Ask virtually any music lover and I guess that everyone will know one or other of John Rutter’s popular Christmas carols such as the Shepherds Pipe Carol or the Nativity Carol. Or perhaps it will be his magisterial Requiem that has impressed. Yet unbeknown to many people, the composer has written a few orchestral works which well deserve a hearing.
Perhaps one of his finest is the beautiful Suite for Strings which was written in 1973. It is based on a number of well known English folksongs that make up each of the four movements:-
1. A- roving
2. I have a bonnet trimmed with blue
3. O, Waly Waly
4. Dashing away with the smoothing iron
The opening movement has a kind of nautical saltiness to it that uses the jaunty tune ‘A rovin’ yet this is balanced with the more reflective counter melody ‘I sowed the seed of love.’ Of course the ‘racy’ tune wins the day.
The second movement is my favourite. This is a perfect evocation of an elegant young lady who is keen to display her new bonnet to the local swains! Yet perhaps she is a little shy and is apprehensive about possible comments. This is well scored and balanced and perfectly satisfying. From the last section I believe she found her hearts desire…
The ‘slow’ movement is based on the folksong 'O Waly Waly.' To people of a certain generation this will be associated with the late Kathleen Ferrier. However the strings play this tune with a definite sense of regret and sometimes intensity that matches the words:-
O love is handsome and love is fine,
And love is charming when it is true;
As it grows older it groweth colder
And fades away like the morning dew.
Yet the blues are dispelled with an almost Handelian rendition of ‘Dashing away with the smoothing iron.’ Of course the tune does not have its way – for the ‘Bailiffs Daughter’ make an appearance and all’s well that ends well:-
O stay, O stay, thou goodly youth!
She's alive, she is not dead;
Here she standeth by thy side,
And is ready to be thy bride…
…and no doubt bound for a lifetime of ironing!
Other orchestral works by John Rutter that are worth exploring include the Partita, the Antique Suite for flute & harpsichord, the Beatles Concerto and Five Mediations for Orchestra. Perhaps more about these later?