A celestial Christmas carol


The Bethlehem star remains the same, as do the shepherds and stable and angels on high, but each Christmas since 1998 sees a crop of new carols, thanks to the Welcome Christmas! Carol Contest. Sponsored by two Minnesota organizations, the VocalEssence choral ensemble and the American Composers Forum, the competition draws composers from across the country. It awards a pair of winners $1,000 prizes and a premiere with VocalEssence.

This year contenders from 32 states submitted 118 scores. Among the winners was Stephen Main, AM'89, PhD'98. Main's composition, "The Darkest Midnight in December," set new music to a 1728 text by Irish priest William Devereux. The poem is "remarkable for its sensuality," Main, whose Div School PhD is in religious philosophy, wrote in the composer's note that accompanied the piece. "Father Devereux makes his point with striking images: cold wind on a starry night, offerings of incense, the dazzling glory of the Christ child, and the softness of Mary's arms."

The contest seeks to bolster an 800-year-old tradition of carol-writing—"Imagine what it was like when 'Deck the Halls' was first heard," enthused VocalEssence artistic director Philip Brunelle in a program news release—and each year's entrants must adhere to a few compositional constraints. Scores must include a chorus and this year were required to also include a celesta, a small 19th-century keyboard instrument that plays chime-like notes. Its "sparkling pure tones," Main wrote, evoke "mystery, innocence, and vulnerability, all at the same time." VocalEssence performed Main's carol December 1 at the Trinity Lutheran Church in Stillwater, Minnesota.


Photo: Each December VocalEssence artistic director Philip Brunelle leads the ensemble in two new Christmas carols' world premieres.

Photo by Katryn Conlin

December 19, 2007