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What makes the perfect Christmas carol? We asked choral composing legend John Rutter...

22 December 2022, 17:01 | Updated: 22 December 2022, 17:03

Classic FM

By Classic FM

The power of a great melody, the importance of words, a story of Christmastime – English composer John Rutter talks about the ingredients that seem to make up a great Christmas carol...

For more than 50 years, John Rutter has been composing, arranging and recording some of today’s best-loved Christmas carols.

While still an undergraduate at Clare College, Cambridge, the much-loved English composer had his ‘Shepherd’s Pipe Carol’ published – a carol that still, alongside his ‘Star Carol’, often makes it into the top 30 of The Nation’s Favourite Carol, our annual poll on Classic FM.

And so, one of the questions he inevitably gets asked at this time of the year, is ‘what makes a good Christmas carol?’ (“If I knew the answer to that, I would bottle it and sell it and retire!” he smiles.)

In the video above, Rutter, 77, names just some of the important compositional ingredients that, from his experience, come together in the recipe for a memorable Christmas carol.

From a singable melody to a text that transports you to the heart of the Christmas story, watch his list above…

Read more: The 30 greatest Christmas carols of all time

What makes the perfect Christmas carol? We asked choral composing legend John Rutter...
What makes the perfect Christmas carol? We asked choral composing legend John Rutter... Picture: Classic FM

The much-loved composer spoke earlier the same day on the final episode in our latest series of Moira Stuart Meets…, telling Moira of his musical beginnings, his greatest inspirations, and some of his favourite classical music.

“For me, Bach’s ‘Christians be Joyful’ is the piece of music that says Christmas has begun. It’s festive, it’s jubilant, it’s magnificent, it’s Bach,” Rutter said.

On his compositional process, the composer stressed the importance of routine. “Most composers I know do work to a routine. If you waited ‘til inspiration strikes, you might wait forever, and if you waited until you felt like it you might wait even longer.”

Asked what it is about choral music that makes it so special to him, Rutter replied:

“I think because it stems from the human voice which is an expression of our soul. What’s inside us comes out through the medium of our voice, whether it’s speaking or singing, and so it’s a very natural activity.

“To learn an instrument you first have to acquire quite a bit of technique. You can’t just pick up a violin and play it, but the voice is the instrument you don’t have to pay for. You get it free, and most people actually have a rather pleasant singing voice though they may not realise it.”

For more festive music, listen to our Classic FM Christmas playlist on Global Player.