A Voice from Heaven: Program Notes

Program notes by Michael Driscoll

John Rutter (b. 1945)

English composer, conductor, and editor John Rutter was born in London, England, in 1945 and began his musical education as a chorister at Highgate School. He later attended Clare College in Cambridge, England, where he published his first compositions and conducted his first recording. He returned to Clare College in 1975 as director of music, leaving in 1979 in order to devote more time to composition. In 1981 Rutter formed The Cambridge Singers, a professional, mixed-voice choral group, for the express purpose of making recordings, including recordings of many of Rutter’s own works. Today Rutter divides his time between conducting ensembles around the world and composing.

Rutter’s compositions include both large- and small-scale choral works, orchestral and instrumental pieces, a piano concerto, two children’s operas, music for television, and specialist writing for such groups as the Philip Jones Brass Ensemble and the King’s Singers.


John Rutter’s Requiem, composed in 1985, is one of the most beloved choral works of the twentieth century. The complete work was first performed on October 13, 1985 at Lover’s Lane United Methodist Church in Dallas, Texas. Unlike much of Rutter’s work up to that point, this work was not the result of a commission; Rutter composed the Requiem during a period of personal bereavement following the death of his father the previous year. Indeed, the inscription at the top of the score bears the initials of Rutter’s father.

Following the precedent established by Brahms and Fauré, among others, Rutter’s Requiem is not strictly a setting of the Requiem Mass of the Catholic liturgy. Instead, Rutter combined texts from both the Latin Requiem Mass and the English texts to create a personal meditation on the themes of life and death. Rutter writes, “The English texts consist of two psalms used at funerals (Psalms 130 and 23) together with some of the Burial Sentences from the 1662 Book of Common Prayer. The result is a concert work rather than a liturgical Requiem, though it has sometimes been used liturgically; in a more general sense, it feels at home, I hope, in church.”[1]

Rutter describes the seven-movement structure of the work as arch-like:

The first and last movements are prayers to God the Father (with texts according to the Missa pro defunctis); movements 2 and 6 are psalm settings, both with instrumental obbligatos; movements 3 and 5 are personal prayers to Christ; and the central Sanctus, the keystone of the arch, is celebratory and affirmative, using bells as is traditional at this point in a mass. Gregorian chant (a thread running through much of my work) is found at a number of points in Requiem, most overtly in the Agnus Dei, where fragments of the Easter Sequence, Victimae paschali laudes, are played on the flute before and during the words “I am the resurrection and the life.” In the final Lux aeterna, the opening few notes to the theme first sung by the sopranos are taken from the chant associated with that text.[2]

The accompaniment to the Requiem is found in three different versions: organ alone, organ plus six instruments, and medium-sized orchestra. Of the three versions, the accompaniment for medium-sized orchestra, performed by Andover Choral Society today, is the least often performed, likely because of the greater cost of performing this version. The additional layers of orchestral colors and timbres, however, offer even greater depth and richness to the work.

Felix Mendelssohn (1809–1847)

Felix Mendelssohn was in born in Hamburg in 1809 to a wealthy intellectual family. A child prodigy, Mendelssohn played his first piano recital at age nine and composed his first piece at age 11. At age ten he began taking composition lessons with Carl Friedrich Zelter, who introduced him to the works of Bach and Handel. At age 20 he conducted (from memory!) a centenary revival of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion in a performance that is often credited with launching a renewed interest in Bach’s music in the nineteenth century. In addition to his prodigious compositional activity, Mendelssohn gave piano recitals and conducted a number of orchestras, becoming one of the foremost conductors of the 1830s and 1840s. In 1835 the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra appointed him conductor – a position that he maintained until his death. His health began deteriorating when he was in his mid-thirties. In October 1847 he had a serious of strokes and died on November 4, 1847 at the age of 38.

A prolific composer, Mendelssohn wrote an extraordinary amount of music in his brief life. Today his most well-known sacred work is his oratorio, Elijah, but he completed over 50 sacred compositions. In addition to his instrumental works, his choral output includes two completed oratorios, eight secular cantatas, 26 sacred cantatas and other large sacred works, 40 small sacred pieces, and 60 secular part songs.

Mendelssohn admired the works of Bach, Handel, Haydn, and Mozart. He loved counterpoint and studied Bach’s music closely. Mendelssohn biographer R. Larry Todd writes, “In Handel’s oratorios Mendelssohn found a rich variety of choral techniques…[and] from the Viennese Classical style he inherited a preference for clearly balanced themes with symmetrical phrase structures.”[3] Despite his admiration for older musical styles and their clear influence on his work, Mendelssohn was also influenced by the Romantic music aesthetic and admired the works of Beethoven and Weber, his Romantic era contemporaries.

Mendelssohn set a number of psalm texts over the course of his career, including a cappella psalm settings as well as five large-scale orchestral psalm settings. Of Mendelssohn’s setting of Psalm 42, composer Robert Schumann noted in 1837 that it was “…the highest pinnacle ever reached by Mendelssohn the church composer or, indeed, by more recent church music altogether.”[4] Mendelssohn himself noted that Psalm 42 was “by far my best sacred composition.”

Verleih’ uns Frieden

Mendelssohn composed Verleih’ uns Frieden on February 10, 1831 during a five-month stay in Rome, part of an extended tour of Italy. Martin Luther’s paraphrase of the Latin hymn Da pacem Domine (Grant us peace, Lord), combined with Mendelssohn’s hymn-like melody, is sung three times: first by the male voices alone, then by the female voices with the male voices in counterpoint, and finally as a four-part hymn texture. The work is scored for two flutes, two clarinets, two bassoons, strings, and organ. Mendelssohn begins with just the low-pitched instruments in the first verse, adds the flutes and clarinets in the second verse, and reserves the violins for the final verse before gradually and gently returning to the cello motives of the opening bars. 

Der 42. Psalm (Wie der Hirsch schreit), Op. 42

Mendelssohn married Cécile Jeanrenaud on 28 March 1837 and began sketching Der 42. Psalm in April 1837 while on his honeymoon near Freiburg, Germany. Despite the sacred text, Der 42. Psalm was intended for performance in a concert hall rather than in a house of worship. The first performance of Der 42. Psalm took place on New Year’s day of 1838 at a subscription series concert at the Gewandhaus in Leipzig. Moving the work to the concert hall freed Mendelssohn from the constraints on length, structure, and instrumentation that likely would have been placed upon the work had it been written for performance in a house of worship.

Mendelssohn wrote the seven-movement Der 42.Psalm for pairs of flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, horns, and trumpets; three trombones; timpani; strings; and organ. The structure of the work features movements for full chorus alternating with movements for soloists and closely resembles the structure of the Bach cantatas which Mendelssohn studied and so greatly admired.

The first movement sets the first verse of Psalm 42: “Wie der Hirsch schreit nach frischem Wasser, so schreit meine Seele, Gott, zu dir.” (As the deer panteth after the water brooks, so panteth my soul after thee, O God.) The work opens with an atmospheric instrumental introduction in 6/4 meter, which, combined with an off-beat rhythmic figure in the strings, represents the panting deer. The gradual addition of higher-pitched instruments along with many suspensions brilliantly portrays the sense of longing implied by the text. The choral writing is characterized long melodic lines in polyphony interspersed with sections of homophony.

In a nod to the arias of Bach, the second movement features a striking aria for soprano solo, oboe solo, and strings. A short soprano recitative and another soprano aria follows. This second soprano aria concludes with the soprano soloist joined by a three-part chorus of female voices. The fourth movement, for chorus and full orchestra, opens with the men singing in unison. The motive of “Harre auf Gott” (Hope thou in God) closely resembles the “Baal” chorus motive in Elijah, which Mendelssohn composed nine years later in 1846. A more extended soprano recitative follows, this time with flutes added to accompanying strings.

The sixth movement features somewhat unusual vocal scoring for soprano solo and four-part male quartet. The male quartet, written in a predominantly homophonic texture, sings the eighth verse of Psalm 42 and alternates with the soprano solo, who sings the ninth verse. The soprano and male quartet join toward the end of the movement, yet they each still sing their separate psalm verses.

The text of the eleventh verse of Psalm 42 (Was betrübst du dich, meine Seele) is nearly identical to the text of verse five, which was set in the fourth movement. As might be expected, Mendelssohn brings back much of the musical material from the fourth movement, including the recognizable “Harre auf Gott” motive. However, rather than repeat the music exactly, Mendelssohn varies and develops his musical ideas from the fourth movement. Mendelssohn adds a type of doxology text to the psalm (“Preis sei dem Herrn, dem Gott Israels, von nun an bis in Ewigkeit!” (Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, now and for all time!), set to a jubilant concluding fugue.

Mack Wilberg (b. 1955)

Mack Wilberg is a composer, arranger, conductor, and choral clinician. He has been the music director of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir since 2008. Prior to his current appointment, he was a professor of music at Brigham Young University (BYU), where he directed the Men’s Chorus and Concert Choir. At BYU he was a member of the American Piano Quartet, which toured throughout the world and commissioned many original works. Wilberg attended BYU and earned a bachelor’s degree in music in 1979, concentrating on piano and composition. He then earned a master’s degree and a PhD in music from the Thornton School of Music at the University of Southern California.

Wilberg’s compositions and arrangements have been performed and recorded by choral organizations throughout the world. He has written many compositions for the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, and his works have been performed by such artists as Renée Fleming, Frederica von Stade, Bryn Terfel, the King’s Singers, Audra McDonald, David Archuleta, Natalie Cole, Brian Stokes Mitchell and narrators Walter Cronkite and Claire Bloom. In 2006, Wilberg was awarded the Raymond W. Brock Memorial Commission by the American Choral Directors Association. 

Peace Like a River

Andover Choral Society first performed Mack Wilberg’s uplifting arrangement of the African-American spiritual, Peace Like a River, in May 2017. The simplicity of the melody, the earnestness and yearning of the text, combined with Wilberg’s orchestration and has made this piece a favorite of members of the choir.

[1] John Rutter, liner notes to Requiem, Stephen Cleobury and King’s College Choir, EMI, CDC 5 56605 2, CD, 1998.

[2] Ibid

[3] R. Larry Todd. “Mendelssohn, Felix.” Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press. Web. December 21, 2013. <http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com.ezproxy.bu.edu/subscriber/article/grove/music/51795pg14>.

[4] Robert Schumann, Konrad Wolff, and Paul Rosenfeld. On Music and Musicians, [New York: Pantheon, 1946], 206.