The Christmas Chorus had its beginning in February of 1980. A group of women at a party were talking about Christmas music, and someone mentioned Benjamin Britten's "Ceremony of Carols." She was sorry that she didn't hear it performed in the valley, because she thought it should be part of the traditional Christmas music. "Let's do it ourselves," someone said. Martha Sargent offered to conduct, someone else offered to organize it, and the plan was set. We would invite friends who could learn quickly, so that we didn't need too many rehearsals, and perform at the State Hospital chapel, where one of the women's husband was serving in the LDS bishopric. It was very soon decided to use authentic Middle English pronunciation, to give the text its original sound, an expert was consulted, and the work was begun. After the first performance, everyone had enjoyed themselves so much that they decided to do it again the next year, and the tradition was launched.
In the early years, the choir performed a few additional pieces, besides the Britten, and some solos and small groups filled out the program. Later on, the choir performed the whole program, presenting other sacred and Christmas music to complement the "Ceremony of Carols." No one except the director has now performed in the choir every year, but many have participated for ten or fifteen years or more, in a tradition that has become part of the Christmas celebration for many of us. Because the choir meets for only two months, to prepare the concert for Christmas, many are able to participate who could not commit to a year-round choir. We have been fortunate to have a wonderful harpist, Janet Bensing Peterson, play with us for nearly twenty of our years together, and to have excellent pianists to rehearse and perform with us.
We are grateful for audience members who have come to love this music as we do, and who return every year, as well as new audience members, introduced to the "Ceremony" for the first time.
Martha Sargent has directed the Christmas Chorus for thirty-six years. Conducting this choir was one of the main motivations for her to return to BYU in 1985 to earn a Master of Music degree in choral conducting. (She had earlier received a BA in music education.) While at BYU, she conducted the Women's Chorus for two years, and sang in Concert Choir and BYU Singers. Since 1989, she has also conducted the Utah Baroque Ensemble, a select mixed choir which specializes in the performance of early sacred music. Martha taught music at the Meridian School for eight years, and teaches private oboe lessons to junior high and high school students in the valley. She has been principal oboist in the Utah Valley Symphony for over 25 years. She and her husband, composer David Sargent, have five children and numerous grandchildren.
Claudia Laycock and her four sisters were born into a musical family. Her father, Ralph George Laycock, conducted bands and orchestra at Brigham Young University, while her mother, Lucy Tanner Laycock, was a well-known piano and organ teacher. Claudia began her piano studies at the age of six with her mother and added violin in seventh grade, studying with Helen Robinson and Percy Kalt. Although an English major, she also studied piano with Paul Pollei and JoLane Laycock while at Brigham Young University. Her career as an accompanist began in junior high school; she has accompanied vocalists, instrumentalists, choirs, melodrama and musical theater productions, and popular music groups for more than forty years. She also played violin in orchestras for more than thirty years, including the BYU Philharmonic Orchestra and the Utah Valley Symphony. She was the pianist and musical arranger for a USO/DOD tour to the South Pacific Command in 1975.
She played for the very first rehearsal of the Christmas Chorus when it was organized, becoming a steady member and accompanist in 1985. She has missed just one year's performances since then. She enjoys the wonderful variety and complexity of music chosen by Martha Sargent, as well as the challenging piano accompaniments she learns for the chorus.
Janet Peterson is the principle harpist for Ballet West and Utah Symphony, and has played for the Christmas Chorus for 32 years. She lives in American Fork where she teaches Suzuki and traditional harp lessons. Janet has performed with Broadway Across America with Josh Groban.
Elizabeth Farnsworth began her musical life at her mother's knee singing nursery songs and American folk songs. She began piano lessons at the tender age of four, violin lessons at twelve, recorder lessons at thirteen and voice lessons at sixteen. She graduated from Brigham Young University too many years ago to remember with a degree in vocal pedagogy and performance. She has spent most of her adult life leading choirs, professionally accompanying instrumentalists and teaching private piano and vocal lessons. She played soprano and alto recorder in the Lyra Recorder Quartet with Ralph Laycock, Ray Smith, and Daron Bradford. Her passion these days is her Icelandic horse Kaeti, with whom she spends many happy hours walking, trotting, cantering and munching carrots.