Ask the Experts: William Payn on Candlelight Christmas
December 02, 2010
LEWISBURG, Pa. — With the festive performance this month of "A Bucknell Candlelight Christmas" and the release of a special DVD/CD package celebrating the 45-year-old Bucknell tradition, we ask William Payn, professor of music and director of the service, about the program's history and the role of its student performers.
Q: What's the history of Bucknell's Candlelight Christmas Service?
A: It was established in 1964 by Dr. William McRae who founded the Chapel Choir in 1948 when he began teaching at Bucknell. That was the same year that Rooke Chapel was completed and dedicated. The candlelight service came about, basically, because of this beautiful space that had just been built.
In the early years, before I came, the service included the Chapel Choir and other musical organizations within the music department. A conglomeration of department ensembles participated for many years.
There was a transition between the time when Dr. McRae retired and when I came in 1982. At that time, I featured just the choir and a brass ensemble. There was just one service and it was absolutely packed. In 1983 I added the handbells. It was a much smaller ensemble than it is now — fewer bells. They played in the upper-side balcony and the choir stood on the chancel steps. When I think back now, it was a lot less formal. The choir sat on the steps while the bell choir played.
With that experience, we decided to add another service. We packed it both nights. On the second night, it was so jammed (there were no tickets then) that I could hardly get the choir in the door to prepare for the procession. So, in 1984, we reassessed the entire situation and decided to offer (free) tickets so we could monitor the number of seats used. We also added a third service.
Q: Does the program change much from year to year?
A: The format has basically stayed the same. It's based on the King's College concept of nine lessons in carols. We only include seven lessons and incorporate the bells as well as the choir. The readings stay the same each year, and the traditional carols sung by the congregation remain the same. I change the choral and handbell music each year — except for "Still, Still, Still," which the choir sings every year. The bell choir always plays "The March of the Three Kings," their signature piece.
I have a collection of what I call my "Christmas Candlelight come up" file — music of which I become aware through colleagues or by going to other performances or conferences. Because the service is so popular and known among major publishing institutions of music, I receive a lot of music from publishers and composers for consideration. They know I traditionally use harp as accompaniment. So any time a Christmas piece is published for choir and harp, I'm sure to receive it.
I spend a good part of the month of June, after the students have left campus, getting ready for this service. I introduce some of the music at a retreat with the chapel choir the first weekend the students are back on campus in the fall. The ringers start seeing the music generally around the end of September.
Q: What are some of your favorite moments in the WVIA-TV DVD production? (WVIA-TV and other PBS stations across the country will air the production throughout December. Check local listings.)
A: It's extremely colorful, beginning with the traditional processional into the chapel and ending with the candle-lighting ceremony, which includes "The Ringing-in of Christmas," a tradition which began when I introduced the handbells in 1983. We're very fortunate to include harpist Elizabeth Etters Asmus. She's become a fixture in our services over the years.
In this production, the choir sings a beautiful setting of a Latin motet for choir and harp, which is particularly noteworthy. Those who are regulars to the candlelight service here on campus always look forward to hearing and watching the bell ringers perform with nearly 100 bells and 60 chimes.
Q: The performers come from a broad range of majors, not just music majors, right?
A: The students represent most of the major fields of study at Bucknell — the humanities, social and natural sciences, management, education and engineering. Over two-thirds of the performers are from these various fields of study other than music.
I rely on my music majors because they add a strong core for me, but the students from the other major fields of study are every bit as connected to the music and to the event. There is a passion for singing and ringing from the students who are both music majors and non-music majors. For me, that's a major part of Bucknell's legacy and why I've loved teaching at Bucknell for 28 years.
Q: Are you surprised at the number of engineering students who are involved?
A: There is definitely a connection between engineering and music. It's interesting to note that Dr. McRae, founder of the chapel choir, taught electrical engineering and mathematical courses during World War II when there was a shortage of professors.
In my opinion, musicians and engineers utilize equal portions of left-brain, right-brain function. Engineers apply creative and analytical thought in order to process solutions that eventually enhance various needs of our society. Likewise, to be a professional musician requires theoretical discipline in order to effectively connect with the creative process, ultimately enhancing the emotional, more subjective needs of humankind.
I have engineering students who come to Bucknell because they want to participate in my ensembles. Bucknell has an excellent engineering program, but it also has a strong music program in which they can participate without being a music major. It sets this University apart from many other liberal arts institutions that have really fine music programs, but don't allow the non-majors to participate on a regular basis.
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