Come All Ye Cantab Carolers

Offering seasonal sentiments of peace on earth and goodwill to fellow man, the Harvard University Choir will perform in the 97th Annual Christmas Carol Services this Sunday, Dec. 17, at 5. p.m. and Monday, Dec. 18, at 8 p.m. in Memorial Church.

Created in 1909 as a gift of University Organist and Choirmaster Archibald T. Davison and Plummer Professor of Christian Morals Edward C. Moore to the Harvard and Cambridge community, the services are the oldest continually running carol services in America.

While the format of the services—carols and hymns interspersed by readings from scripture—has remained unchanged, Gund University Organist and Choirmaster Edward E. Jones says that his vision also includes incorporating contemporary music.

“The Christmas narrative is one that composers and artists return to time and again, and their new perspectives keep this familiar story fresh and relevant. I try and juxtapose the old with the new, all united by a common narrative thread,” he says.

This narrative thread will link a 14th-century German carol, 17th-century English carol, and pieces by Mozart and Mendelsohn with such contemporary compositions as Jonathan Dove’s setting of “The Three Kings” and Stephen Paulus’s “Pilgrim Jesus.” The Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Pusey Minister in The Memorial Church Peter J. Gomes will offer readings from scripture throughout.

Given that the services are very well attended, Jones says he sees them as an opportunity to introduce new music to the Boston and Cambridge community. Each year since his arrival at Harvard in 2003, he has commissioned a new carol. On Sunday, the University Choir will premier a new setting of hymnwriter Isaac Watts’s “A Cradle Hymn” by Daniel R. Pinkham ’44.

“It is a gentle and lilting setting, featuring Pinkham’s signature harmonic language, that builds to a rousing climax,” says Jones.

The services are fully participatory, with audience members singing all of the hymns, and the choir also hopes to include the congregation in its tradition of giving to charity. After services, choir members will accept donations for Casa Nueva Vida in Jamaica Plain. “This year the choir voted on children, domestic violence, and education as the top three types of causes it would like to support. Casa Nueva Vida combines these initiatives as a special interest homeless shelter which provides job training for women and homework help for their kids,” said member Heather S. Horn ’08.

While the traditionally full house for carol services includes many individuals who have been coming for years, Senior Choir Secretary Michael T. Wilson ’07 describes first-time participation in the carol services as exhilarating.

“I still remember the end of my first carol service, four years ago, with the choir singing the final verse of ‘Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,’” Wilson writes in an e-mail. “The organ amplified the sheer emotional intensity of the moment and the beautiful, soaring descant made me realize that this moment would be how I remembered my freshman year….The Carol Services are a quintessential Harvard musical and emotional experience.”