John Rutter

Our Christmas music is the envy of Americans

Our Christmas music is the envy of Americans
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For a working musician like me – I compose and conduct – the run-up to Christmas is one of the busiest times of the year. I generally find myself writing some last-minute carols, then come the garage-sandwich weeks: endless travel to far-flung rehearsals in freezing churches and halls in preparation for the annual round of concerts and carol services where I’ve been invited to guest-conduct and perhaps to deliver a Christmas reading. It’s exhausting but inspiring.

Two years ago I was due to join the Bath Camerata choir for a recital. Looking around at the jolly gathering of grannies, vicars, bushy-bearded real ale drinkers and earnest-looking students I started to sense that I hadn't quite reached my intended destination. When no singing materialised, I declined their kind invitation to join them for a plate of sustainably-farmed turkey and organically-grown sprouts, realising that I had in fact gate-crashed the Bath and District branch of Extinction Rebellion. With my non-recyclable plastic bag in tow, I was hastily redirected to the next door church where the choir awaited. As I drove home I thought what a blessing it is that Christmas provides an excuse to celebrate and rejoice rather than whinge, quarrel, insult each other and issue death threats. I belong to no political party, but if someone started a Let’s-all-just get-along-and-work-things-out-together party, I’d join. As a society we seem to have lost the ability to disagree agreeably and be civil in our public discourse. Christmas is still some kind of amnesty and reminder of how things could be, if only . . .

This year I confess I took an evening off to accept a dinner invitation from a delightful music-loving American couple, in England this month because of the range and quality of Christmas musical events on offer here. They’re right: our musicians celebrate Christmas in style and, for me, music is what makes Christmas perfect (I’ve never been that keen on turkey). Whether it’s the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols in King’s College Chapel, a Messiah flawlessly performed by one of our peerless professional ensembles or, perhaps less flawlessly, by your local choral society . . . a carol singalong in the Royal Albert Hall . . . a primary-school Nativity play complete with Away in a manger or a modest Christingle at a church near you, music brings the message and meaning of the season to life for anyone with ears to hear.

Among the dozen guests at dinner that evening were two cathedral organists and the general manager of one of our leading orchestras. I wish they were running the country: the breadth of their intellects, the range of their skills and experience, their burning commitment to their calling, and their resourcefulness and resilience during the Covid crisis which affected (and still affects) the whole arts community impressed me profoundly. Why aren’t they heaped with honours? They are doing so much more than their job, they and the musicians they work with are making the world a place infinitely more worth living in.

Images of angelic choristers spring to mind at this time of year, so it's no surprise that BBC TV has just screened the Young Chorister of the Year contest. This was originally ‘Choirboy of the Year’, then it absorbed ‘Choirgirl of the Year’ which had been run separately under commercial sponsorship, and for some years we enjoyed a joint competition – I have been on the judging panel from time to time – where there was a boy winner and a girl winner, reflecting the new and sometimes hard-won equality achieved by girls choirs in our cathedrals and churches. I always loved the moment when the two winners sang a duet standing side by side, symbolising their equality. Why the past tense? The production company to which the BBC inexplicably outsourced this strand of its religious output decreed that there should be just one winner, undoing at a stroke the years of patient work establishing the parity of girls' choirs. Boy is set against girl, one is the winner, the other the loser, and if a boy happens to be the winner one year, it would be a brave judge who did not pick a girl winner the following year. The competition should be a celebration of all the young people who give their time and talents to fill our churches with music, and we should honour both genders each and every year.

I defy anyone to wander round the National Gallery and not be inspired and moved by the medieval and Renaissance paintings of the mother, her child, the angels, the shepherds, the wise men and all: I've always loved Piero della Francesca's Nativity, where baby Jesus is serenaded by a quintet of lute-playing angels with the Virgin Mary reverently kneeling before him. Secular celebration in December is fine: in the northern hemisphere there was always a mid-winter jolly even before Christianity came along, but yet these (literally) iconic religious images are at the heart of the Christmas festival. Don’t let’s side-line them or apologise for them. So: Merry Christmas!