Work: What Sweeter Music
About This Work
The Christmas Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols has a long and cherished tradition in English church music. The earliest recorded celebration was on Christmas Eve 1880. By the year 1988, the festival was a well-known staple in Christmas
ritual, especially in the liturgy of King's College, Cambridge, a choir at that point having lived under the capable baton of Stephen Cleobury for six years. This was the first year the choir was tapped by then eminent Anglican composer John Rutter to compose a musical offering in the service. Rutter's own account of the occasion highlights his own pleasure in the "opportunity to write for the slot in the service immediately after the reading about the journey of the Wise Men -- the chance to highlight in the text the idea of the gifts that we can bring." For a text, Rutter characteristically dug into his spiritual history and chose a poem by 17th century English mystical poet Robert Herrick, which literally asks the question, "What sweeter music can we bring than a carol, for to sing the birth of this our heavenly King?" Rutter set Herrick's poem to a particularly lavish musical setting to honor that birth.
Rutter's anthem opens with a brief string introduction, perhaps taking its cue from the first verse of the text, which calls for both voice and string to bear witness. The women's voices open the piece, with a flowing melody worthy of the blessed birth the song honors. Yet the punchline seems to be the very last line of the first verse, that the day of Christmas "sees December turn to May." Rutter invests this line with a sudden intensity of harmonic color, sung twice, embodying both a nod to the modal harmonies of Herrick's era and to the transformational life change suggested by the text. The men's voices carry the thought further into the second verse, asking why this chilly morn might be verdant as a field of corn; the answer, that "He is born," arrives in more static harmony, with a turn toward the same archaic yet transformational cadence as heard in the first. The third verse begins in intimate a cappella tones, as all voices acknowledge the coming of the Child; the fourth continues in deceptive cadences and even greater harmonic wonders and wandering. After the honor offered by these verses, Rutter briefly returns to the opening text and melody, in vocal unison, as a reiteration of the basic premise, the music that we singers can use as offering at His cradle.
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