Israel from all his sins” before the opening “Out of the deep” text and melody come back—underscored by the solo cello—to conclude the movement.

3. Pie Jesu

The Pie Jesu movement is one where the influence of the Fauré Requiem is extremely clear.  Here is a comparison the overall structure of the two Requiems.

1. Introit/KyrieIntroit/Kyrie
2. OffertoryPsalm 130
3. SanctusPie Jesu
4. Pie JesuSanctus
5. AgnusAgnus
6. Libera mePsalm 23
7. In paradisumLux aeterna

Even within the Latin Requiem mass the choice of items to set polyphonically varies considerably from composer to composer (see “A Brief History of the Polyphonic Requiem Mass” under the Mozart Requiem entry).  The Pie Jesu, however, is not one of the movements commonly set (Duruflé, surely channeling Fauré, also sets this).  In the textual source information provided in Rutter’s edition, the Pie Jesu text is (correctly) identified as being the closing words of the dramatic sequence Dies irae, the full sequence being a composer favorite.  When the Pie Jesu text stands alone, however, it functions as an elevation motet.  It occupies this position in the Fauré Requiem (the elevation occurring after the Sanctus); in Rutter it precedes the Sanctus, which is where the Dies irae stands.  In musical style however, this is not the close of a sequence—it is very much an elevation motet.

Like Fauré, Rutter uses solo soprano for this movement, although (unlike Fauré) he also has the chorus join in.  Both composers use harp.  Like Fauré, the short text is repeated again and again, and, like Fauré, the musical themes recur within the short movement.  Fauré’s expressive indication is “dolce e tranquille” (sweet and tranquil); Rutter’s is “Andante e dolce.”  Key and meter are different (Bb major and common time with the former; 3/4 and F major with Rutter), but the serene and consonant mood is the same in both.

The structure is straightforward.  A short orchestral introduction provides the main theme of the movement that will eventually appear in multiple keys; the soprano enters with the first vocal statement of the theme (A).  Chorus gives a pianissimo response with an arch-shaped melody (B).  Soloist returns with slightly varied material (A1) that concludes with an ascent to Ab.  Varied choral response (B1).  Solo, again varied (A2), followed by chorus (B2).  Final solo statement (A3) with chorus (truncated B2) supporting her at the end while she floats to high A.  The soloist on Rutter’s premiere recording, Caroline Ashton, sings with a truly ethereal purity; you have to be a major Grinch not to be touched by her voice.

4. Sanctus

While Fauré placed the Pie Jesu at the center of his Requiem, Rutter chooses instead the Sanctus.  Since the score states that, for the Pie Jesu, “It is suggested that the choir should remain seated during this number,” we would be back on our feet for the short but triumphantly majestic Sanctus.  This is the most contrapuntal of any of the movements.  The initial “Sanctus” theme, presented by the sopranos, is echoed by the tenors.  Altos present the “Pleni” theme that the sopranos pick up.  Sopranos then divide for the “Osanna” theme (given first in unison and then in imitation).  The “Pleni” theme is then sung by basses and tenors in imitation; “Osanna” reappears in sopranos 1 and 2 and tenors.  The “Benedictus” text is given to the same music as the “Pleni,” and then all voices combine for the jubilant final “Osanna.”  No trumpets are used in either orchestration, but the effect of this movement is nonetheless that of one jubilant fanfare after another.

5. Agnus Dei

The Agnus Dei (“slow and solemn”) alternates Latin and English texts, the Latin being the specific “Agnus” version used in the Requiem mass (which ends with “dona eis requiem,” grant them rest, rather than “dona nobis pacem,” grant us peace).  The English texts are taken from the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, specifically the Burial Service.  The three repetitions of the Agnus text are followed by three English excerpts (“Man that is born of woman;” “In the midst of life we are in death;” “I am the resurrection and the life.”)  The somber nature of the first two English texts bleeds into the treatment of the Latin texts.  Over reiterated drum beats, the vocal lines often feature a yearning half-step motion and soft dynamics within a minor mode and shifting chromatic inflections; once more Rutter explores low ranges that express the seriousness of the texts.  Only when we get to the central message of Christian belief, “I am the resurrection and the life,” does the mood and mode shift to a hopeful major.  The homorhythmic texture enables the uplifting message, presented syllabically, to be clear to the listener, while a solo flute ornaments the accompaniment.  The final E major sonority is held by a fermata, and then the sixth movement follows immediately with an “attacca” instruction.

6. The Lord is my shepherd

This setting of the 23rd Psalm, first composed as a separate work for the First United Methodist Church of Omaha, Nebraska, continues the positive mood established at the end of the preceding movement.  The structure is a simple ABA’; the texture starts with single melodic lines and moves to full chorus only with the switch to minor when the valley of the shadow of death appears.  The return to warm C major happens with the reassurance of “But thy loving kindness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.”  Throughout, a lyrical oboe obbligato provides wordless commentary on the text.

7.  Lux aeterna

In the final movement, Rutter once more combines English and Latin texts.  The English text, “I heard a voice from heaven,” again comes from the Burial Service (Rutter has altered it slightly); the Latin text is that of the Communion of the Requiem Mass (Lux aeterna).  This time he opens with the English text, used for the first portion of the movement.  Over repeated drum strokes (once again), the soprano solo begins the movement.  The chorus at first has only a short unison interjection (“blessed”) and then returns contrapuntally with “they rest from their labours.”  Only when the soprano sings her final phrase, “from their labours,” a rising scale up to high Bb, does the chorus move in homophony, and we close this section by ourselves.  The harmony shifts in and out of minor and major, with emphasis on the former.  But we finally come to rest (on the word “rest”) in a clear G major, which leads us to Latin Communion text.  Meter and tempo shift with this new section as well, to 3/4 and andante tranquillo.  Here sopranos first sing the slow, legato melody before all voices join in, first in unison and then in parts.  And because the Communion closes with the same words that open the Introit (Requiem aeternam dona eis domine, et lux perpetua luceat eis), Rutter brings back the same lyrical melody he used in the first movement.  The imitative close (first bass, then tenor, then alto, then soprano) leads to a peaceful resolution, dying away to nothing, as the lower three voices repeat “aeternam” under the sustained soprano G.

Rutter’s is the only Requiem to enter the repertoire since Britten’s, and it has only grown in popularity since its premiere.  People continue to grieve; mourners continue to seek comfort.  Rutter’s Requiem continues to provide exactly that.

March 2024