Many people will be listening to, and singing the music of, John Rutter over the coming few weeks. He is now traditionally regarded as ‘Mr Christmas’ in the musical world. Certainly sales of his delightful Christmas carols will have made a strong impression on his bank account. Yet there is another side to this composer which has been largely ignored not only by the general public, but the by composer himself. I hunted around on his website for any reference to the above orchestral work: I found nothing. In fact there is not even a ‘list of works.’ Nor was there any mention of his charming ‘Suite for Strings’, released on Naxos.
I accept that the Partita is a ‘rare ‘excursion into the field of orchestral music. However a work that is fundamentally as well-contrived as the Partita deserves recognition. This piece was written in 1976 when the composer was 31 years old. It was a commission for the 50th Anniversary gala concert of the Ernest Read Music Association. Read (1879-1965) was an English conductor, organist and teacher. He had a major influence on musical education in the first half of the 20th century. In 1931 he formed the Ernest Read Symphony Orchestra which is still going strong in 2013.
The musical form of a Partita was used in the 17th century as another name for a ‘suite’ which usually contained a number of dance movement. The most famous example is undoubtedly J.S. Bach’s Partitas for unaccompanied violin. However, in the twentieth century, contemporary composers have embraced the form with interesting examples from Alfredo Casella, Walter Piston, Ture Rangström and our own William Walton.
Rutter has written (quoted Alan Frank, Musical Times April 1976) ‘Responsiveness to a whole spectrum of musical moods and dedication in overcoming technical obstacles are second nature to young performers, and on top of that there’s a bubbling exuberance that I find irresistible. These qualities came to mind and I found myself turning to three of the 20th-century composer heroes of my own teens: Ravel, with his exquisite refinement of mood and orchestral wizardry: Walton, whose wonderful intense music seems almost electrically charged: and Gershwin, melodist extraordinary. The Partita is an affectionate homage to them; working on the piece I became aware of their perhaps surprising affinity and also my own indebtedness to all three.’
John Rutter’s Partita is composed in three movements. These are not actually named after traditional dances. The opening ‘Vivace’ is full of rhythmic energy and attractive melodies tossed about the orchestra. This is followed by a much deeper ‘Aria’ which seems to move to a mode of expression that the composer did not pursue. This is moving and challenging music that is far removed from any suggestion of ‘light’. The work concludes with a ‘finale’ which appears to be in reality a tarantella. This is exuberant, sparkling music that is well written and effectively showcases the various sections of the orchestra.
Stylistically, the Partita sits on a fence – between serious-light. It is none the worse for that ambiguity. The work was first heard on April 26 1976 at the Royal Festival Hall.
John Rutter’s ‘Partita’ is available on ASV CD WHL2131 which I believe is deleted at the moment. However, an MP3 download is available from Amazon.