The History of SFBC’s Christmas Concerts

The Bach Choir’s tradition of singing the Christmas concert in the dark with candles, surrounding our audience and inviting them to join with us in song, has been part of the San Francisco Christmas celebrations for 30 years.

SFBC Board of Directors member and singer Judy Stone interviewed fellow choristers to illuminate the 85-year history of SFBC Christmas concerts.

The San Francisco Bach Choir was founded 85 years ago by conductor Waldemar Jacobsen to perform the music of J.S. Bach, which was rarely done in 1936. The country was still struggling with the Great Depression, and the world was increasingly preparing for war. I can imagine the joy and hope that the first annual Christmas concert, most probably Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, brought to San Francisco audiences. The Choir continued to sing the Oratorio, in English, throughout the next 40 years. There are several singers still in the Choir who remember singing the work in the late 1970’s. One of those singers sang her first concert at Christmas 1978 and remembers what a happy experience it was. Since 1980, she has continued to commute from Sacramento every week to sing with the Choir!

After Waldemar Jacobsen’s death, David Babbitt was hired as Director in 1981. The next decade was a period of change for the Choir, commencing the “Era of Big Productions,” as one member aptly called it. In addition to the Christmas Oratorio—now sung in German, which many choristers struggled to learn—Vaughan Williams’ Hodie and the Christmas Oratorio by Heinrich Schütz also became part of the Choir’s repertoire.

Bach Choir Christmas concerts 2For Christmas 1986, and repeated in 1987, the Choir performed the medieval Play of Herod. Written for the Choir by David Babbitt and choreographed and staged by his wife, Patsy, this work was a monumental undertaking. Choir members recall making the banners and many of the costumes, and borrowing vestments from St. Paulus’ Lutheran Church and other churches in the City. The Choir was accompanied by instruments that many of us had never heard of before such as the vielle, the sopranino recorder, and the herald trumpet. Choristers recall the joy of being part of a magnificent production: how they loved the pageantry, the banners, the costumes as well as being a part of a larger story. They also remember how medievally cold it was that night in 1986! Almost no one I talked to remembered the parts they played (I was a midwife, apparently), but everyone had vivid memories of processing into the church behind the banners to the beat of the drums. It was a truly spectacular event, and the audience was thrilled.

There were other things going on during the 1980’s: David Babbitt developed a deep interest in the choral music of early North German composers who preceded Bach, as well as a love of works for multiple choirs. In October 1984, the Choir performed a concert of music from the Colossal Baroque period, featuring works for multiple choirs and brass by the Gabriellis, as well as pieces by Gallus and Schütz. There was a growing interest in Early Music beginning in the 1970’s, and by the 1980’s the Bay Area had a number of period specialists, both instrumental and vocal. The Bach Choir gave one of the first West Coast “period” performances of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion in June, 1989.

However, the economic instability that began after the 1987 stock market crash caused arts groups, all of whom were dependent on donations, to struggle financially. Choral concerts with big orchestras were becoming impossible to fund. The Bach Choir, thanks to David Babbitt, was uniquely positioned to change course. He saw the potential for concerts featuring small groups of singers accompanied by one or two instrumentalists, positioned around the church, performing the works of early composers. He began researching and writing practical scores for choirs and instruments and in 1989, the Bach Choir gave its first Candlelight Christmas concert entitled “Psallite! Christmas music of Michael Praetorius.” It was the beginning of the tradition beloved by our audiences and choir members that continues even during this year of virtual performances.

Many current singers were part of our first candlelight concert in 1989, and many more followed in the early 1990’s. Everyone was happy to share their memories of those early concerts, performed first at St. Paulus Lutheran Church, then at Trinity Episcopal, later at St. Ignatius, and finally at Calvary Presbyterian. By 1989, a number of our singers had experience singing from different parts of the church in small groups, but singing while walking? In the dark? By candlelight? With the candles in doilies? It seemed like an impossible undertaking!

SF Bach Choir Christmas concerts 3Choir members tell the story best: one remembers the anticipation of watching each week as the Church was decorated with wreaths, banners, and trees for Christmas; another remembers the first rehearsals in the dark with the candles. And none of us will forget the beauty as the lights went down and singers came in carrying lighted candles: it was magical. We remember singing from the balconies in the dark with candles, and how beautiful it was to send your voice out into the hall and have other voices come back to you. One member, who was not raised in the Christian tradition, said that the antiphonal candlelit Christmas concerts were a way to connect emotionally with the music she had always loved. She felt the peace and joy, and remembers the jubilation of the organ at the end of the concert as everyone joined to sing “Adeste Fidelis.” I felt the deep connection to music stretching back into the centuries to those dim dark churches, lit by candles, and felt a part of the people who gathered there to sing.

The Bach Choir’s tradition of singing the Christmas concert in the dark with candles, surrounding our audience and inviting them to join with us in song, has been part of the San Francisco Christmas celebration for 30 years. While the Pandemic kept us apart this year, we look forward with great joy and anticipation to next year’s annual Christmas gathering, complete with carols, candles, and good cheer!

— Judy Stone, SFBC Board Member and Alto