Making Music in the Memorial Church

By Edward E. Jones, Gund University Organist and Choirmaster

UChoir Alum in the steps of the Memorial Church
UChoir alum gather on the steps of the church during Harvard University Choir Reunion weekend. (Photo: Jeffrey Blackwell)

What a joy it was to welcome home generations of UChoristers this past October for the Harvard University Choir Reunion weekend. It was wonderful to have everyone back here, making music together once again in the Memorial Church, a place that holds so many formative memories for our singers.  

Attending the reunion Oct. 13–15 were more than 100 alums, representing Harvard classes from six (!) decades. I was especially delighted that my predecessor and mentor Dr. Murray Forbes Somerville was with us for the entire time. Murray is a tireless supporter of our musical ministry at the church, and I am profoundly grateful for his recent gift to support the Choral Fellows, an institution that he founded during his tenure at the church. 

Dr. Murray Forbes Somerville leads returning UChoir alum in song
Dr. Murray Forbes Somerville leads returning UChoir alum in song in the sanctuary during the reunion. (Photo: Jeffrey Blackwell)

Following an opening Friday-night reception in the new Student Oasis, Saturday was mainly spent in song, culminating in a deeply moving reading of Johannes Brahms’s Ein deutsches Requiem, led exquisitely by Murray. A gala dinner was held on Saturday evening, during which the Choral Fellows performed Benjamin Britten’s “Choral Dances” from Gloriana, and the appeal to formally endow the Choral Fellows was announced. The reunion culminated in a glorious Sunday service, with over 140 singers crammed into Appleton Chapel, singing their hearts out in works of Heinrich Schütz, Carson Cooman, and Sir Hubert Parry’s rousing festival anthem Hear My Words, Ye People. The preacher that morning was the Rev. Kent French—himself a UChoir alum—who spoke eloquently about the importance of the voice, a sermon that resonated with all our singers. The University Choir Alumni Committee did tireless work in organizing the reunion, and I thank in particular Jim Farmer, the head of that committee, for his sterling work throughout. 

On Saturday, Oct. 21, the Harvard University Choir and Harvard Baroque Chamber Orchestra presented Claudio Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo to a packed sanctuary. This concert was the prelude to a year-long celebration of Monteverdi—in recognition of the 450th anniversary of his birth. The performance was also given in honor of Professor Thomas Forrest Kelly, the Morton B. Knafel Professor of Music at Harvard, who retires at the end of this semester. Tom has been a colleague, mentor, and friend to me throughout my time at Harvard, and his love for music is infectious and inspiring. It was a pleasure to have him join us on harpsichord and organ for this concert, and a delight to welcome back so many of his former students and colleagues to perform, led by the incredible Aaron Sheehan in the title role. The following weekend, the Choral Fellows collaborated with the Boston Camerata in its program of early American music, Liberty Tree: processing around the church to “Yankee Doodle”—complete with fifes and drums—was a change from the Fellows’ usual fare, and I think they all enjoyed the experience!

November was another full month, beginning with a series of events to commemorate the 85th anniversary of the dedication of the Memorial Church. On Nov. 11, noted organist and improviser Peter Krasinski provided a wonderful live musical accompaniment to the poignant 1925 epic film The Big Parade; and our annual service of remembrance and commemoration on Nov. 12 featured music closely associated with Harvard University and the Memorial Church. Composer-in-Residence Carson Cooman’s That They May Rest opened the service from the Memorial Room, the famous words from the Book of Revelation a poignant reminder of the names inscribed therein. To the River Charles, by Harvard alumnus Michael Schachter, was commissioned by the Office for the Arts at Harvard for the University’s 367th Commencement ceremony in May 2017, and sets a moving text by Longfellow. “I Beseech You Therefore, Brethren” by Craig Phillips was originally commissioned by members of the Class of 1978 to celebrate the retirement of The Rev. Professor Peter J. Gomes, and it has subsequently become a memorial to his legacy. The anniversary weekend concluded with a service of Choral Evensong in Appleton Chapel, featuring works by Ireland and Bairstow which were written during the First World War; it was a poignant and fitting tribute to all those whose names still adorn the walls of this building.

On Thursday, Nov. 16, the choir had the privilege to participate in an open rehearsal with the distinguished conductor and scholar Masaaki Suzuki, Harvard’s 2017 Christoph Wolff Distinguished Visiting Scholar, performing Bach’s motet Fürchte dich nicht, ich bin bei dir, BWV 228. Finally, on Sunday, Dec. 10 and Tuesday, Dec. 12, UChoir presented the 108th Annual Christmas Carol Services to a packed sanctuary on both nights, with a program of holiday classics and contemporary works from a distinguished roster of American and international composers. 

Next term is another eventful one for the Harvard University Choir. In January, the choir will embark on a tour of Montreal; March will feature the acclaimed church opera by Jonathan Dove, Tobias and the Angel; Holy Week sees a performance of Brahms’s Ein deutsches Requiem; and we will continue to celebrate the music of Monteverdi with an ARTS FIRST performance of the majestic Vespers (1610) on Saturday, Apr. 28. 

It continues to be a privilege to serve in the Memorial Church under the inspiring leadership of Professor Jonathan L. Walton and to work with such wonderful colleagues and students. On Christmas Eve, our 11 a.m. worship service will feature a chorus of UChoir alums and community members: if you would like to sing on that festive occasion, please show up at 9:30 a.m. in the choir room for a rehearsal. In closing, I wish you a very happy holiday season, and I look forward to seeing many of you in Cambridge soon—if not on Christmas Eve, then hopefully in the new year.