In today’s post I’m responding to and expanding on my daughter’s Advent Calendar post about Christmas music. She mentioned one of our family’s humorous memories of her misunderstanding of words or phrases – this incident was about the song, “Sleep, Holy Child,” which she requested as ” ‘Poly Child.” Kay was three at the time so her memory is one of an oft-repeated story rather than a remembrance of the song.
At Christmas of 1963, we were living in Shawnee, Oklahoma where Wayne was attending OBU after sensing and responding to a call to preach. We had joined the First Baptist Church of Shawnee and that Christmas the choir was presenting John W. Peterson’s excellent Christmas cantata, Night of Miracles; I was the soprano soloist for the earlier-mentioned lullaby, which is a really lovely song. After a rehearsal in the auditorium, Kay walked over and asked, sing ‘Poly child, mommy, sing ‘Poly child.”
John W. Peterson was a prolific composer of sacred music having written over 1,000 Christian songs and 35 cantatas and musicals and, according to his website, his music has sold over 10,000,000 copies worldwide. Some of my most enjoyable Christmas and Easter cantatas as well as songs were written by him and over the years I sang many of them as solos. As evidence of the enduring quality of his music, a search of YouTube yielded a clip of “Sleep, Holy Child” sung by Marilyn Cotton and which includes the lyrics.
Around 1976, when we were living in Durham, North Carolina, the ministers of music got together to plan a program they called “1000 Voices Singing for Christ.” They invited John W. Peterson to direct the orchestra and choir and a well-known pianist and composer, Don Wyrtzen, to play the piano. There was to be one soloist for the event to be selected by audition. My choir director, George Archer, asked me to audition, so I did.At that time I was studying voice with Kathryn Posner (an excellent teacher) and about this same period of time had the opportunity to sing a small role in Puccini’s Sister Angelica with the newly founded North Carolina Lyric Opera.
The auditions for the 1,000 Voices Singing for Christ event were conducted by Mr. Peterson and Mr. Wyrtzen themselves. I don’t remember where the auditions were held but it was in a church rehearsal room somewhere in Durham; I arrived fairly late in the day after the guest musicians had apparently listened to a long stream of church soloists. Mr. Peterson was sitting in a choir chair and Mr. Wyrtzen was sitting at the keyboard and neither of them looked up when I walked in. I found a picture of Mr. Wyrtzen sitting at the keyboard at an angle to it as he was that day, except that day he had no smile but rather looked like a dictionary definition of bored, as though he could wait no longer for this day to be over.
I also don’t recall what they wanted to hear as part of the audition, but Mr. Wyrtzen began the accompaniment, with no acknowledgment of my presence; however, when I began to sing Mr. Wyrtzen snapped his head up to look at me so quickly he almost fell off the piano bench. Though Mr. Peterson was not so precariously sitting on his chair as to potentially fall off, he too came alert and both of them began to listen with enthusiasm. After I finished singing, they talked with me on a personal level and Mr. Wrytzen laughed with me over his response when he told me what a pleasant surprise it had been to finally hear someone sing beautifully.
I was selected as the soloist for the occasion, which was held at Duke University stadium. The choir and orchestra filled one end of the stands and a huge audience filled in the other sides of the stadium for a well-attended and well-received afternoon of singing praises. I don’t remember what solo was a part of that event; I just know it was a special treat for me to meet and work with both of these excellent church musicians, but particularly John Peterson since I had loved and sung so many of his beautiful songs for so many years.