CHAMPAIGN, Ill. – Most days of the year, Nicholas Temperley is a relatively
low-key, mild-mannered musicology scholar who devotes his days to the study of 18th- and 19th-century British and U.S. music.
Nicholas Temperley, and his wife, Mary Sleator Temperley, have been caroling with friends since 1959. They are joined in 2009 by, from left, Chester L. Alwes, Marlys Scarbrough, Larry Knox and Laurie Mattheson. | Photo by L. Brian Stauffer | Hear "Stille Nacht" and "Christmas Is Coming."
But around the time residents of neighborhoods surrounding the University of Illinois start decking their halls and roasting chestnuts over open fires, Temperley transfers his musical focus from the archives to his neighbors’ living rooms.
And for a few days leading up to Christmas, the U. of I. professor emeritus becomes rather vocal.
That’s when Temperley, his wife Mary, a handful of friends – and sometimes the Temperleys’ grown children – embark on a series of caroling expeditions that have become legendary in this university community.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the caroling tradition for the Temperley Singers, as they’ve become known since forming in 1959. Coinciding with the group’s golden anniversary is the publication of Temperley’s new book, “Christmas is Coming: A Collection of Carols for Advent and Christmas” (Stainer & Bell).
The carol collection includes a mix of 37 secular and sacred songs of the season – from holiday favorites such as “Good King Wenceslas” and “I Saw Three Ships” to lesser known hymns and songs from around the world.
Many of the songs feature Temperley’s arrangements. And some, such as “Out of Your Sleep,” which features Mary Temperley as soloist, are original compositions.
The British-born Temperley assembled the original band of carolers soon after his arrival at Illinois as a postdoctoral fellow in the School of Music. Prior to that, he had sung with similar groups in his hometown of Beaconsfield and as a student at Cambridge University, often relying on “The Oxford Book of Carols,” published in 1928, as a practical guide and song source.
When Temperley, who also worked as the music critic at the Champaign-Urbana Courier, set out to form a caroling group at the U. of I., Mary – then a young professor of English and linguistics – was among the recruits. The pair had met earlier that fall at an all-faculty reception, where they established their mutual interest in music. They married in 1960.
They continued caroling each year with a rotating cast of singers. From 1961 to 1966 the caroling took place at Cambridge, where Nicholas had an appointment on the faculty.
He estimates that about 30 people have sung with the group over the years. Each year, the ensemble numbers around a half dozen.
Because this year is a banner one for the singers, “there will be more of them than usual,” he said. Since some live out of town, the group doesn’t get together to rehearse until just before their holiday rounds.
In addition to the Temperleys, this year’s carolers will include their daughter, Lucy Temperley Metzger; Chester Alwes, a U. of I. professor of choral music, and his wife, U. of I. music librarian Marlys Scarbrough; recent Illinois alumni Andrew and Laura Knox, and Andrew’s father, Larry Knox; Laurie Matheson, senior acquisitions editor at the U. of I. Press; and T.J. Wilson, Champaign.
Temperley noted that while people often associate caroling with random groups of singers, bundled up in coats, hats and scarves, vocalizing outside homes, that’s not the modus operandi for the Temperley Singers. From the start, their stops – usually three to five a night for a few nights before Christmas Eve – have been pre-arranged, and they’re always invited inside the hosts’ homes.
Following the group’s a cappella performances, they’re invited to socialize and share refreshments with the hosts and their guests.
It’s not unusual, he said, for hosts to plan a party around the appearance and invite several friends, neighbors and family members of all ages. In his book, Temperley credits Eleanor Blum, John and Eva Gray, Don and Peggy Henderson, Dick and Margot Jerrard, Howard and Jean Osborn, Bill and Esther Sleator, and Victor and Susan Stone among the singers’ “most faithful hosts.”
Jean Osborn and her husband have been hosting the group almost every year since 1968. She said she likes to mix up the guest list from year to year to expose new audiences to the experience, which she characterized as having “a very pleasant and warm atmosphere.”
“They come in and sing these nice songs – not all of which are familiar,” she said. “There are always lots of children sitting and listening, with their eyes wide open.”
Anne Robin, a staff physician at the university’s McKinley Health Center and professor of family practice in the College of Medicine, was once one of the wee ones mesmerized by the music when her own parents, Gerald and Lois Brighton, hosted the singers.
The Brightons were among the group’s original audiences in 1959. They began hosting the Temperley Singers again in 1994 and continued until four years ago, when Robin and her partner Nancy Melin took over as hosts.
“I remember the first time they came. It seemed magical to me – the whole Christmas thing, with the decorations, the special cookies,” said Robin, who was an impressionable 8 year old, thrilled to be allowed to attend the “adult party” when the group sang for the first time in her home.
It was not unusual for the family to invite up to 30 guests into their home for the occasion.
“A musician needs an audience, and we were privileged to be that audience,” Lois Brighton said.
Brighton and Robin both recall one infamous chapter in the family’s hosting history when the audience included a surprise guest: Freddie, the family dachshund. Freddie apparently was so moved by the singing that he dashed out of the kitchen, positioned himself alongside the carolers and, according to Robin, “started singing tenor right along with them.”
Laughter, fun and family memories aside, Robin’s prime association with the experience is that the musicianship exhibited by the singers is second to none.
“This is a real performance – by excellent musicians singing interesting music in four-part and sometimes five-part harmony.”
For his part, Temperley is a bit more humble about the group’s abilities, referring to what they do as “amateur singing, not highly rehearsed or polished.”
Either way you slice the figgy pudding, the experience has become a classic holiday tradition for generations of singers, party hosts and guests throughout the Champaign-Urbana area.
“I often have to drag people away (from the post-caroling socializing) to the next engagement,” Temperley said. “Everyone has such a good time.”