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.
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?
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.
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.