Choir and audience united in song, by candlelight

The Harvard University Choir remembers WWI heroes in annual Christmas service

On a bleak Christmas Day in 1914 on a remote battlefield, tensions between German and Allied forces came to a temporary halt in a spontaneous outbreak of peace, as troops on both sides clambered from their trenches to join in singing "Silent Night."

Then, as now, the world's most famous carol has exemplified for millions the peace of Christmas.

On Dec. 15 and Dec. 16 at Harvard's Memorial Church - dedicated to the memory of those fallen during World War I - the Harvard University Choir will again sing "Silent Night" by candlelight as the audience sings along in English or German during the traditional annual Christmas Carol Service.

"It really brings this whole community together," says organist and choirmaster Murray Forbes Somerville of the annual service begun in 1910, the oldest Christmas carol service in the country. "It is also a tradition that particularly summarizes the ministry of this church, because it's a church that's dedicated to peace."

The choir itself, founded before 1834 and famously led in 1862 by Harvard's first organist/choirmaster, John Knowles Paine, enjoys a proud tradition.

It is currently celebrating the first anniversary of its Choral Fellows Program - the first of its kind in the country.

Twelve singers, who audition for a place in its ranks, receive a stipend and free vocal tuition. In exchange they sing at the daily Morning Prayers service - another of Harvard's hallowed traditions, begun in 1636 - and at Sunday services. Securing the place of the choir and its choirmaster is a $1.5 million endowment, announced this fall, from Memorial Church supporters Ann and Graham Gund.

Such a vote of confidence is regarded as an exceptional leap of faith at a time when many academic institutions are cutting back on their support of sacred music.

Unsurprisingly, Harvard's choir has now achieved worldwide recognition as the premier program in college chapel music in the United States.

"The Harvard University Choir is one of the great cultural institutions of greater Boston," says Isaiah Jackson, music director of Pro Arte Chamber Orchestra of Boston.

"Under the inspired leadership of Dr. Somerville, [the choir's] reputation has spread locally and internationally. As an alumnus of the choir, I can only express my enduring admiration and enthusiasm for their remarkable work."

Since Somerville's appointment in 1990, the Harvard choir has expanded its role by touring and recording CDs.

At this year's carol service, in addition to "Silent Night," the program features selections from Handel's Messiah, with the Harvard Baroque Chamber Orchestra, directed by Robert Mealy.

Other selections include music of French composers Maurice Durufle, M.A. Charpentier, and Pierre Villete, with recent works composed or arranged by William Walton, David Willcocks, and Adolphus Hailstork.

"This service has always had a tradition of the widest possible range of seasonal repertoire," says Somerville.

Harvard's Christmas Carol Service, steeped in tradition, but mindful of newer works and future legacies, continues to bring the spiritual warmth of the season to Harvard students, members of the community, and friends. Said one attendee last year, "When the choir comes out and stands in the aisles, it's as though the choir is embracing the entire congregation."

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