“It just didn’t seem like Christmas without the ‘Ceremony of Carols.’ ”
Those words, overheard from across the room at an engagement party, would launch a 40-year tradition that has defined the Christmas season for many in Utah Valley.
Martha Sargent, a musician with a background in music education, spoke up: “I love that piece too!” She and the other women decided if no other group in the area would perform the 20th-century choral piece, they would do it themselves. Sargent volunteered to conduct, and they reached out to other women they knew could learn the piece quickly.
The “Ceremony of Carols” was composed in 1942 by Benjamin Britten, who originally wrote the piece for a children’s choir. He set the music to 11 short poems, primarily written in Middle English, that center around the birth of Christ and the Virgin Mary. Sargent’s choir is all-female, which she believes adds to the spirit of the piece.
“Women have a special maturity of understanding the poetry and the ideas,” Sargent said.
Several of the women in the group had connections to the Utah State Hospital through their husbands and received permission to perform in the chapel. Sargent’s father was an English professor, and she wanted the text emphasized as much as the music. She asked an expert in Middle English, a colleague of her father and the father of her future sister-in-law Elaine Craig, to teach the choir the proper Middle English pronunciation.
“We really wanted to do it with the Middle English pronunciation that the poetry would have been spoken in, because the sound of the poetry is as important as the sound of the music,” Sargent said.
After only six rehearsals, the choir performed the “Ceremony of Carols,” along with a few other carols to fill out the concert. Sargent and the other members of the choir didn’t intend to create an annual tradition, but their love for the music and the success of the concert made them eager to perform again. And again.
“There was certainly no idea at that time that it would go on for 40 years, but we have kept it going because people loved it and wanted to do it again,” Sargent said. “We don’t hear of anyone performing the whole thing. If we did, we might be less motivated to keep going and doing it ourselves, but we do it for the love of it.”
Sargent and Craig kept a list of everyone who sang that first year, and the next fall reached out and asked who would like to return. Over the years, the families of the singers began to see the “Ceremony of Carols” concert as an intrinsic part of the Christmas season.
Sargent’s daughter, Katy, was a toddler when her mother started The Christmas Chorus, and she knew the music long before she ever sang in the program herself. Many members of her own family have sung with the choir over the years, including her sister and cousins, but the choir as a whole feels like a family of its own.
“These people are like family, in a way,” Katy said. “It’s like our Christmas family. I’ve known these people my whole life.”
The roster of the choir changes from year to year as members move away and new people join. Nearly everyone who sings with the choir is chosen by Sargent or recommended by other members of the choir. Daughters of the original group who grew up listening to their mothers sing joined themselves over time. Since many of the poems in the “Ceremony of Carols” focus on the relationship between Christ and his mother, the ability of The Christmas Chorus to bring mothers and daughters together makes it more meaningful for those who participate.
Craig, who has performed with the choir on and off since the first concert, and who married Martha Sargent’s brother, says the concert is a fixture of her family’s holiday celebration. She has sung with her mother and her daughters at different points, and although her daughters now live elsewhere, the concert provides a point of connection for the family.
Former district judge Claudia Laycock was also present at the first concert, and has continued to be active in the choir over the years. Since 1985, she has only missed a handful of performances, in spite of her busy career and participation in other performance groups. She also has served as the main piano accompanist for the Christmas concert.
“I joined the group because I love the music, and I love working with Martha,” Laycock said. Participating in choirs and other performance groups always makes for a unique musical and emotional experience, and singing the “Ceremony of Carols” in particular allows the group to celebrate the birth of Christ in a sacred and special way.
For many, a main benefit of singing in The Christmas Chorus is getting to work with Sargent.
“I’ve known Martha for two years, and I’m 30 and she’s in her 70s, but I feel like she’s one of my best friends,” Sarah Brinton said. “I know that’s how generally everyone feels in the choir.” This is Brinton’s first year as part of The Christmas Chorus.
In addition to her music education degree, Sargent taught dance for many years and has a master’s degree in choral conducting. The primary reason for her decision to get a master’s degree was to expand her abilities as a conductor for volunteer choirs.
“I knew when I got a master’s degree that it wouldn’t lead to a university position,” Sargent said. “But I knew that I would do choir for the rest of my life.”
Admission to the Christmas concert is always free, as are all the performances of Sargent’s year-round group, the Utah Baroque Ensemble. Members pay dues to cover the costs of acquiring the music and putting on the concert. Sargent herself has never collected a paycheck for her work with The Christmas Chorus.
“Her purpose was to teach about this incredible music,” Katy Sargent said. “She is a very gifted musician and this is just an inkling of her ability.”
The second half of the concert is always the “Ceremony of Carols,” but the first part includes other carols selected by Sargent, whose mother taught her popular Christmas songs from around the world. The concert introduces the audience and the performers to music they may not be familiar with, and the pieces cover a variety of genres. This year’s performance will include a Baroque piece, a gospel number, and a song featuring a country fiddle.
Sargent plans to scale back the concert and bring in some help if members would like it to continue. There have been moments during the 40-year history of The Christmas Chorus when Sargent has considered not moving forward. Canceling the concert, which requires a substantial commitment, would be an easy way to simplify life.
“As soon as I entertained the idea,” Sargent said, “people from the choir would come to me and thank me and say, ‘This is the only good music I get to be part of,’ or ‘This is the only thing I do for myself,’ or ‘This is an answer to my prayer.’ And I hadn’t mentioned it to anyone. As people have volunteered to me how important it was to them, that was my answer of what I should do.”
“And, of course, I love it very much,” Sargent continued. “So it didn’t take a whole lot to keep going.”
This year’s edition of The Christmas Chorus was performed last weekend at the Utah State Hospital Chapel.