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ANDREA SEABROOK, host:

This is something a little unusual. A new Christmas carol, "Rejoice And Be Merry" by the British composer John Rutter.

(Soundbite of carol "Rejoice and Be Merry")

THE CAMBRIDGE SINGERS: (Singing) Rejoice and be merry in songs and in mirth, Oh praise our redeemer, all mortals on earth, For this is the birthday of Jesus our king, Who brought us salvation, his praises we'll sing.

SEABROOK: Lots of new holiday music is written every year, but very few actual Christmas carols. John Rutter is one of the few who dares do this. The pre-eminent carol director and composer joins me now from the BBC studios in Cambridgeshire, England. Hello there.

Dr. JOHN RUTTER (English Composer; Choral Conductor; Record Producer): Hello.

SEABROOK: It's hard for us just listening to it here on the radio to understand the lyrics. Could you just tell us a little bit of what it says?

Dr. RUTTER: Well, as a matter of fact, I didn't write them. I sometimes do write my own Christmas texts, but this particular one comes from the 18th century. It's an English text, and it just says, "Rejoice and be merry in songs and in mirth. Oh praise our redeemer, all mortals on earth, for this is the birthday of Jesus our king, who brought us salvation, his praises we'll sing."

(Soundbite of carol "Rejoice and Be Merry")

THE CAMBRIDGE SINGERS: (Singing) Likewise a bright star in the sky did appear, Which led the wise men from the east to draw near, They found the Messiah, sweet Jesus our king, Who brought us salvation, his praises we'll sing.

SEABROOK: Sir, what is a Christmas carol? We better nail that down first, huh?

Dr. RUTTER: It's a piece of choral music, preferably with a tune of some kind, that is appropriate at the holiday season. And, of course, there are not just Christmas carols because there are carols for other seasons of the year. There are spring carols. There are wassail carols which are really all about collecting money and drinking. And so, they don't have to be religious, and they don't have to be associated with Christmas, but the great majority of them probably are.

(Soundbite of carol "Rejoice and Be Merry")

THE CAMBRIDGE SINGERS: (Singing) Rejoice.

SEABROOK: John Rutter, I read somewhere that you told another news organization that you aren't particularly a religious guy.

Dr. RUTTER: Well, I think what I meant by that really is that I'm somebody who thinks of himself as a friend and supporter and fellow traveler for most world faiths in that, as an artist, I'm always searching for something that's got some vision, something that's got some meaning. And when I come to find texts, of course a lot of the finest texts are religious texts. I mean, any musician who's interested in choral music has to be interested in faith because so much choral music is religious. But I wouldn't want to limit it to one.

SEABROOK: So does that mean, for example, that you would count among the Christmas carols, would you count something like "Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer" or something?

Dr. RUTTER: Oh, sure. Why not? It's a Christmas song rather than a carol, isn't it? The word carol originally means a ring, a ring o' roses dance, you know, a round dance where you all kind of dance around in a ring. And so, I think with the idea of carol, there goes the idea of a dance. And it is an old form. And, of course, Christmas songs like "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," if you think about it, it's a jolly song, but you probably wouldn't want to dance around in a ring when you listen to it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. RUTTER: I mean some other carols, of course, are like lullabies. But I think they usually do have that sense of dance or of lullaby.

SEABROOK: Well, let's listen to another one of your carols. This one is called "Ave Maria" not the "Ave Maria" but...

(Soundbite of laughter)

SEABROOK: A new "Ave Maria."

Dr. RUTTER: A new "Ave Maria."

(Soundbite of carol "Ave Maria")

SEABROOK: I wonder if you dream that half a century or a century from now, boys and girls will go to door to door singing a John Rutter carol.

Dr. RUTTER: Well, it's getting on for half a century since I wrote my first carols - the "Shepherd's Pipe Carol" and the "Star Carol" and "The Nativity Carol" - and I certainly didn't think anybody would be singing them now, but they've been translated into all kinds of languages. I've heard the "Shepherd's Pipe Carol" sung in Tibetan. And I suppose we can never tell whenever we write any piece of music how long it's going to last or whether it will touch people's hearts, whether it will endure. That's not in our power to know. And so whatever I'm writing today, I don't know if it's going to still be performed in 50 years' time. I'll be happy if it is, but I won't be around to see it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SEABROOK: But do you imagine a little - a choir like your own singing?

Dr. RUTTER: Well, I'd like to think that new music is being written the whole time and that we pretty much move on. And, OK, we retain the best of the music of the past. But what I would like to think is that there's a new John Rutter out there writing lots of lovely new carols and that mine will have served their day and served their time. And they'll quietly be there in the Library of Congress, maybe if you search. But I won't mind a bit if they've been forgotten.

SEABROOK: Do you have a favorite of the traditional carols?

Dr. RUTTER: Oh, I've got so many. I mean, gosh, how long have you got? I suppose if I had to single out one - "In Dulci Jubilo," which is - it's often sung to the words "Good Christian Men Rejoice." It's a carol dating right back to the 15th century. And the legend goes it was sung by the angels on Christmas Eve and written down by a monk called Heinrich Suso. And it's thanks to this miraculous visitation that we actually know how this piece goes. And for me, if ever there was a carol that might have been sung by the angels, that's it.

But the truth is I really love most Christmas carols. They all have this extraordinary ability to just awaken happy memories, you know, because, of course, particularly if you did sing in a choir when you were young and later conduct a choir, somehow hearing the music of Christmas brings back the magic and the mood of Christmas. And for me, it just never seems to grow stale. I look forward to Christmas hand on heart every year. It's my favorite time of year.

SEABROOK: Could you sing us a little bit of "In Dulci Jubilo"?

Dr. RUTTER: It goes...

(Soundbite of carol "In Dulci Jubilo")

Dr. RUTTER: (Singing) In dulci jubilo, Now sing with hearts aglow. Our heart's joy reclineth in praesepio.

Dr. RUTTER: Well, there you are. I think that is more than enough.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. RUTTER: That is my radio debut as a vocalist, and I don't think it's going to be followed up on somehow.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SEABROOK: A modest man, composer John Rutter.

Dr. RUTTER: Well, no, I had a nice voice when I was a boy soprano, but unfortunately it changed and other things happened instead, but - and composition and conducting took over. But my singing days are long over.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SEABROOK: Composer John Rutter, his new CD is called "A Christmas Festival." He recorded it with the Cambridge Singers, the Farnham Youth Orchestra, and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Thank you very much, sir.

Dr. RUTTER: It's been my pleasure.

SEABROOK: And Merry Christmas.

Dr. RUTTER: Indeed, and to you.

(Soundbite of carol "In Dulci Jubilo")

Unidentified Choir: O Jesu parvule. I yearn for thee alway. Hear me, I beseech, Thee, O puer optime, My prayer let it reach thee, O Princeps gloriae. Trahe me post te. Trahe me post te.

SEABROOK: Our parting words tonight from Paul McCartney. He sang in a choir of four. He said, "I love to hear a choir. I love the humanity, to see the faces of real people devoting themselves to a piece of music. I like the teamwork. It makes me feel optimistic about the human race when I see them cooperating like that."

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