Video by Justin Saglio/Harvard Staff

Arts & Culture

The art of crafting a carol

3 min read

Memorial Church composer in residence Carson Cooman discusses his latest noel

’Tis the season for a little night (and late afternoon) music.

If you’re in need of some holiday spirit, the Memorial Church may have just what you’re looking for. The annual Christmas Carols Services will be held Sunday at 5 p.m. and Tuesday at 8 p.m. and feature carols both familiar and fresh, including a new work by the church’s composer in residence, Carson Cooman ’04.

It’s the 110th year of the much-loved holiday service, and while he hasn’t been composing for quite that long, Cooman has crafted a number of pieces for the time-honored tradition, starting in 2003 when he was a senior at the College. Since taking up his official post at the church in 2006 he has written a new piece just about every year for the ceremony that blends classic carols with contemporary works and has become a cherished event for members of the Harvard community and beyond.

Cooman’s latest effort, “A Pilgrimage Carol,” is tied to the church’s exploration of the theme throughout the academic year. Church officials have organized a range of discussions around the topic of pilgrimage and trips to local attractions aimed at examining “how we might move through the world more consciously, attentive to the sacred within and around us, awake to the claims that the journeys of others make on our lives,” notes the church’s website.

For his newest Harvard-commissioned piece, Cooman worked with his frequent collaborator, the Welsh-Scottish poet and librettist Euan Tait, whose texts have become his starting point.

“Both the sound of the words and the meaning of the words has a significant impact on the music that’s written,” said Cooman. “The text exists first, so the music absolutely comes out of its images. [In this piece] Euan drew on the idea of these groups of animals and people coming to the manger and connecting that to a more general sense of pilgrimage that people might take.”

After living with the words for a period of time, the music starts to take shape, Cooman said.

“The process is somewhat different with every piece but after spending a lot of time with the text usually I start getting some idea of what the themes will be, how the piece will be structured as a whole … the shape that it will have.”

For longtime choir director Edward Jones, Cooman always delivers “a wonderful product.”

“He writes so beautifully for choirs and he knows this choir very well,” said Jones, the Gund University Organist and Choirmaster.

“And I think in this day and age the theme of pilgrimage and journeys and where we are going is a really important one,” Jones added, “not just for the Harvard community, but for the greater community as well.”

“A Pilgrimage Carol”

Loved pilgrim lion,
You bring me on Your back
home, the eternal
place of Your birth,

Your sweet child play,
Your laughter and light beauty,
Your gaze of all-embrace
love on Your parents,

quiet, gentle Joseph
and Mary radiant
with Holy Spirit songs
that made her praying

dance. Oh how the world
leapt in her womb!
Here, loved lion Jesus,
I am again, pilgrim

of the year past, among
the kingdom of Your birth.
I brush the shoulders
of kings, shepherds.

I am here,
I adore
the forever Amen.

The 110th annual Christmas Carols Service on Dec. 8 will be broadcast on WHRB. The service on Dec. 10 will be live-streamed at