The wise teacher in the biblical book of Ecclesiastes penned a famous set of dichotomies. "To every thing there is a season," he wrote, both good and bad have their place. There is "a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to uproot." The author continues through 14 balanced pairs of events in a human life, in relations between humans, and in relations between humans and the world; every event has its appointed time and is balanced by a different event that also has its time. Even the final message of the passage has eluded scholars; is it resignation that even evil events have irrevocable occurrence, or is it hope that evil is always paired with good in God's own time? John Rutter chose this very text of equivocal nature for a choral and orchestral setting, intending it as the final movement of a larger work. Though the multimovement piece never coalesced, his To everything there is a season is sung on its own merits as an extended anthem.
Rutter's piece, which sets his own manipulation of the textual structure of Ecclesiastes 3:1-8, embodies in its musical substance the dualities inherent in the biblical text. The extended orchestral opening tends to be unsettled and angst-ridden, but concludes with a peaceful resolution. The voices enter in warm soli textures, embodying the text's duality in an alternation between male and female voices that will continue through much of the piece. After a passage that Rutter sets up as a kind of refrain to return at the end, he proceeds into a musical exposition of the central set of paired events, setting each element of a pair somehow in obvious musical complement to the other. The first pair offers a very overt example: "a time to kill" is sung by the men in a somewhat dissonant and minor-tinged harmony, followed by the women singing "a time to heal" in major with an uplifting melody. Throughout the list of times, he faithfully reflects the utter parallellism of the poem. He balances the opening refrain by manipulating the text to frame the final two dualisms into a recapitulation. First, the times to love and to hate come with predictably opposite harmonic expressions (and echoes of kill/heal above); finally, time of war/time of peace recall the orchestral opening and its resolution. By repeating peace nine times, Rutter declares his belief that war and peace are the most important dichotomy of them all.