New Classical Tracks - Colors of Christmas

by Julie Amacher
December 21, 2011

Listen New Classical Tracks: Colors of Christmas Listen New Classical Tracks: John Rutter Interview
Larger view
John Rutter - The Colors of Christmas (Decca 16092-02) (Courtesy of Decca)

John Rutter: his name is synonymous with Christmas. Every year, his recordings appear on the radio and choirs around the world sing his arrangements and original carols.

Initially, for John Rutter, being known as a carol composer was a bit of a millstone around his neck. His concern was that he wouldn't be taken seriously as a composer, but now he says he has a more relaxed view of the whole idea, "It's like having a calling card," he explains, "If people know nothing else about me, they probably know that I wrote the 'Shepherd's Pipe Carol,' and the 'Star Carol.' When all is said and done, Christmas is one of the happiest times of year and to be associated with that time of happiness is really a great privilege and I'm very pleased about it!"

Rutter's latest holiday recording titled The Colors of Christmas is the result of an annual Christmas concert he's conducted for the past ten years with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in the Royal Albert Hall in London. Each year the concert features a different choir. "Last year I had the idea of bringing in the Bach Choir, which is a large chorus — 200 voices — of great renown," Rutter enthused. "I mean, the conductors they've had in the past include Vaughan Williams and Stanford and so on. And I'm one of their honorary presidents. So I thought, let's bring together this great choir and this great orchestra. And somehow the whole thing just seemed to sizzle."

There's plenty to enjoy on this new release, including Rutter's newest carol, "The Colors of Christmas," which is also the title of the recording. Rutter says when he writes a new carol, something usually sparks the idea. "And in this case it was my Christmas concert at the Royal Albert Hall two years ago, where I had the boy winner and the girl winner for a chorister competition. I thought it would be nice to write them a duet. Their voices, obviously, had slightly different colors. And I thought, well, here we are, this is the 'Colors of Christmas.' I think they were actually wearing different colored cassocks, too. Maybe one was red and one was green. And I thought this will just maybe turn into a song. So ideas come from the silliest things. And I just made a choral arrangement of it for the Bach Choir for this recording. But that's how 'The Colors of Christmas' came about."

John Rutter has been in love with Christmas carols since his days as a boy soprano in London. It was his high school music director who encouraged him to compose his first carol for their choir. And Rutter was in good company, composing alongside other classmates like the renowned John Taverner. Composing was just a hobby until Rutter began to study with Sir David Willcocks. It was Willcocks who saw to it that some of Rutter's early carols were published. Rutter still sees Willcocks, who is now 92 years old, as a mentor and he includes hints of Willcocks on this new recording. "He transformed our musical celebration of Christmas in Britain," Rutter explains. "The arrangements he did, the descant to 'O Come All Ye Faithful,' those have become classics. It's quite something when the descant is just about as well known as the tune, worldwide."

"And, 'Star Carol,' was written for David Willcocks," Rutter admits, "who at the time conducted the Bach Choir. The Christmas concert at that time used to involve bringing the children up on the stage just for some of the concert. And the idea was for them to sing familiar carols. But David Willcocks said to me, why not write one that you can teach the children, something new that they can pick up in five minutes? If you can have the adult choir sing the main part of it but the children sing the chorus each time, then they'll all join together and that will give us something new.. So I went away and wrote 'The Star Carol.' I thought it would only get one performance, but I'm glad to say it's gotten done all over the place since then. I've even heard it sung in Tibetan."

In 1960, it was David Willcocks who revived a now-classic carol, "In the Bleak Midwinter." This recording features Harold Darke's arrangement. Dark was a London organist in the early 20th century and his arrangement was published in 1912. "And I think for most musicians it's the Harold Darke one which kind of hits the button," says Rutter, "and I still love it. It brings a little tear to the eye every time. It's beautifully written, lovely to sing and of course the words are so gorgeous."

Twenty-three charming carols make up the diverse palette on Rutter's new recording, The Colors of Christmas. Each carol is a unique calling card for this beloved composer, who has a way of moving us with his music — and John Rutter says that's all he can ask. "If I could have something written on my tombstone," he says, "I think what it would be is — he touched people's hearts. And maybe that's one of the most important things you can do, if you can do it."

John Rutter's music is synonymous with the Christmas season — and he's okay with that. Rutter has been writing and arranging holiday music for over 40 years and his popularity goes well beyond his native England and the United States. And just to be sure of that international appeal, he wrote something for a little wedding at Westminster Abbey last April that was heard by over a billion people all over the world. Ward Jacobson recently spoke with John Rutter about the English choral tradition, his new Christmas recording (The Colors of Christmas), and music for a Royal Wedding. Listen to the interview on the upper left of the page.