People and Genres

31 John Rutter

In this chapter you will

  • discover that not all composers in the twentieth century (and beyond) have sought to radically push the boundaries of musical language
  • consider the significance of the fact that works by a composer who is a religious agnostic are found deeply moving and meaningful by religious people

John Rutter is a contemporary composer whose works are extremely popular with the general public. Rutter has set a number of biblical texts to music. These include psalms, a Magnificat, and movements in his Requiem that are wholly or partly from the Bible. Here is the Requiem conducted by the composer himself.[1]

The work as a whole features significant links between the beginning and the end (both in the words and in the music). But there are also echoes throughout, and in particular, the “Pie Jesu” includes musical echoes of more than one theme from the first movement. For me, the piece mirrors the trajectory of the Christian Bible from Genesis to Revelation: light in the beginning and then at the end and order and hope emerging out of chaos. Reflecting on this, I found it noteworthy how creation connects with lament in Job chapter 3: Job curses the day of his birth (i.e., wishes he had never been born), attempting through negations and inversions of key words from Genesis 1 to bring about an undoing of his own creation.[2]Rutter likewise brings us back into chaos (musically) before light appears.

The second movement has a dramatic and moving cello part that for me recalls the minor scale utilized to powerful effect in much Eastern European Jewish music, while the vocal cadences are reminiscent of those in African American spirituals. The voices shift to polyphony (different parts singing different notes in harmony) to provide a different character as the psalmist shifts from addressing God to addressing Israel. The sparser vocal line then returns to revisit the human call to God for help. There is a lot of back-and-forth, as fits the experience of grief.

The “Sanctus” is majestic and hopeful, the “Agnus Dei” minor and somber. The alternation continues with Psalm 23 contrasting with the feel of Psalm 130 as well as continuing the alternating peaceful and troubled feeling as we go from movement to movement. And then again, each movement itself includes contrasting emotions. That is the experience of grief, of loss, and of mourning, and music helps turn the words into something that we connect with emotionally at a deeper level.[3]Right in the heart of the sixth movement, “The Lord Is My Shepherd,” we get a back-and-forth between choral voices in lament and an oboe attempting to restore the pastoral calm before they come back together in harmony once again. The ending feels less than final, as do so many of the psalms. This expresses hope, expectation, looking beyond the moment in uncertainty.

As mentioned at the beginning of the chapter, Rutter is an agnostic. He nonetheless turns time and again to biblical texts as sources. Agnosticism and the Psalms mesh nicely together, since the words of the Psalms often express doubt, but Rutter’s settings of biblical texts are by no means limited to the Psalms. Consider what it tells us that someone can write music that profoundly moves people of faith without needing to share that faith. You can read more about Rutter and his agnosticism in an interview he gave to Jared Bennett of Varsity magazine and in his interview with Alan Macfarlane. See as well his interview with Mary Rogelstad. When it comes to living composers, we have the advantage of much more direct access to their influences, views, intentions, and interpretations of their own work.


  1. Performance in the Basilica di Santa Croce in Florence, Italy, shared on YouTube by MidAmerica Productions.
  2. On this, see Samuel D. Giere, A New Glimpse of Day One: Intertextuality, History of Interpretation, and Genesis 1.1–5 (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2009), 53.
  3. For Rutter’s own perspective on music and emotion in his own words, see Andrew Palmer, “John Rutter,” in his Encounters with British Composers (Woodbridge: Boydell, 2015), 405–16.


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The Bible and Music by James F. McGrath is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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