Carl Rütti composes the 2014 commissioned carol

Carl Rutti

The composer of this year's commissioned carol is Carl Rütti, who has set to music the medieval hymn De Virgine Maria.

Rütti was brought up in Zug in Switzerland and studied at the Zurich Conservatoire and then in London. He mostly composes religious choral pieces, and has worked closely with choirs like The Bach Choir, Cambridge Voices, the BBC Symphony Chorus and the English Baroque Choir.

His music is influenced by the English choral tradition as well as jazz and blues, and one of his carols (I wonder as I wander) has already been sung at A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols.

For more on commissioned carols see the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols page.

Rütti on the commissioned carol

It has always been an amazing honour for any composer to be asked by the Choir of King’s College Chapel Cambridge to write the new Carol for ‘A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols’. And it is even more an honour and a challenge for me as a Swiss composer living far away from the English carol tradition.

What is a carol actually? It sounds so simple. But isn’t it the extreme blend of expressing the most mysterious fact of our religion in the simplicity of a children’s song? It is a real balancing act to do justice to both. And writing for King’s College Choir and the great organ of King’s College chapel is more than a challenge, it is heaven. In our German language we use the same word for English and angelic: englisch.

For me English choral singing is unique in the world, simply englisch.

As lyrics for this miniature work of about three minutes I chose a medieval hymn to the Virgin Mary in Latin. It derives from the 12th century, the period of Minnesang in Germany, of Trouvères in France, of Saint Francis in Italy, who always felt as a troubadour. The hymn praises the Virgin Mary as a noble court lady.

I gave the first troubadour part to a boy who will only be accompanied by a tambourine rhythm played by a soft organ stop. The second verse then will be sung by a male solo voice carried by treble voice chords.

Stephen Cleobury and I agreed that our carol should have a refrain. The music of this refrain is very short (only eight bars long) and happy, but its words are extremely heavy: ‘Verbum caro factum est’ (‘ the Word was made flesh’) and still remain mysterious even after the fifth return of the refrain. These famous words of the prologue of St. John’s gospel ‘Verbum caro factum est’ are followed in the gospel by the words ‘et habitavit in nobis’ (‘and dwelt among us’); yet in the carol the singers turn again softly to the Virgin Mary, the noble court lady, with the words ‘de Virgine Maria’ (‘through Virgin Mary’), with always the same tune.

In order to illustrate this ‘Verbum caro factum est’ we find strong pictures in the hymn as in verse three ‘Stella Solem protulit’ (‘A Star brings forth the Sun’) which gives choir and organ the opportunity for a brilliant sound, and in verse four ‘Fons de suo rivulo’ (‘a Source from its own river’) which lets crispy organ stops and treble voices rejoin into a blending water sound.

For the final verse, the doxology to the Holy Trinity, I first felt like writing a splendid loud ending; but then I remembered the beginning of this carol with the boy singing in front of the Virgin Mary. So I decided to write a finale with a soft choir sound.

In the very last three bars of the carol you will hear a little bird up in the organ singing - a short tribute to a wonderful soprano of my choir Cambridge Voices who died at the very time when I finished this carol.

17 December 2014