Tag Archives: “Sing We Noel”

Dost Thou Remember?

Staples High School graduate Catherine Webster now lives in Oklahoma. Her congregation — First Unitarian Church of Oklahoma City — is celebrating the tricentennial of the carol “Joy to the World.” On Facebook, she wrote that last Sunday’s service focused on the idea that music transcends the intellect, and speaks directly to the heart and soul.

During the lay reflection, Catherine described the traditions of Staples’ Candlelight Concert. It was a joy, she said, to share both “Sing We Noel” and “Welcome Yule” with her beloved community. Here are her beautiful, heartfelt remarks:

Dost thou remember the Prophet of old
Who that most wond’rous story told
How of a virgin pure and mild
Should be born a perfect child?
The seer spake true: The virgin so fair
A son from Heaven doth declare
Sing we Noël, Noël, Noël.

If this song is unfamiliar to you, fear not: I bring good tidings of great joy! It’s exceedingly obscure, and you won’t be hearing it any time soon on KMGL’s all–holiday line-up.

But for me, it’s a Christmas classic. Every vocal music student from my high school back in Connecticut has learned this song since the 1950s. The 100-voice a cappella choir has used it as a processional for the annual Candlelight Concert, literally for generations. And will again next weekend (I checked.).

This is music that speaks directly to my heart, and the setting also adds to its power.

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

In the dim of the high school auditorium, the school orchestra would play the instrumental introduction as the choir, robed in blue with white stoles, processed down the 3 aisles and surrounded the audience with the warm light of flickering (electric) candlelight.

Once everyone was in place, the orchestra played a big downbeat and the choir members would turn to face the audience. A high school teacher commented that he always associated that turn with the future that his soon to be former students – the graduating seniors — were facing, full of hope, candles aglow.

My family started to attend this concert in 1966, when it was already a long-standing tradition and considered the high school’s holiday gift to the town of Westport.

I had just turned 1 year old that year. We continued to attend the concert as youth from our church, babysitters, our friends’ older siblings and – finally – my brother and I made it to high school to take part.

In 1979, the annual concert was already 39 years old. Some of those performers — now with their own children out of college — will return this weekend.

Although clearly a Christmas carol, performing this song touched the hearts of my many Jewish friends and the several others, like me, who identified as non-Christian.

The power of the song, and of the tradition, transcended a particular theology and unified us. I know I was not the only student who felt the weight of history as we took our places, continuing the tradition that our elders had established, helping to continue and preserve it for those not yet born.

In an online forum related to my hometown, a woman who graduated in 1958 commented: “Can anyone explain why every time I see a post about Staples’ Christmas Candlelight concert I immediately start to sing ‘Sing We Noel,’ and get all misty-eyed?”

To which the original poster replied: “Because once you’ve been part of it, it’s part of your soul.”

It is certainly part of mine.

Antonio Antonelli, in the 2018 “Sing We Noel” processional.

So is the introit that the choir sang in the lobby prior to the processional. Unseen but not unheard, many of us held hands as we performed this number, which has for me a truly ancient feel. Here’s the final verse:

Welcome be you that are here
Welcome all and make good cheer
Welcome all another year
Welcome Yule!

(The 79th annual Candlelight Concert is set for tomorrow — Friday, December 13 — and Saturday, December 14. All tickets have already been distributed.)

The “Sing We Noel” processional — a part of every Candlelight Concert since 1940. (Photo/Lynn U. Miller)

Candlelight Concert: Sneak Preview!

Staples High School’s 76th annual Candlelight Concert is set for tonight and tomorrow.

No tickets? No longer live here?

No problem!

Here’s a glimpse at this morning’s Orchestra rehearsal. Adele Valovich conducts the haunting “Nimrod” by Elgar. Just click on the video below to enjoy!

Bonus holiday feature photos:

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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.

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