29 Jun

Notes and Suggestions on a Performance of Rutter's Requiem

By  William Zucker
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I have been covering quite a wide range when writing these Notes and Suggestions essays, but I must say, I never imagined that I would be writing such an essay on this particular work.  Of course, it comes from the fact that I attended a performance of it recently at Carnegie Hall as part of the Mid-America series where it is very often presented, usually conducted by the composer himself.  And subsequently, I listened to a few performances of it on YouTube as I sometimes do when a work makes a sufficient impression on me so that I might want to partake of it further.

Mr. Rutter is a fairly popular, accessible and well known composer as contemporaries generally go.  His style is a very interesting admixture of the pop offerings of recent years as exemplified by Andew Lloyd-Webber, combined with which is a strong influence of Ralph Vaughan Williams.  Thus either of these aspects are to a considerable degree tempered by the other.  Not every listener of serious music (or practitioner for that matter) will necessarily take to it, and one enthusiast of Mahler I met in recent years, hailing from the UK, admitted to me, regarding John Rutter, that "his sweet tooth was not sufficiently developed" to appreciate this music.  To be sure, although my degree of appreciation is considerable, for a fact I do not necessarily like every note that he has put to paper, as will be seen.  Overall, however, what I do admire, is the concerted effort to communicate with a prospective audience, which I feel in the final analysis is what is most important, and what I am speaking about is the music itself as distinct from what its intended purpose or symbolism may be.  I additionally state this because most of what we are likely to hear of Mr. Rutter's music is written for chorus and choral ensembles.

Nowadays, the works of Mr. Rutter one is most likely to hear in performance are (listing them in the order that I acquainted myself with them) the Gloria, Requiem, and Magnificat.  Of these three, the Requiem in my opinion is the work that best retains is essential quality throughout (except for its very opening which I will get to).  The Gloria contains some wonderfully magnificent writing within its two outer movements, expressing for me full vitality and joy of life, but I have always intensely disliked the middle movement as suggesting the very antithesis of life, although the D Flat Major outburst two thirds of the way through does tend to stabilize matters for a short time.  Any symbolic explanation I might be given in regard to this movement would mean nothing to me or cause me to change my impression.  As for the Magnificat, the opening idea and indeed the entire first movement is the best part of the work, at least in my opinion, and we really welcome it when it is reprised at the very end.  Listening to the second movement, I have always felt a need and an urge to find myself back in the first movement for some reason!

I have to mention for the moment the words of my dear late friend David Randolph who I'm sure would subscribe to what I'm bringing out.

Mr. Randolph was a firm believer in the essential absoluteness of music.  That is to say, he endeavored to deal with whatever music he dealt with purely as music, claiming that the only thing that music in essence was capable of expressing was itself.  This was even despite the fact that most of his conducting was involved with choral music.

For my part, I agree in the sense that we have only the music to deal with, that no two people will hear a given work in the same way.  In this particular instance, I respond to the emotions that are suggested by the music but prefer to come up with my own mental images upon hearing the work, as with any other.  In other words, I am not interested or concerned with any religious aspects upon which the work was purportedly based, nor do I subscribe to the notion that the work is constructed in the form of an arch with the fourth movement (which is a very short interlude) as the focal point.  I prefer to hear this work in strictly my own way, my own manner, and in so doing, still feel that I am not in any way violating its essence.

When I mentioned this work to Mr. Randolph, he unaccountably told me that he was somewhat turned off by the rather "popsy" sound of the main idea in the first movement.  As he supposedly did not come from such a background, this statement would be understandable.  Speaking for myself, I have a very generous appreciation of the lighter forms of music, at least of a sort presented in good taste, and I have even written essays on some of these.  It is all according to what one was brought up to appreciate - everyone's experience in this regard is different, but neither better nor worse than the next one's, and one should never feel ashamed of one's predilections or feel compelled to explain them away - we are all entitled to our preferences and to our likes and dislikes.

That said, I will now get on with this work.  At the very outset, there is a passage which I must confess I find myself disliking, in the sense that the apparent atonality has nothing whatever to do with the rest of the work, and I cannot fathom its purpose.  To be explained the symbolic meaning of it in context would tell me nothing.  Nevertheless, it is something to get through until we emerge into some aspect of tonality - first on a second inversion F Major chord, with the bass moving upwards from C to D which eventually changes to a dominant of the prevailing key of the movement, G Major.

The rises and falls in dynamics should obviously be observed to the fullest for the proper emphasis wherever required.  The main idea, wherever it may appear (in the choral parts) must always receive full priority.  About two thirds of the way through it appears in the male voices while the female have some counterpoint against this.  Until the latter take over the idea at the end of the phrase, the former must remain in front.  Similarly, at the very end, as the movement is dying out over a tonic pedal, the imitations must always favor the voices that have the idea in its original position; i.e., on the downbeat.

Mr. Rutter frequently adjusts notation for singers apparently believing that in an alternate form it might be easier to read.  I am always in favor, on the contrary, of notation that directly expresses what is really taking place in the music.  Thus in this case, I would retain the one sharp in the key signature clear through (from the point that we first settle on G) even when the music has several flat accidentals, simply because the prevailing feeling is always on G. Put another way, a signature should always be directly reflective of the tonal sense, not necessarily of the presence or absence of certain accidentals.  The profusion of F Naturals and E Flats is no sufficient reason to drop the one sharp signature.

In the next movement, it should be obvious that the solo cellist's intonation (on a part that appears and reappears intermittently throughout the movement) must be very accurate, considering that the part has numerous accidentals even though falling into recognizable melodic and intervallic patterns.  The choral part will be subdued for the most part, except for any occasional swell in dynamics which are always important to bring out.  The tonal feeling is a quasi C Dorian - not out and out in that mode - but rather making use of that scalar configuration that suggests it.  The inconclusiveness of the whole thing should indicate that this movement is clearly not meant to be performed independently, nor as a matter of fact are any of the others. This quasi C Dorian by its nature will fall directly forward into the next movement, which with its very clear F Major will by nature provide a very direct tonal resolution.

This following movement, coming perfectly in its situation, is a most gorgeously beautiful affair which one should be able to listen to for its own sake and revel in, and not worry about any religious aspects that have been connected to it.  Music often has the power to reach us on its own terms without any further intervening aspect, and we should be able to accept it on that basis without concern about any textual matters.  This is why whenever I hear this movement (which frankly can move me to tears) I try to just listen to it and not to any words as I feel that the music is standing well above any such considerations. This, I'm sure, is what David Randolph would strenuously argue for.

The ending is most affecting and can be broadened for maximum effect. The soprano (who can do a lot for the whole movement's presentation independently of the text) should carefully place her last note, the high A, in such a manner as to be prepared to hold it for a duration, along with the orchestra.  And this final moment should be given with the utmost delicacy of feeling.

I have commented on the following movement in a previous commentary on choral music generally, when I was dealing with both the Mahler Eighth Symphony and the Beethoven C Major Mass.   This next fourth movement is a very short interlude serving almost as a reaction against the explicit sweetness of the preceding.  The eighth notes of the parallel fourths at the opening should be given plenty of emphasis and accentuation, with a degree of declamation.

Previously, I have stated that this movement works admirably in its place within the total scheme but on the contrary is not a good setting of the liturgy - in this case the Sanctus section. The idea of compressing a whole section of liturgy into the space of a minute and a quarter - a Sanctus, Pleni, Hosanna, Benedictus, and Hosanna - simply does not work in that sense, in my humble opinion.  I prefer to distance myself as far as possible from the text in this section so as not to spoil the beautifully musical effect of this coming where it does.

The C Major tonic sections should get plenty of emphasis, with a sharp pull back in dynamics in the portions that go into the submediant and later flat submediant.  The culminating tonic sections, with the scalar tonic to dominant melodic canonic effect, will come out much stronger. And as I want nothing to do with the textual aspect of it, I would omit the up beat eighth notes to the motive as sounding rather affected even though necessitated purely by textual considerations and no other - musically they may be easily dispensed with.

The next movement, again, follows directly from what has just preceded.  The dynamics at the outset are a sharp contrast, being very mysterious and rather lugubrious, somewhat as the first movement began, although in this case the tonal orientation remains very clear as continuing on C.  The chorus enters with a motive which consists of a note with movement up a step and then immediately back, repeating this in sequence downwards.  This is the basis of most of the movement, and only the dynamics need to be observed faithfully. Midway through, the tonal basis changes from C to F and then the dynamics should really pick up as forming the climax of this whole section.

When we finally emerge from this into a passage that is much more transparent and at the same time much more reflective, it should be obvious that the dynamics need to be pulled back, with a clear diminuendo as we come into this.  The flute solo should be clearly heard and its prominence can do a lot for this passage. And the chorus should be quite subdued in its execution of this moment.  I have mentioned the influence of Vaughan Williams regarding Mr. Rutter's work; one may note that in this passage that influence is quite pronounced, with in some measures actual quotations.

This ultimately dies out on an E Major chord as mediant of the key, with the definite intent of picking up from this point with the outset of the next movement.  Mr. Rutter clearly wants the latter to follow segue, and most performances respect his wish, which to me seems quite legitimate.  In fact, it is entirely possible to directly join the movements together by immediately starting the descending motive that begins the sixth movement directly upon the E Major chord of the preceding having been quitted.  I would not consider to this end an overlap between the two and in fact never favor such devices. But on the other hand I have heard a performance or two in which there was a movement pause between the two sections which for me would be utterly perverse in this situation.

The movement that we now enter, with its prevailing oboe solo, should be taken in a very direct and unassuming manner.  Its simple beauty almost rivals that of the third movement previously discussed.  We learn that it was independently conceived from the remainder of the work but it should be no more independently performed than would be the case with any of the other movements - context is the most important factor in that regard.

There are some really touching moments, and the most should be made of them in performance, and noted by a listener aside from any textual considerations.  At the point where we return to the opening material about midway through, a slight ritard to fall into it would be entirely appropriate.

The harmonies are altogether traditional, but as is often the case, particularly at cadences, an out and out dominant seventh is always assiduously avoided.  Toward the end, it would almost appear that conventional harmonies will prevail, but the final cadences remain plagal.

Again, the outset of the final movement comes as a direct reaction to the preceding; the outset being dark and mysterious, although the feeling of E Flat Major comes fairly early, at first suggested rather indirectly.  The soprano is given one more solo, and once again, needs to place her last note, a high B Flat, with extreme care - it should not be belted out by any means.  All dynamics, I need hardly reiterate - need to be very diligently observed; there is a swell midway within this section and a pull back to the point where it ends.

In the vast majority of performances I have observed, the soprano soloist remains standing after completing her contribution, and does not reseat herself until the forgoing has finally passed into the next and concluding G Major section in 3/4.  It is a very fine stage direction, and really should be observed as it is directly responsive to the music, and thus visually very satisfying. It may well be Mr. Rutter's own direction, but in any event, it would be wrong for the soprano to immediately plop down upon completing her solo work.

With the ensuing section, much of it will speak for itself, much of it quite beautiful, but unfortunately I have to make two comments regarding certain features which often bother me when I listen to this work.

One is the use of an enharmonic circle, occurring only once in this situation throughout this work, but the Magnificat is replete with this device.  The fact that these always seem to proceed sharpwards, or against the natural direction of tonal movement creates for me an unsettling effect (has the composer ever considered writing some of these to proceed flatwards?).  As thus evidenced in the Magnificat, it could almost be pointed out as a mannerism.  This observation might be considered petty by some, but I am describing the effect that this has on me.

The other point would be the moment of reprise of the main material of the first movement.  There is a solo oboe line that leaps up an octave and overlaps with the reprisal presentation at the first moment.  I'm sure that there must be a symbolic explanation for it, which would normally not interest me, but for me this presents itself as a rough edge which a conductor somehow has to deal with, and not simply leave as it appears; perhaps a rebalancing, perhaps a dropping of the oboe line down an octave so that it will not stick out where not intended, perhaps to eliminate it altogether - I could not say at this point, but it is clearly as I see it something that must be given some attention, a detail that would be lost on most audience members but still a bit jarring to very sensitive ears.

The formal reprise now proceeds much like it did in the first movement, moving directly to the closing passage almost exactly as we had it before, only on this occasion more of a broadening might be appropriate as it is the very end of the work.

I sincerely hope that my comments here have been of some help.  I always endeavor to write an essay of this type on a work that I feel merits this type of attention and careful study.  As usual, I would welcome all comments.

William Zucker.

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Geoff Leonard was born in Bristol. He spent much of his working career in banking but became an independent record producer in the early nineties, specialising in the works of John Barry and British TV theme compilations.
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