The Nativity - Lorenzo Monaco (c. 1406-1410) / The Metropolitan Museum of Art & Wikimedia

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.

Listening to Rutter afforded one of those magical instances when music mysteriously transports you

Rutter set his melody to a lyric by the 17th-century poet and cleric, Robert Herrick, best known for his carpe-diem poem, “To the Virgins, To Make Much of Time,” which delivers the message that life is short, the world beautiful, and love urgently necessary. “What Sweeter Music” attaches the same imperative of joy to our celebration of the birth of Christ. Rutter’s music is perhaps too fully based in contemporary popular idioms—too easy on the ear—to win him a rank among serious composers of our era. But his melodies achieve terrific poignancy, and for me nowhere more than in this song. With its subtle syncopations, swelling changes of key, and sudden octave leap upward on “Awake the voice!”, the melody rises in expanding sweeps of sound, invoking the mid-winter promise of rebirth and the spiritual renewal promised by the Nativity.

I find “What Sweeter Music” deeply moving, in ways I don’t fully understand. And so I give it to you as a holiday present, to unwrap and enjoy as you see fit. Merry Christmas!

What Sweeter Music

What sweeter music can we bring
Than a carol, for to sing
The birth of this our heavenly King?
Awake the voice! Awake the string!

Dark and dull night, fly hence away,
And give the honor to this day,
That sees December turned to May.

Why does the chilling winter's morn
Smile, like a field beset with corn?
Or smell like a meadow newly-shorn,
Thus, on the sudden? Come and see
The cause, why things thus fragrant be:
'Tis He is born, whose quickening birth
Gives life and luster, public mirth,
To heaven, and the under-earth.

We see him come, and know him ours,
Who, with his sunshine and his showers,
Turns all the patient ground to flowers.
The darling of the world is come,
And fit it is, we find a room
To welcome him. The nobler part
Of all the house here, is the heart.

Which we will give him; and bequeath
This holly, and this ivy wreath,
To do him honour, who's our King,
And Lord of all this revelling.

What sweeter music can we bring,
Than a carol for to sing
The birth of this our heavenly King?

- Music by John Rutter
- Lyrics by Robert Herrick (1591-1674)

Rand Richards Cooper is a contributing editor to Commonweal. His fiction has appeared in Harper’s, GQ, Esquire, the Atlantic, and many other magazines, as well as in Best American Short Stories. His novel, The Last to Go, was produced for television by ABC, and he has been a writer-in-residence at Amherst and Emerson colleges. 

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