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A Multifaith Choir Finds Home in Church

By Barbara E. Martinez, Crimson Staff Writer

Harvard ended compulsory morning chapel in the late 19th century.

But more than 100 years later those chapel services continue, supported by one of the strongest collegiate choral traditions in the country.

Five days a week, 18 members of the University Choir sing for a congregation in Memorial Church's Appleton Chapel. Every Sunday during term time, the full choir of 40 voices sings for the morning service.

Leaders say the University Choir is more diverse than ever--members' faiths range from Mormonism to Judaism to atheism. Yet the student members arrive at the church by 9:45 a.m. every Sunday morning to sing sacred Christian music to a church full of Protestant worshippers.

But while religious faith motivates few, other factors succeed in drawing students to the choir and strengthening the sacred tradition of a secular University.

University Choir members are among the only student singers at Harvard paid for their work. The salaries, combined with efficient rehearsals and ever-changing material, give the group a sense of professionalism and unity.

The University Choir has been a Harvard institution since at least 1834, the date of its earliest-known constitution.

Tonight at 8 p.m. in Sanders Theatre, the choir will perform Mass in D by John Knowles Paine, accompanied by the Mozart Society Orchestra. Although Paine was the first University organist and choirmaster, serving from 1862 until 1906, his Mass has never been performed on campus.

"In a funny way this concert epitomizes the new and the old," says Murray Forbes Somerville, the current University organist and choirmaster. "It's a Harvard piece that has never been performed at Harvard."

The Mass will be performed as part of Harvard's Arts First celebration, separate from the sacred traditions of Memorial Church. Although the choir is based in a religious tradition, events like tonight's allow it to fulfill its obligation as a University choir, sharing sacred works with the public and representing Harvard's traditions.

The choir attracts many more students than it can accept.

About 100 undergraduate and graduate students auditioned last fall, Somerville says. Eighteen new singers were accepted for the Sunday Choir, and 20 new voices joined the Festival Choir. Members of the Festival Choir accompany the Sunday Choir for certain services and special events, bringing the total number of voices to more than 70.

Not all these singers are Christian, and not all those who are Christian practice in the nondenominational style of Memorial Church.

"I don't think anyone in this choir is hostile to religion," Somerville says.

Choir members say they can opt out of duties that make them feel uncomfortable, such as acting out the story of Jesus' entrance into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday.

"The policy's always just been that if there's something you're uncomfortable with, you don't have to do it," says Morning and Sunday choir member Jesse D. Billett '01. "You have to sing, but that's why you're there."

Choir members say the sacred repertoire draws them to the church, rather than the chance to attend many, many services. Jewish choir member Ted Folkman, a third-year student at the law school, says he joined in order to sing works from the Christian canon.

"We have a liturgical role. You don't join a group like this unless you're okay with singing all Christian music," Folkman says, adding that his faith does not have a similar choral tradition.

"If you could go to synagogue and sing a Bach cantata then I'd be there every week," he says.

Folkman and other non-Christian members say other singers have never made them feel uncomfortable about their beliefs. And secretary Navaz P. Karanjia '00 points out that the spirituality of the church experience can transcend religion. She describes a rare moment in the choir when the music "is so beautiful that you can feel that you are not there anymore."

"You're part of this group making beautiful and everybody else are one," she says. "That's the kind of spiritual experience I'm talking about."

"It's religious, or I would say, spiritual, in a way this choir is comfortable with," Somerville says.

Both Somerville and choir alum David P. Illingworth '71, associate dean of the College, point to the Christmas carol service as epitomizing the choir's spiritual effect.

"Non-religious people really enjoy the carol service," Illingworth says. "It's just a warm and fuzzy thing."

During the service, conducted twice during the week before winter break each year, the choir comes out from behind the altar screen and stands in the aisles among the congregation.

"We create a community," Somerville says. "It's as though the choir is embracing the congregation."

Illingworth, who was a member of the choir from 1967 to 1973, says music played a role in binding together the Harvard community during those turbulent years.

In the days after the 1969 bust--when local police, on orders from administrators, stormed University Hall to eject occupying students--the Memorial Church minister opened the church 24 hours a day and services continued as usual.

"It wasn't necessarily to pray. He just wanted the community to come together," Illingworth says, adding that the choir tradition served a similar purpose even though many students were hostile towards the Harvard establishment.

"Everybody enjoyed good quality choral and organ music," he says. "We always felt that to make good music was important to the community."

Similarly, current choir members say their singing fulfills a spiritual purpose for the church congregation. Individual members do not let their own beliefs interfere with that mission.

"The purpose is providing this music for people who need to make a spiritual connection," Karanjia says. "As long as we put on a good show of it nobody will know the difference. You wouldn't be able to tell who were the atheists and who were the Christians in the group."

For Grace Kao '01, who is currently a member of both the Sunday and Morning choirs, the University Choir is a professional group of singers. If they are doing their jobs correctly, she says, performing need not be a religious experience.

"We're there to sing the music and not to derive whatever religious meaning is in there. That's for the congregation," says Kao, who is of Buddhist faith. "If we're doing our jobs correctly then they can make it into their religious experience."

In fact, Harvard and the Memorial Church feel so strongly about this professionalism that all Sunday and Morning choir members receive a salary. The University Choir truly is professional in a financial sense, which distinguishes it from Harvard's other choral groups.

Members of the Sunday choir who attend all practices and services receive about $800 a semester, according to Somerville, who says he's tries to be understanding when choir members miss a rehearsal for sickness or academic reasons.

"We pay because of the professional commitment required every ensure that we have a clear professional understanding of obligations on both sides, which is necessary to fulfill our obligations to the church service," Somerville writes in an e-mail message.

Choir members insist that salary was not the motivating factor in their decision to join the University Choir.

"We're not professionals in the sense that you could live off this," Folkman says. Choir members are paid about minimum wage and work far less than 40 hours a week.

"The money definitely eases the pain of having to be up at 9:45 on a Sunday morning," Karanjia says. "[But] it's not enough money to warrant doing it if you didn't enjoy it."

Were it not for the salary, Somerville says attendance would certainly drop off for the Sunday morning performance. In addition, choir members are frequently asked to perform for additional church events like weddings and funerals and in special performances with outside groups.

"Musical satisfaction and team spirit are great, and without those nothing would work; but in the real world we all know we can't depend just on intangibles like those to keep an enterprise that is so important to the spiritual and cultural life of the University going as it has to," Somerville wrote.

As members of the University Choir, singers are also available to the Harvard administration for various secular occasions. Karanjia, for example, has flown to Los Angeles several times to sing at University fundraising events. Such events, she says, make her realize how important the choir's professionalism is to Harvard.

"We definitely have to make sure that they are pleased with what's happening with the University," Karanjia says about the fundraiser audiences. "At times like that we just have to perform very, very well. But it's not so often that that happens that it changes the tenor of the group at all."

The salary does seem to affect the group's attitude by making them feel responsible for the quality of their performance, however.

"The money made me realize that I wasn't just doing an extracurricular," Billett says. "Suddenly I was part of the Memorial Church organization, I was almost part of their staff."

"That's what is different about the Sunday Choir compared to other choral activities on campus," he adds.

The Church's lax policy on religious observance for choir members helps keep them there. During the Sunday services, choir members are concealed from the congregation by the altar screen, and are known to read or doze off during the sermon.

"Every month or so John would have to say to us, 'Keep your newspapers quiet!' People would do the New York Times crossword puzzle during the sermon," Illingworth says of the University Choir director he knew, John R. Ferris, who served as choirmaster from 1958 to 1990.

"If we were not behind the screen I think a lot of people would not be in the choir," Karanjia says.

So if it's not the money and not the religion, why sit through all those services to sing choral music when Harvard has a plethora of vocal opportunities?

Because the University Choir has a structure unique to Harvard, and according to Somerville, unique in the nation.

"My colleagues in the profession are amazed and delighted to hear of a choir that sings daily services in the U.S.--that's usually thought of as an English tradition," writes Somerville, who was born in London and studied at Oxford.

"Other schools like Princeton and Yale have chapel choirs," he adds, "but I think it would be fair to say that Harvard's University Choir has the longest tradition."

The choir has a much larger repertoire than other choral groups as it sings new music every week. This leads to a different type of musicianship.

"It's a very different raison d'etre than, say, the Glee Club," Billett says. "Each [Glee Club] piece is carefully prepared--they spend hours and hours getting everything right."

The Sunday Choir, however, practices each piece for about an hour before performing it. Somerville emphasizes sight reading and efficiency in rehearsals. He says choir members build a set of valuable skills in the process: "Quick noticing of what's going on, listening very hard, retention of what's been said--I don't stop the choir unless it's necessary so they know that when I do what I say is important," he says.

Morning choir members gathered in the church basement by 8:25 Monday morning for a short warm-up and run-through of that morning's piece. They got through the piece twice that morning, a rare occurrence, according to Somerville.

As they rehearsed the piece, choir members occasionally raised their hands--a sign to the director that they knew they had made a mistake and would fix it the next time through.

At the end of a University Choir practice, Billett says, "You've learned it and you've done it yourself and that's a valuable skill. If we had to take everybody separately and drill parts we wouldn't do many Sunday services."

By 8:40 Monday morning, the choir was on its way up the stairs, buttoning the choir robes that hid the occasional pair of sweatpants.

"I always panic about what [Somerville] will let go just because we're out of time," Billett says. "The congregation is doing the responsive reading, and we're thinking, 'Okay, we have to do this and this.'"

Somerville says most problems somehow work themselves out on the way up the stairs. During Monday's anthem, the singers' faces were tight with concentration, their eyes on their director and the score.

"We can't learn the notes first and then apply expression later," Billett says. "You have to become a comprehensive music reader."

As they reached the last note together and on key, the tension dissolved and the singers smiled at each other.

"We've sailed close to the wind once or twice this year, but we've kept up a high standard," Somerville says. "It really is exhilarating."

Morning choir members get to know each other well through this experience, both musically and personally. They see each other on most weekday mornings and often join each other for breakfast after the service.

But the Festival Choir is unpaid and only sings at occasional services, coming to one rehearsal a week and leave early.

"There really isn't a whole lot of time to socialize during the rehearsal," Karanjia says. Inevitably, "a lot of times the Sunday choir doesn't know the Festival choir very well, especially because this year the Festival choir is very large."

Festival choir member Virginia L. Hazel '03 says she does not feel excluded from the Sunday choir group, however. She says she has been able to get to know other members during coffee hour before services.

"As a freshman I was able to ask questions to older members," Hazel says. "It was comforting in a way."

Somerville says the Festival choir is the place for those singers who want less of a time commitment, or who need to develop the skills necessary for Sunday choir. This year, he says, one first-year asked to be in the Festival choir only so she would have a chance to try out many activities before committing so much time to just one.

And Somerville's emphasis on efficient rehearsals means that students can do other activities in addition to the University Choir.

"It doesn't consume your time," Hazel says. "You go, you practice, you get the job done, and you do a good job."

Choir members are thesis-writing seniors, members of a cappella groups and stars of campus musicals. Students who want to be in the Hasty Pudding musical, for example, arrange a leave of absence with Somerville during the rehearsal period.

He says he wants choir members to be able to do other things.

But these very involved students feel Memorial Church is a stabilizing factor in their busy lives.

"My friends come from the Dins, my fun from Kirkland, academics from the Music department, but my home base at Harvard is the basement of Memorial Church," says Billett, a member of the Din and Tonics. "That's where I'll come back and visit. When I have nothing to do in the afternoon I go down there and knock on Murray's door and see how he's doing."

The church is centrally located and has places for students to relax. For many, it seems to provide a reliable structure to their days and weeks that Harvard often lacks.

"It's one of the greatest experiences I've had, to wake up every morning and have singing be the first thing I do," Kao says.

"I think that was the beginning of my becoming a morning person," Illingworth quips.

And students say this structure and routine affect them spiritually, even though many did not expect church to be their home away from home at Harvard. Their spirits, if not their religions, they say, are tied to the church.

"The one thing that has been a part of my life since I've been here is that every Sunday I'm singing something," Billett says. "There's always been that highlight to look forward to."

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