Recently an article in the New York Times profiled the British choral composer, John Rutter, whose prolific authorship of Christmas carols over the decades has won him a renown “so identified with Christmas,” the Times writer wittily noted, “that he has all but earned a place with the kings and shepherds by the manger.”
Rutter has also written large-scale choral works, like the “Requiem” that was performed in New York after the 9/11 attacks. That fact speaks to the unusual power of emotion in his music, its capacity for evoking sorrow and joy. “The privilege of writing my sort of music is that people choose it for the days they remember,” Rutter told the Times. “They say ‘We had you at our wedding, our son’s baptism, our dad’s last carol service.’ It’s like being their guest. And my response is always ‘Thank you for inviting me.’ “
Reading the article I remembered a Christmas when Rutter’s music invited me in, unexpectedly and beautifully.
It was ten years ago, and I was in Montreal, researching a travel article on that city’s Old Town. The winter holiday season is Vieux-Montréal’s showcase: festive squares decorated with blue-lit spruces, horse-drawn calèches clopping down narrow cobblestone streets lined with gas lamps, and the windows of food shops stocked with specialty pâtés and the decorated cakes known as bûches de Noël. It was like Christmas from some fable.
But I was sick. The winter cold in Montreal can be truly menacing, and a fierce wind funneled up off the St. Lawrence and blasted through those narrow streets. As the week went by I developed a nasty cold—fever and a hacking cough—whose obvious virulence made me a pariah in my hotel; people would hear me coming and scuttle away.
On my last day, toward sunset, I was suffering my way along the rue Saint-Paul when I heard a bell tolling. I followed the sound to the Chapel of Notre Dame de Bonsecours, where a Christmas choral performance was about to start. Hanging from the ceiling above my pew were unusual chandeliers, wooden ships bearing candles. Those ships, I remembered reading, had been carved long ago by sailors in gratitude for surviving the perilous North Atlantic crossing. The pastor told us that the chapel was dedicated to mariners, and that sailors’ wives would gather there to pray for their husbands’ safe return.
The choir sang John Rutter’s 1988 song, “What Sweeter Music.” I had never heard it, or heard of him, but listening afforded one of those magical instances when music mysteriously transports you. As the singing voices filled the chapel, I felt the ghost presence of those long-ago sailors. I marveled at the audacity and majesty of what they undertook in their perilous ocean voyages. Somehow my feverish trance combined with the beauty of the melody, the history of the chapel, and my own personal hopes and hurts: the birth of my daughter the year before, and the loss of my mother six months later. The whole thing became overwhelming in the most beautiful-sorrowful way. I sat there weeping quietly.
I had all but forgotten about this moment until I read the Times article, which referred to Rutter's astonishing melodic gifts and to “What Sweeter Music” in particular. On YouTube I fetched up this performance, by the renowned choir of St. Olaf College... and as I listened, the original impact hit me all over again, with that same mysterious intensity.