My earliest introduction to the music of John Rutter was the second volume of Carols for Choirs. It was in use by Coatbridge High School ‘senior’ and ‘junior’ ensembles under the guidance of music teacher Mrs Gallagher. At the same time copies had been bought by my local church, St Andrews, Stepps for the Christmas services. Carols for Choirs 2 had been published in 1970 by Oxford University Press and was jointly edited by David Willcocks and John Rutter. Included in this book were a number of arrangements by the latter, including ‘Come Leave your Sheep’, ‘Here we come a Wassailing’ and the ‘Twelve Days of Christmas’. There were also two original numbers – ‘Nativity Carol’ and ‘Shepherd’s Pipe Carol.’ This latter was to quickly become the composer’s signature tune.
Unfortunately, the John Rutter website is not forthcoming on information: it is more commercial than informative. For example, there is not a complete works list giving dates of composition and first performances. Curiously, I can find no mention there of the composer’s orchestral works. Any information about his music has to be pieced together from various liner notes and various short notices.
The ‘Shepherd’s Pipe Carol’ was originally composed (text and music) for a carol concert at Clare College, Cambridge during the mid-sixties. It was duly published by OUP in 1967 and was also available in a number of arrangements including ‘unison voices with easy accompaniment, shortened and simplified’, ‘unison voices with optional descant’ and ‘solo voice with slightly simplified accompaniment.’ The version presented in Carols for Choirs 2 was for the standard SATB (soprano, alto, tenor and bass). The score specifies a piano accompaniment, however it is quite possible to play on the organ. Certainly it is one of more difficult accompaniments in the book, and requires a gentle but accurate, soft ‘syncopated’ playing style. An orchestral arrangement was made and it is often heard in this guise.
The sentiment of the carol celebrates the piping of a shepherd boy journeying to see the baby Jesus in the stable at Bethlehem. The composer has suggested that the inspiration for this work may have come from his experience of having sung in Gian Carlo Menotti’s Christmas opera Amahl and the Night Visitors. The Hyperion CD liner notes (CDA67425) quote the composer: ‘I think the piping heard as Amahl heads for Bethlehem with the Wise Men may have stuck in my mind.’
The carol begins with a little introduction on the piano/organ which is subsequently used as a bridge passage between some stanzas of the carol. The music of the first verse features a dialogue between the tenors and basses and the full choir. This is repeated for the second stanza. The central section of the carol is more reflective: the sopranos sing ‘dolce et legato’ about the shepherd boy musing that ‘none may hear my pipes on these hills so lonely…But a King will hear me play sweet lullabies…’ The work ends with a call to ‘pay my homage to the new King’s cradle’ and the voices of angels ‘singing for joy…that Christ the infant King is born this night in lowly stable yonder.’
John Rutter makes use of a number of time signatures, often closely juxtaposed. His tonality is largely confined to F major, although the composer uses a number of catchy chromatic additions as well as a little bit of harmonic ‘side-slipping’ here and there.
It is not possible to give the words of this carol in my ‘post’ as both the music and the text are still in copyright. However there are many performances of this piece available on CD (27 versions at the current count on Arkiv) and also on YouTube. My personal preference is the Hyperion record featuring Polyphony, the City of London Sinfonia conducted by Stephen Layton.