Programme notes for a number of John’s compositions: major works and shorter pieces

Birthday Madrigals

Birthday Madrigals was written by John Rutter in 1995 to celebrate the 75th birthday of the great jazz pianist George Shearing, a devotee of choral music and a personal friend of the composer. The texts of the five poems come from the era of the Elizabethan madrigal, and two are by Shakespeare. The style of the music is influenced by jazz but is fundamentally derived from the tradition of the English madrigal itself and its descendant, the part-song.


Fancies was written in 1971 for the City of London Sinfonia and their conductor Richard Hickox. The first performance was given in London, then shortly afterwards at an open-air concert on a summer evening by the River Thames – a perfect setting for it. The ‘Fancies’ are the fleeting ideas, dreams and whims that flit like Will-o’-the-wisps through the imagination of every artist. Consisting of 6 movements, Fancies is scored for choir and chamber orchestra.

Fauré Requiem (ed. Rutter)

The Fauré Requiem was first performed on January 16, 1888. The occasion was a funeral service at the Church of the Madeleine in Paris, where Fauré was choirmaster. The composer directed the modest-sized group of performers consisting of the Madeleine’s choir of boys and men, accompanied by organ and an instrumental ensemble of harp, timpani, and violin with a handful of violas, cellos, and basses. The new Requiem (which was comprised of a personal selection of texts rather than the complete liturgical Missa pro defunctis) had only five movements, lacking numbers 2 and 6. The subsequent history of the work is one of successive expansions:  by 1893, Fauré had added two extra movements and augmented the accompaniment with horns; and in 1900, when the familiar published version appeared, it was re-scored for full orchestra. Recent researchers have cast doubt on whether Fauré himself prepared the 1900 version, which has many unsatisfactory features as well as distortions of the original music. John Rutter edited the 1893 version of the Requiem from Fauré’s manuscript.

Feel the Spirit

The great heritage of the African-American spiritual has fired the imagination of composers, performers, and audiences for more than 100 years. Each generation has produced interpretations of many kinds, yet, curiously, few composers have combined the resources of soloist, choir, and orchestra. John Rutter was inspired by the vocal artistry of Melanie Marshall to build a set of spirituals crafted to her personal style, partnered by choir, with the orchestra to supply a further dimension of colour and emotional depth.


John Rutter’s Gloria was written in 1974 in response to a commission from The Voices of Mel Olson, a choir based in the USA. 

The division of the work into three movements – respectively proclamatory, prayerful, and joyfully affirmative – corresponds to the divisions in the text. Most of the melodic material derives from a Gregorian chant associated with this text. The music is simple and direct in style, with the instrumentalists playing an important role as equal partners with the voices.


The Magnificat, the canticle of the Virgin Mary, is found in the opening chapter of St. Luke’s Gospel, at the point where Mary visits her cousin Elizabeth after learning that she is to be the mother of Christ. Traditionally, the words have been ascribed to Mary, though their strong resemblance to the Old Testament Song of Hannah and to various psalms makes it more likely that Luke himself interpolated them to express an appropriate sense of rejoicing and trust in God. Liturgically, the Magnificat belongs to the Office of Vespers (and its Anglican counterpart, Evensong) and to feasts of the Virgin Mary, and there are innumerable concise musical settings intended for use in church. Extended concert settings, however, are quite rare, Bach’s being the most notable (and even this was designed for use in the Lutheran liturgy). In the general layout of its movements and in its scale and dimensions, Bach’s Magnificat provided the obvious precedent for John Rutter’s setting. There is even a parallel to Bach’s Christmas interpolations in the use of a vernacular text on the Virgin Mary – Of a Rose, which (like so much medieval religious art) likens Mary and her child to a flower springing from the stem of Jesse. Like Bach, Rutter uses Gregorian themes associated with the text at various points in the work. But there, all comparisons end, since the style and content of Rutter’s Magnificat are not even remotely neo-Bachian, resting rather within an eclectic amalgam of more recent traditions that characterize much of the English composer’s choral writing. This work was given its world premiere in May 1990 by the composer in Carnegie Hall, New York.

Mass of the Children

Mass of the Children was written in response to an invitation to compose a new work for a concert during the American Choral Directors’ Association national convention in New York in February 2003. Rutter’s larger-scale choral works have been relatively few – the Gloria, the Requiem, and the Magnificat are the most often performed – but each one has a distinct character. Mass of the Children represents something new in the composer’s work insofar as it was conceived with an integral role for a children’s choir alongside an adult mixed choir, two soloists, and orchestra. The role of the children’s choir is to add a further dimension to the traditional Latin Mass sung by the adult choir, sometimes commenting, sometimes amplifying the meaning and mood.

The Mass text itself (a Missa Brevis, that is to say a mass without a Credo section) is mainly sung by the adult choir or the soloists.  The children sometimes sing the Latin- for example at the Christe eleison, the opening of the Gloria and at the Benedictus– but elsewhere they and the two soloists sing specially chosen English texts which in some way reflect upon or illuminate the Latin. The work opens with two verses from Bishop Thomas Ken’s morning hymn for the Scholars of Winchester College, and it closes with the children singing his evening hymn with Tallis’ timeless melody, as the adults intone the traditional Dona nobis pacem, a prayer for peace. This creates a framework (from waking to sleeping) within which other texts and moods appear in kaleidoscopic succession, like events in a day or landmarks in a life.

Rutter Requiem

Requiem was written in 1985 and first performed in October of that year. Following the precedent established by Brahms and Fauré, among others, it is not strictly a setting of the Requiem Mass as laid down in Catholic liturgy, but instead is made up of a personal selection of texts, some taken from the Requiem Mass and some from the 1662 Book of Common Prayer.

The seven sections of the work form an arch-like meditation on the themes of life and death: the first and last movements (Requiem aeternam and Lux aeternam) are prayers on behalf of all humanity, movements 2 and 3 (Out of the deep and The Lord is my shepherd) are psalms, 3 and 5 (Pie Jesu and Agnus Dei) are personal prayers to Christ, and the central Sanctus is an affirmation of divine glory.

The Gift of Life

The Gift of Life was written early in 2015 as a result of a chance conversation at a choral convention in 2013 with an old friend, Terry Price. He was planning to retire from his position as Minister of Music at a church in Dallas, and his church wanted to give him an appropriate gift to mark his many years of service; I was already thinking I would like to write a fairly substantial new choral work with orchestra, and these two thoughts came together. Terry’s church immediately agreed that this new work would be the right gift, and a theme soon suggested itself: in 1985 I had written a Requiem – which, like any Requiem, inevitably reflects on death – why not write the opposite, a work celebrating life?

Unlike a Requiem, where a set form of words is laid down in Catholic liturgy, no framework exists for a celebration of life, and I had to choose (and in three cases, write) texts which were appropriate to a theme rarely expressed in music since Haydn’s wondrous oratorio The Creation in 1798.  The six movements of The Gift of Life reflect different facets of the miracles of creation and of life, and I was happy to be able to include as the third of them my Hymn to the Creator of Light, originally written in 1992 as an unaccompanied double-choir motet in memory of the composer Herbert Howells on the occasion of the dedication of his new memorial window in Gloucester Cathedral. I had always felt slightly wistful that this piece was somewhat of an orphan on its own, and here was an opportunity to give it a home as part of a larger work. I added a discreet orchestral accompaniment to enrich the texture and to make it more consistent with the other five movements.


Visions was the result of a most unusual invitation: to write a piece combining solo violin, string ensemble (to which I added a harp), and the boy choristers of the Temple Church choir. The occasion was a concert at the Temple Church in London forming part of the 2016 Menuhin Competition, at which two past winners of that renowned violin competition were to perform. My assigned soloist was the dazzling 19-year-old Canadian violinist Kerson Leong. Having immediately decided to accept, my thoughts soon turned to the historic associations of the Temple Church with the Knights Templar – the church takes its name from the Temple at Jerusalem, and the round shape of its most ancient part is a deliberate echo of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. ‘Jerusalem’ is of course more than the name of a middle-eastern city: it stands as a symbol both of God’s people and of a utopian ideal of heavenly peace and seraphic bliss in store for redeemed humanity.

I chose four biblical texts which express different aspects of this vision – (1) an introductory description of the imagined city in the words and Gregorian melody of a medieval hymn familiar in the English version beginning ‘Blessed city, heavenly Salem’; (2) Isaiah’s prophetic vision of the coming of Messiah, followed by a lively section which might be a dance of the daughters of Jerusalem; (3) a lament for the desolation of Sion, using a transmuted fragment of both text and melody line from William Byrd’s anthem Bow thine ear, O Lord; and (4), a beatific vision of the holy city as seen by St John in the Book of Revelation.


Information about John’s shorter works:

A Clare Benediction

A Clare Benediction (1998), is one of a number of choral blessings written by John Rutter over the years, in every case for a person or institution of special significance to the composer. This piece was written in honour of Clare College Cambridge where John Rutter was Director of Music (1975-79).

A Ukrainian Prayer

John writes:
‘How can a composer respond to a global tragedy? By writing music is the most obvious thing. Like everybody, I’ve been shocked and dismayed by the events of recent days, and the first thing I wanted to do was write some music that would respond in my own way. I went to a late night service in my old college chapel, where they sang a setting of a lovely Ukrainian prayer. So, having encountered the text in another musical setting on Wednesday night, on Thursday, I wrote my own music. I hope the meaning of the text will resonate in people’s hearts. I had the opportunity to put it together at very short notice with a wonderful group of 300 people (at a workshop I was leading in Wandsworth, London) which still speaks with my own voice, but in terms that reach out to the Ukrainian people in their hour of need.

‘ Боже, Україну храни
Дай нам силу, вірі, й надії
Отче наш, Отче наш

A literal translation of the text is:
Good Lord, protect Ukraine.
Give her strength, courage, faith, hope.

Behold the tabernacle of God

Behold, the tabernacle of God was written in 1981 for the consecration of the newlycompleted north transept of St Anne’s Cathedral, Belfast. It is a festival anthem, setting words from a Sarum antiphon. The music was intended for ceremonial events in large, impressive buildings, and this to an extent dictated its rather broad and rhetorical style.

Cantate Domino

Cantate Domino is one of a number of choral psalm settings made by its composer. Usually it is for a cappella choir, mostly treating the text in straightforward, homophonic style, although not without some chorally virtuosic touches. Towards the end, the ninth-century Gregorian hymn Veni Creator Spiritus is introduced,a traditional invocation to the Holy Spirit.

Come down, O Love Divine

Come down, O Love Divine (1998), for double choir, has a curious history. It was commissioned by the Musicians Benevolent Fund for their annual St. Cecilia’s Day service, a splendid event held (in rotation) in Westminster Abbey, St. Paul’s Cathedral, or Westminster Cathedral, with their three choirs joining forces and musicians past and present gathered in a spirit of thanksgiving and celebration. As it turned out, the 1998 service was to be held in Westminster Abbey, which was then in the midst of some rather public unhappiness, the details of which were widely reported at the time. The choice of texts was probably influenced by this turmoil, in particular the invocation ‘Veni, Sancte Spiritus’. This piece speaks with a different voice from any of John Rutter’s other works.

Es ist ein’ Ros’

Both the melody and text of this lovely German carol date from the late 15th or early 16th century, appearing in print in many versions, of which the best known is the simple harmonization by Michael Praetorius published in 1609. The idea for my arrangement came from the King’s Singers in 2013, to form part of a Christmas album they were making jointly with the renowned German oboist Albrecht Mayer. With only minimal adaptation for the mixed-voice choral forces of the Cambridge Singers, I have been delighted to record my arrangement – inspired by Bach’s extended chorale treatments – with the equally peerless Royal Philharmonic Orchestra oboist John Roberts.

Download or stream here:

Es ist ein’ Ros’ entsprungen
Aus einer Wurzel zart,
Als uns die Alten sungen,
Aus Jesse kam die Art
Und hat ein Blümlein bracht
Mitten im kalten Winter,
Wohl zu der halben Nacht.
(German traditional)

Lo, how a Rose e’er blooming
From tender stem hath sprung!
Of Jesse’s lineage coming
As men of old have sung,
It came, a flow’ret bright,
Amid the cold of winter,
When half spent was the night.

I my Best-Beloved’s am

I my Best-Beloved’s am (1999), was written for the BBC Singers and first performed by them at a concert in Canterbury Cathedral on the theme of the seven sacraments. Rutter was assigned the theme of marriage, and found the text by combining the Latin nuptial responses (sung by the tenors and basses) with a lovely and little-known poem by the Jacobean Francis Quarles (sung by sopranos and altos).

I will sing with the Spirit

I will sing with the Spirit (1994) is dedicated to the Royal School of Church Music, who requested a simple anthem to serve as a theme song for their anniversary appeal.

Joseph’s Carol

In 2020, at the height of the Covid pandemic, I was asked by Marios Papadopoulos – founder and conductor of the Oxford Philharmonic Orchestra – to compose a new carol as part of a filmed Christmas tribute to the Oxford vaccine team.  In addition to the orchestra, we had at our disposal the choir of Merton College, and Sir Bryn Terfel as star soloist. I immediately pictured him in the role of the steadfast Joseph, and Joseph’s Carol is written from his point of view: a weary traveller on his way to Bethlehem with Mary, his doubts and fears turned to awe and wonder as he hears angel voices foretelling the miracle to come.

Look at the World

Look at the World, composed in 1996, is a simple anthem with a text on the theme of the environment. It was written to mark the 70th anniversary of the Council for the Protection of Rural England.

Lord of the Dance

The melody, originally an American Shaker song called  The gift to be simple, was popularized first by Aaron Copeland’s use of it in his ballet score Appalachian Spring, and later by the English hymn-writer Sydney Carter’s striking new text, which was inspired by the traditional carol  Tomorrow shall be my dancing day. This is a new arrangement of an old favourite!

Musica Dei donum

Musica Dei donum (1998), which has an important part for solo flute, is a setting of an anonymous text first set by Lassus in 1594 that speaks of the power of music to draw, to soothe, and to uplift. Originally written for the choir of Clare College, Cambridge, this piece was subsequently included in A Garland for Linda, a cycle of nine choral pieces by different composers in memory of Linda McCartney.

O Praise the Lord of Heaven

O Praise the Lord of Heaven, was written in 1980 for the annual Commencement ceremony of Westminster Choir College, Princeton. In this rousing anthem for double choir, Rutter uses frequent time signature changes to breathe new life into Psalm 148. Guiding the two choirs through a series of musical mood changes using intricate call-and-response patterns, the composer steadily builds excitement before bringing them together in a glorious finale. This anthem forms the conclusion to John Rutter’s Psalmfest.

Psalm 150

John Rutter’s festive and succinct setting of this renowned psalm of rejoicing was commissioned for the Golden Jubilee Thanksgiving Service held in London’s St. Paul’s Cathedral in June 2002 to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the reign of Queen Elizabeth II. The composer made particular use of the spectacular dome of St. Paul’s, in which three boy choristers were placed high above the congregation, singing the first line of the Latin version of Psalm 150, while the main choir below sang the complete text in English.

Suite Antique

Suite Antique was written in 1979 specifically for a concert featuring the flautist Duke Dobing and the London Baroque Soloists, as part of the Cookham Festival. Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 was also on the programme, so Rutter scored Suite Antique for the same combination of instruments – paying homage to the forms and styles of Bach’s day.


This piece was arranged by John Rutter for Melanie Marshall, her pianist brother Wayne, flautist Daniel Pailthorpe, Malcolm Creese on bass, and the Cambridge Singers. A soaring bird is an age-old symbol, sacred and secular, of the spirit. Of all the great American songwriters, Hoagy Carmichael was perhaps the most strongly influenced by the music of the southern states, including the spiritual.

Te Deum

John Rutter’s Te Deum was written in 1988 for a service of thanksgiving in Canterbury Cathedral. Liturgical considerations and the spacious acoustics of the great building dictated a brief, straightforward setting of the ancient and inspiring text – not in Latin but, according to Anglican custom, in the lofty, noble translation of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer.

The Falcon

The Falcon (1969) was Rutter’s first large-scale choral work, premiered in the chapel of King’s College, Cambridge, conducted by Sir David Willcocks. The kernel of the work is the medieval poem that gives it its title, a poem rich with symbols of the Eucharist, the Grail legend and the Glastonbury thorn. Out of this poem grew the idea of a larger work moving from images of a warlike Old Testament Jehovah, via the sacrifice of Christ as portrayed in the Falcon poem, to the visionary prospect of peace found in the book of Revelation. Gregorian chant is used, sung by a boy’s choir – the inclusion of this was probably influenced by Rutter’s participation in the original recording of Britten’s War Requiem as a member of the boys’ choir.

The Heavenly Aeroplane

The text for this piece was included in W.H. Auden’s classic edition of The Oxford Book for Light Verse. It is a folk-song from the Ozark mountains in Missouri. Rutter composed a new tune for it in the style of 1950s rock and roll.

To every thing there is a season

Written in 1997, this piece was originally intended as the finale to a longer work, sets a familiar passage from Ecclesiastes in a song-like style, taking its character from the ‘time of peace’ referred to in the final line of the text.

Two Festival Anthems

O Praise the Lord of Heaven, was written in 1980 for the annual Commencement ceremony of Westminster Choir College, Princeton, and Behold, the tabernacle of God, in 1981 for the consecration of the newly-completed north transept of St Anne’s Cathedral, Belfast.  In both cases the music was intended for ceremonial events in large, impressive buildings, and this to an extent dictated its rather broad and rhetorical style.

Wings of the Morning

Wings of the Morning (2002), an Old Testament setting, came about as a result of a request from the Durban Serenade Choir for a new choral piece to sing on their first UK tour. The 60 rich Zulu voices of the choir made an inspiring sound at its premiere in Cambridge.

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