Program Notes

2008 Spring – Mass of the Children – Rutter

Mass of the Children by John Rutter

About the Composer

John M. Rutter is a well-respected English conductor, editor, arranger, publisher, and, most especially, composer. His compositions are primarily choral; he is well known for his many Christmas carols, one of which, the immensely popular “Shepherd’s Pipe Carol”, was written in 1963, when he was 18. The success of his compositions, arrangements, and publications enabled him, at the age of 40, to devote his time entirely to composing, conducting, and managing his publication and recording enterprises. Nowadays, he even turns down commissioned works, finding that they can draw him in directions that he may find uncomfortable. But he remains intensely busy, darting back and forth from the UK, to the Continent, to North America and elsewhere- including our own Chicagoland area, where he conducted his Requiem (then a very new work) with the Fox Valley Festival Chorus in 1986.

Rutter was born in 1945 in London, and, while attending Highgate School there, was one of the choristers for the premiere of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem, with the composer conducting. He began composing at that time, as did his classmate John Tavener, another noted contemporary composer. From Highgate he went to Cambridge, where he sang in the Clare College choir, and he became music director at Clare in 1975 at the age of 30. He left the faculty in 1979 and, two years thereafter, founded the Cambridge Singers, a chamber choir (of 24 voices), which exists solely as a recording entity. They now have their own record label (Collegium), and have recorded most of Rutter’s works. Although his music covers a wide range of styles, he has a fine English disregard for convention: “I’ve never worried about fashion because if you’re never in fashion, you can never go out of fashion…As a classically trained composer, what do you do if you like writing tunes? I’m not a pop-song writer, and middle-of-the-road music is long gone, so that only leaves a few corners of compositional activity where it is still OK to write a hummable tune.” (Quoted in the Manchester Guardian, December 22, 2000)

And indeed he DOES write hummable tunes: His output includes an enormous number of short works, including songs and Christmas carols; several religious works- his Gloria, Magnificat, and Requiem are staples- and a wide variety of other choral works. Musicologists point to influences from English and French nineteenth- and early twentieth-century music, but his music also, by turns, utilizes jazz and pop techniques as well as traditional folk style. There are those who have complained about lack of depth in some of Rutter’s music- and given his prodigious output, there may be some that justifies that- but his incredible variety of expression makes it certain that no label will stick to a majority of his musical contributions.

As one would expect, he has received many honors: He is a Commander of the Order of the British Empire; in 1980 he was made an honorary Fellow of Westminster Choir College, Princeton, and in 1988 a Fellow of the Guild of Church Musicians. In 1996 the Archbishop of Canterbury conferred a Lambeth Doctorate of Music upon him in recognition of his contribution to church music.

Mass of the Children

This mass- technically, a missa brevis, since it does not include a Credo- is neither a conventional liturgical mass nor a fully nontraditional departure. It was written at the invitation of impresario Peter Tiboris and Mid-America Productions, who arranged its premiere at Carnegie Hall in February 2003, with the composer conducting. Lurking beneath the traditional mass structure is a subtle sub-theme, in which the listener is taken from waking in the morning to sleeping in the evening; much of this is accomplished through English poetry, which constitutes a counterpoint to the Latin text. Departing from other joint adult-and-children choral works- in which the children’s part simply supplements the adult mainstream-, much of that poetry in this work is sung by the children, while the adult chorus serves more to maintain the traditional Latin text. (That explains the unusual title: Not a mass “for” children, but a mass “of”, that is, one in which they are central.) For example, the children begin, even before the Kyrie is first heard, “Awake, my soul, and with the sun thy daily stage of duty run…”; and in the final movement they sing the sixteenth-century Tallis’ Canon as a three-part doxology, while the adult chorus intones “Dona Nobis Pacem”. The poetry used in these insertions comes from many sources- much of it from the seventeenth-century writings of Bishop Thomas Ken; the fourth movement utilizes William Blake’s poem, “The Lamb”; and in the final movement, Rutter gives his own poetry, based upon work of another sixteenth/seventeenth century author, Lancelot Andrews, and on the fifth-century work known as “St. Patrick’s Breastplate”, to the baritone and soprano soloists, respectively.

Although the provenance of this work lies in the 2003 Carnegie Hall premiere, this work nonetheless seems to have become a very personal catharsis for Rutter: His son Christopher entered Cambridge in 2000, and was part of his father’s former choir, when he died in an accident in 2001. While his death was commemorated elsewhere through rededication of his father’s Requiem, this work also appears to be part of the composer’s effort to achieve closure from that terrible loss. Regardless, this Mass invokes a unique spiritual dimension, which we hope you will find much more than a celebration of traditional worship.

J. R. Fancher, Mar. 2008