Dost Thou Remember…?

As audiences settle in for Staples High School’s Candlelight Concert later this month — and tickets are going fast! — they’ll become part of a 75-year tradition.

The Candlelight Concert is timeless. This shot, from 2011, was taken by Lynn U. Miller -- a Staples choir member in the early 1970s.

The Candlelight Concert is timeless. This shot, from 2011, was taken by Lynn U. Miller — a Staples choir member in the early 1970s.

Wonderful music, exceptional performances, the warmth of the holidays — all make “Candlelight” one of Westport’s premier events.

Among the concert’s most anticipated moments is the processional. Holding candles and moving solemnly, the choir sings a lovely, majestic carol.

“Sing We Noel” has become Staples’ own special song. You won’t hear it on the radio, or in church. The sheet music is out of print. It’s so obscure, you can’t even Google it. (The links that come up are not to the “real” one.)

“Sing We Noel” is such a tradition, it must have been sung at the 1st-ever concert — then called “Christmas Candlelight” — in 1940. Right?

Wrong.

John Ohanian

John Ohanian

The background of this majestic melody could have been lost forever. But last March, “06880” reader Linda Frazer emailed Donald Freeman. A resident of Westport for more than 30 years, and a 1967 graduate of Northfield School in Massachusetts, she had a question for him. Freeman is the stepson of John Ohanian, Staples’ music director who organized that inaugural Candlelight concert.

Frazer said that when she was at Northfield, “Sing We Noel” was the processional at their annual Christmas vespers concert. She checked with the archivist at what is now called Northfield Mount Hermon School. He traced the first mention of it back to 1916 (when it was listed as “Dost Thou Remember,” the opening words).

Frazer noted too that Freeman had attended Mount Hermon in the 1950s. (He used the surname Ohanian when he was at Bedford Elementary School. Entering Bedford Junior High, he changed back to his birth name. After 8th grade, he left Westport for boarding school.)

Believing “Sing We Noel” to have been part of Candlelight since 1940, Frazer asked Freeman if he had any older relatives who attended Northfield, and might have inspired Ohanian to bring the song to Staples.

Don FreemanFrazer was right — sort of. It came from the private school — but not when she thought.

Freeman said that Ohanian first heard “Sing We Noel” when he and his wife — who died in September 2014, at 101 — attended a Christmas vespers concert. Ohanian introduced it the next year. Freeman thought that might have been 1955.

He was exactly right. I know, because I’ve been privileged — in the days before the 75th anniversary concert — to listen to early recordings. The first time it appears on a record was 1955.

The song sounded as beautiful then as it does now. And though it took 15 years for Ohanian to add “Sing We Noel” to the program, it’s impressive to think that for 60 years, Staples and Northfield share a song that has been lost everywhere else in the world.

BONUS FUN FACT: The rousing “Hallelujah Chorus” that concludes Candlelight was not part of the original program either. Ohanian introduced Handel’s very well-known oratorio in 1954 — the year before he brought “Sing We Noel” here.

Candlelight logo

 

26 responses to “Dost Thou Remember…?

  1. I spent the summer after graduation in London. One day I was walking down Portebello road and I heard a voice say… Staples, Right? I turned and it was Mr. Ohanian… I didn’t even take music, he said I know but I have seen you in the Art Department halls. Since then I have always wished I had taken music, what a guy!

  2. I truly miss signing at these holiday events, play the music every christmas

  3. I LOVE Mr. Ohanion. Played in orchestra with him for a few years and summer orchestra. He taught me a lot about music and how to infuse one’s soul into playing music. He was a brilliant teacher. Loved the Staples Candlelight concert as a kid.

  4. Karen Rasmussen

    Dan, where did you have the opportunity to listen to the older concerts? Boy would that make for a special reunion, if former concert students could gather together to hear them!

    • I heard the concerts because the Staples music department is preparing a special 4-CD recording of past performances, as part of the 75th anniversary celebration this year. They’ll be available at the special gala before the Saturday, December 19 concert. They’re also at the Candlelight “store” on this website, which offers information on gala and concert tickets, and more: http://www.staplesmusic.org/#!75th-annual-candlelight-concert/j6t41

      • Karen Rasmussen

        Thank you Dan!

      • Andrea Samuelson Adamko

        Hi Dan, I ordered my Candlight CD set online only to be notified that it will be available to me at the concert and apparently not mailed to me. Yikes, I live in Texas and won’t attending. I received a confirmation number for my order but find that the email address attached to Staples 75 isn’t working and there is no phone number listed for the online store! What to do???
        Andrea Samuelson Adamko, Class of 64

  5. I wish the old Candlelight concerts were available online. I (and I bet a lot of other Staples alums) would probably pay for it.

    Interestingly, I found a link to sheet music for “Sing We Noel” here: http://holidaysheetmusic.net/sing-we-noel.pdf. Same melody, different lyrics.

  6. mary schmerker

    Well, you know how to make a lady cry!
    Then leave her computer and tear a closet apart.
    I am staples 1958 and choir, 1956 & 57. I have the 33.3 recordings from “56, 57 & ’58. I have such fond memories of choir and Mr. Ohanian.
    He knew how to inspire us and pull the best out of each of us. Such wonderful memories……. Thank You.

  7. The liner notes on my 1963 Northfield – Mt. Hermon Christmas Vespers LP album, describe Sing We Noel as a 16th Century French Carol, Arr. by Harvey Gaul, Words translated by Julia Crouse Houser.

  8. Scott E. Brodie

    Thanks, Dan, for this wonderful reminiscence. And for this opportunity to thank and remember John Ohanian. Coming of age in Westport in the 1960s, the manifold opportunities for music to become part of our lives were simply part of the educational environment, perhaps taken for granted. But they were largely the fruits of Ohanion’s patient and tenacious efforts to build the town’s music department over many decades. I remain grateful to this day. — Scott. (Staples ’70).

  9. Do I remember correctly ? For the Candlelight Concert the year about 1970 a grand tree was part of the program and Janet Abrams dressed as an angel was hoisted like Peter Pan . What a great holiday tradition , there is nothing like the feeling when the Alumni begin getting up to join in the final chorus.

  10. We got tickets and cannot wait to go!

    Remember too, that Staples’ own WWPT at 90.3 FM continuously rebroadcasts the current year’s concert and an archive of past concerts for several days around Christmas. They also stream here: http://shs2.westport.k12.ct.us/medialab/WWPT/live/live.html

  11. Martha Kirchhof

    I will remember my high school days at Staples,not only from the athletic program but for those years of participating in the the Candlelight concert. To this day, I still stand AND sing the Hallelujah chorus when I hear it! Oh yes, I do !

  12. I sang in the choir with Mr. Ohanian from 1953 – 1956. Because they performed, and sometimes practiced, at Bedford Jr High (Kings Highway School), students in junior high were aware of the choir well in advance of going to Staples. Singing in the choir was the first goal on my list. The Candlelight Concert was as big an event in town then as it is now, and Mr. & Mrs. Ohanian were adored by the choir members! We didn’t have all the bells and whistles the kids have now, but we did have great music.

  13. Chorus was such a significant part of my years at Staples. I had the pleasure and honor to benefit from the tutelage of Mr. Ohanian’s successor, Dr. George Weigle, in chorus and Orphenians. He challenge us musically and vocally in all of our performances, and I think fondly of the Candlelight concerts every time I sing Handel’s Messiah, for he introduced me not only to the Hallelujah chorus but several other movements from the oratorio that we performed. I haven’t been to a Candlelight Concert since my senior year (1983 alum) and I am really looking forward to this year’s 75th celebration! I know I will be singing right along (at least in my head) as that candlelight procession begins and standing for the final Hallelujah!

  14. If there’s ever a Westport Hall of Fame, John Ohanian should be one of the first inductees.

  15. I accomplished very, very little in high school. Except, that is, back in 1962, when I played “Sing We Noel” on the chimes to begin the procession. And this was (and probably still is) written in the key of E-flat!

  16. Mary (Cookman) Schmerker

    I need to correct my previous statement. Yes, I was a part of the Christmas concert while a student at Staples. However I was in the chorus, not the choir. The Choir was far superior in talent and dedication. However, even being a part of the Staples Chorus was a privilege that left me with memories that remain to this day. Yes, I stand for the Hallelujah Chorus and usually cry through the piece. What a wonderful tradition. I am so pleased that it continues today. A wonderful tribute to the Ohanions and the quality and diversity of education we received.

  17. Margaret Hart Rynshall

    Thank you Linda and Dan for giving us the background on this special tradition. There aren’t that many left in Westport and thankfully the “Sing We Noel” procession and the Candlelight Concert, which means so much to many, has outlasted the test of time.

  18. Eric William Buchroeder SHS '70

    Singing in the Candlelight Concerts for three years at Staples was the most fun you could ever have with your gowns on!

  19. Dan: Thanks for the history of “Sing We Noel.” We actually sing it at our church (United Methodist) from time-to-time. Our music library is very old! We were blessed to have George Weigle as our choir director for many years. Planning on being at Candlelight again this year.

  20. Anne Pfeiffer

    Hello, Sally Palmer. We most likely sang in the same Choir. What a thrill that was. 1953-1956

  21. Sarah L. Guterman

    I went to Northfield, and sang in all the choirs. Thus I was thrilled to hear the processional sung at Candlelight. It took Dan’s article for me to realize that the song is rare. I have records of Northfield and Mount Hermon choirs singing it in 1970 and 1971 if anyone is interested.