John Rutter's choral music always tries to maintain a careful balance, a balance between music rooted in traditional practices and more progressive forms, as well as a balance between a solid tonal harmonic foundation and more daring use of dissonant tones from the vocabulary of the 20th century. A mature composition such as his Cantate Domino (fifth movement of his Psalmfest cycle) for unaccompanied eight-voiced choir may mingle direct musical allusions that literally span a thousand years of musical history, with appropriate harmonic juxtapositions from a similar span, and yet not lose its musical coherence. Rutter mingles Latin and English text; Old Testament Psalm and Christian hymn; Gregorian chant, Romantic harmony, and painfully dissonant language. The end result is an anthem of profound breadth and surprisingly cogent direction despite the disparities in his musical sources.
The complete anthem is bound by refrain-like iterations of the Latin Cantate Domino canticum novum, the opening verse of the 96th Psalm. The divided-choir textures proceed into a harmonically rich exposition of the English Psalm's aspirant text. The opening "O sing unto the Lord" erupts both melodically and harmonically, and its energy almost demands a following refrain to contain it. As the voices sing the Psalmist's exhortations to "declare His honor among the heathen," Rutter allows the musical outpouring to somewhat subside, but he does so with a subtle melodic allusion to the setting of the same text by his Anglican predecessor Henry Purcell. The following verses include several different dissonant shadings of specific words, with different affects: a rather bright-sounding dissonance on "His wonders," a nebulous one to evoke "He is to be feared," and a craggy and painful harmonic clash to reinforce that the gods of the heathen are "idols." The exhortation "Ascribe to the Lord the honour due his name" returns to the "O sing" melody, though a calmer and more reverent passage immediately follows as we are called to "worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness." A plodding but irrevocable progression indicates "He cometh to judge the earth."
Rutter does not, however, end with that potentially ruinous conclusion. He inserts a musical trope of the Veni Creator Spiritus, an ancient hymn (once ascribed to Charlemagne) that asks for the Creator Spirit to renew the minds and hearts of all God's people with divine grace. Rutter chooses a musical melange for this Latin text, directly quoting each line of the original chant melody, but ornamenting each with a "halo" of modern harmony at the end.