John Rutter opens his "Angels' Carol" with a solo harpist performing arpeggios to set the stage for the entry of the children's choir. From the very outset, thus, he is setting this simple carol by allusion in a lengthy tradition of Christian classical music. The harp itself had long been a Medieval attribute of King David the Psalmist, and it had later achieved a lengthy tradition of belief that the harp was the instrument of choice of angels and the blessed spirits who came to heaven with them. Rutter's fellow Briton had famously paired the harp with children's choir in Benjamin Britten's challenging, rich, and deeply historical Christmas cantata A Ceremony of Carols. Furthermore, Rutter's specific choice of harp melodies here carries vague but powerful echoes of Franz Schubert's Ave Maria, and the crystalline opening of J.S. Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier. All this weight of musical history in the introduction to a children's song!
Rutter's Angels' Carol itself, after its weighty allusions, is a relatively unassuming little piece of music for children to sing at Christmastime. The simple text (written by the composer himself) evokes simple and traditional images of the good news sung by the angelic choirs upon the birth of Jesus. The angel voices were accompanied, we are told, by a star that shined as a sign that "Christ is here"; Rutter favors this pronouncement with a suddenly less diatonic cadence, which in subsequent verses highlights the concepts of "radiance and light" and "purity and love." The children's voices briefly break into third-based harmony when the text directly quotes the Latin version of the angels' song -- Gloria in excelsis Deo -- that they sing twice in each verse. In the second verse, the natural imagery compared to the incarnation (winter's stillness, gentle snowfall, sun at morning) finds a musical home in Rutter's gentle two-part harmonies. There is an almost musically violent shift upwards in harmony by the harp between this verse and the last, but it only serves to transpose the melody up for the final verse, which Rutter sets to a new harmony (corresponding to the "new light to a world of darkness" with which the text begins), and some canonic counterpoint (perhaps signalling the "waiting nations" that receive the "new hope" of Christmas). The very final line, reminding us of the central message of the angels that "Christ is born," repeats for emphasis.