John Rutter Writes Amazing Christmas Music. Here Are 5 Pieces To Start With

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<p>(Photo: Nick Rutter)</p>
<p>Composer John Rutter</p>
Photo: John Rutter
Composer John Rutter

​John Rutter is one of the world's most popular choral composers, and his Christmas music helped make him famous. His settings of traditional carols and his original Christmas compositions have become familiar friends during the holidays.

The British composer remembers an annual Christmas concert in high school as one of his formative musical experiences.

“I always loved that event,” he tells host David Rutherford in an exclusive interview for CPR Classical’s holiday special "A John Rutter Christmas." “It kind of planted in me the music, the message and the magic of music.”

Rutter joined the ranks of composers who write Christmas music while still in school. Over the years, he says, Christmas music remained part of his musical DNA.

“Christmas is still very dear in my heart,” Rutter says. “It’s kind of the world as we all wish it could be, for just those precious few days each year. A time of stillness and yet of rejoicing. So Christmas will always be very special in my heart and it’s always been celebrated in music.”

Click the audio link above to hear more from Rutter on the power of Christmas music, and scroll down to see when you can hear "A John Rutter Christmas" on CPR Classical.

If you’re new to Rutter’s unforgettable Christmas compositions, here are five performances that serve as an excellent introduction to a composer who has created exceptional Christmas music over the past 50 years.


This piece debuted in 1990 as part of a concert series in which choirs from all over North American sing together at Carnegie Hall. Rutter loved the celebratory mood of the concert series, and felt a setting of Magnificat -- or “Song of Mary” from the book of Luke -- would reflect that excitement. Rutter conducted the premiere. Watch the first movement:

What Sweeter Music

Most Americans first heard this piece in a moving commercial from the '90s that espoused the safety of Volvo cars. But it was written for the 1987 Christmas Eve “Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols” service at King’s College, Cambridge. It’s gone on to be one of the most cherished modern Christmas carols. Watch a King's College performance from 2008:

Star Carol

Rutter composed this music for the Bach Choir, which premiered it in 1974 during one of its hugely popular Christmas concerts at Royal Albert Hall. Rutter was charged to write something that could be sung by children as well. Listen to the kids’ voices when they sing the refrain, “See his star shining bright.”

Candlelight Carol

This piece grew out of an unusual request when Rutter made a visit to Pittsburgh. A man from a small Catholic church approached the composer and asked him to write a simple carol for the congregation. The man said the small choir needed something relatively easy to sing and mentioned that they love the Virgin Mary. Rutter responded with this piece. He taps into the wonder and mystery of a new baby and the intense love a mother feels for her child.Watch the Mormon Tabernacle Choir perform the piece:

Shepherd’s Pipe Carol

This is one of Rutter’s earliest Christmas carols, written while he was still in high school. His idea for the piece came from a Pablo Picasso painting of a shepherd boy. Rutter imagined the boy playing a pipe and chasing after the older shepherds on their way to Bethlehem.

Hear More Christmas Music From John Rutter

Hear more of our exclusive interview with Rutter, and more of his stunning holiday music, as part of our special program “A John Rutter Christmas”:

  • Wednesday, Dec. 6 at 7 p.m.
  • Sunday, Dec. 10 at 6 a.m.
  • Thursday, Dec. 14 at 11 a.m.
  • Thursday, Dec. 21 at 2 p.m.
  • Sunday, Dec. 24 at 3 p.m.

For more Christmas music, view CPR Classical's complete holiday schedule.