by Benjamin Pomerance
You hear the children first. The adults stand there silently, yielding center stage to the voices of youth. And for the next 45 minutes, this is how the drama unfolds. In unison and in three-part harmonies, in Latin and in English, in dramatic crescendos and in plaintive subtleties, the children establish the framework on which this music is built. Every other component is there simply to play a supporting role.
There’s a story behind this, a rationale underscoring each heart-swelling note of this youngster-centric creation. There’s a tale of a man and a boy, of loss and grief, of redemption and healing and love. And only through understanding this all-too-real narrative can one fathom the depths of John Rutter’s Mass of the Children.
It’s a hard task, associating Rutter with shadows. If anyone can legitimately accuse the British melodic mastermind of anything, it’s an overabundance of sunshine, too much optimism in a world that just can’t take a smile. For more than six decades, this son of non-musical parents who raised him in a flat over a London pub has unfurled some of the most unabashedly beautiful selections in the choral repertoire, music that unashamedly celebrates the human spirit. Among church choirs and many professional choral groups, his creations have become mainstays.
No less an authority than the esteemed English conductor Sir David Willcocks proclaimed him “the most gifted composer of his generation.” Yet critics have often lost sight of these gifts amid the daylight’s glare. As a consequence, Rutter’s name most frequently conjures up auditory cues of Christmas carols and other similarly short and bright compositions. The fact that his catalog also includes several larger-scale works for chorus and orchestra, including a truly stunning setting of the Biblical text of the Magnificat, is often unfortunately overlooked.
“I sometimes get fed up with the darkness of the art world today,” Rutter declared during an interview with St. Luke’s Music Festival Artistic Director John Cotterill in 2015. “You’ve got to have hope, somehow, to have a sense of a better future. Composers try to make anger out of everything. I’m not like that.”
So for decades, Rutter calmly went on developing his sanguine harmonies and uplifting messages. Yet plenty of events in his own life seemed to provide fuel for this fire. There was his own commercial success as a composer and as a conductor, of course. There was his marriage to a woman who was convinced that “the John Rutter” of those lovely anthems had to be at least 80 years old, or possibly not even living anymore, until they met at a choral workshop in California, kicking off a Hallmark-worthy romance of trips to England and Venice before he proposed.
And then there was his heir apparent. His oldest son, Christopher, seemed poised to follow in his footsteps. “You don’t choose music as a way of life,” Rutter has declared to innumerable interviewers. “Music chooses you.” Now, music had chosen his eldest boy, imbuing him with an obvious talent. Making things even better was the fact that Christopher had chosen Cambridge, his dad’s beloved alma mater, as the place to initiate his studies, becoming a choral scholar at Clare College. It all seemed as perfect as one of Rutter’s own finales.
Which is why the phone call knocked him down so hard. A driver had struck a young man who was committing the simple daily task of crossing the road. The young man was now dead. The authorities believed it was his son. But it couldn’t be. The previous day had been Ash Wednesday. Christopher had performed a beautiful solo in Gregorio Allegri’s Miserere. So much vibrant color, so much potential for years upcoming, so much life. Such a life could not be gone.
But it was. And now the music world drew in a collective breath and waited. Surely Rutter, if he went on writing music at all, would paint with darker hues now. And it felt like a high percentage of the oxygen had vanished from the room, because if the music of John Rutter no longer carried its optimism, that trait so often publically criticized but secretly admired by so many, then the rest of the world just didn’t seem to have much hope left.
At first, there was no music. And then — something a little different. A large-scale creation for choristers, soloists, and orchestra. A Mass — but not in the rigidly traditional liturgical sense. A set of customary Latin verses — but interwoven with a poem by Anglican Bishop Thomas Ken, a poem from William Blake’s Songs of Innocence anthology, and two prayers set by Rutter himself. A voice that was blessedly recognizable — perhaps a bit more imploring than before, but ultimately filled with those same lustrous hues of a brighter world.
And, most notably of all, a choir of children — not as an ensemble of supporting players, but as the unquestioned centerpiece of the entire Mass. It is their voices that introduce the work to all listeners with a message of hope: “Awake, my soul, and with the sun.” It is their sound that carries the words of Blake’s poetic words of purity: “Little Lamb, who made thee?” And near the Mass’s conclusion, as the adult choir chants the Latin text of the phrase “Grant us Thy peace,” it is the children to whom Rutter grants a celestial reassurance: “Glory to thee, my God, this night.”
The piece bears no direct dedication to Christopher, no overt mention of the tragedy on that English roadway. Yet in an interview a dozen years after the Mass’s premiere at Carnegie Hall, the composer finally affirmed what audiences had been speculating. “I specifically haven’t composed anything ‘for Christopher,’” Rutter stated in that 2015 conversation with John Cotterill. “But I realized, as I conducted the Mass of the Children last night, that his memory is written all over that work.”
So with these words in mind, one can call the Mass of the Children a tribute to a loved one gone too soon. One can call it a catharsis, as much as such a thing is possible, for one who remains. One can call it a final gift from father to son, delivered in the form of the gift that they both shared. All of these descriptions would seem to be correct.
Yet by its final measure, this work feels like something even more. It is a victory Mass, in a way, an affirmation that the human spirit can remain unquenched even in the face of the worst heartbreak — not just in one instance, but for all such circumstances. The man long considered an oddball for rejecting artistic darkness finds vindication in the light, bringing wisdom led by the young, untainted by worldly cynicism, and leaving us with singers providing a benediction of glory and peace. From their mouths comes a lesson for all the ages.
The Schenectady Symphony Orchestra joins with the Niskayuna High School Chorus to perform Rutter’s Mass of the Children on January 22 at 3 p.m. in Proctors Theatre. For tickets, call (518) 346-6204.