46 years of Christmas Carols
Since 1971, his freshman year at Westminster Choir College, Dr. Jerry Custer ’75 has composed a Christmas carol. When he was a sophomore, his composition won the Westminster Christmas Carol contest. The win brought him to the attention of Ralph Fisher ’72, who made it possible for him to study with Malcolm Williamson, Custer’s first and only composition teacher. “A life-changing encounter, that was,” Custer says.
Over the years, many of his annual carols have been published, mostly by GIA Publications. Some have been recorded. Balulalow is on the Westminster Choir’s A Westminster Christmas II recording. Winter’s Cold is on the Voices of Anam Cara’s recording Inscape, Choral Music of Gerald Custer. A few have been performed at Westminster’s Evening of Readings and Carols, which is presented each year in the Princeton University Chapel.
“But whether visible at that level, or just sung by church choirs, I send them out each year to a host of alumni, friends, and classmates,” he says, adding, “They seem to like them.”
As soon as the basic carol is written, he sends it by email a list of classmates, colleagues, students and friends he’s assembled over the years.
“Some of them use notation software (I’m old school, and still use Finale), but since many of them don’t, I always include it in PDF and mp3 formats as well,” he says. “At some point after the carol is released, I often turn it into a choral anthem as well, since many of the people on the list are, like me, practicing church musicians with limited budgets.”
“It is a great joy to open the first gift of the season, and having it be such a surprise of beauty,” says Tim Wert ’76, director of Music Ministries at Windsor United Methodist Church in Columbia, S.C. “I especially love it when he writes the words and music as it is so much more insightful that way. I use them in my church work but often in different ways, such as playing just the tune on recorder or singing as a solo. “
"The carols are a delight and I look forward to receiving them. Each annual reflection of the season bears Jerry's "stamp"; it is also a reflection of his gift of composing for voices," says Nancy Taylor Ginsburg '75, accompanist at First United Methodist Church in Caldwell, Texas. "In the small churches I have served, we have been able to use some of the simpler carols, those that have been set for choirs with limited tessitura! I truly hope they will be consolidated into one volume at some point in time."
Text is an integral part of all choral music, and it plays a vital role in the message of a Christmas carol. Considering his use of text, he says, “Text means a great deal to me in writing choral music in general, and in writing my annual carol in particular. I always start with text. Whenever possible, I set poetry by established authors—William Blake, G.K. Chesterton, Christopher Smart, the 16th century Wedderburn brothers, for example. When can’t find a text that appeals to me, I end up writing my own. That was the case with Winter’s Cold, for example, and for this year’s carol, Journey Carol, which focuses on the journey of the Holy Family and our own journey through life.”
Dedicated to his students at Wayne State University in Detroit, Journey Carol has been accepted for publication by Sacred Music Press and it will be released next year. In the meantime, music lovers who aren’t lucky enough to be on his Christmas carol list can listen to two recordings of Jerry Custer’s carols. Balulalow, recorded by the Westminster Choir conducted by Joe Miller, is streaming on YouTube and Spotify, where it’s included in Spotify’s Classical Christmas playlist. It’s also included in the recording A Westminster Christmas II and available for to stream on Amazon. Winter’s Cold is on the Voices of Anam Cara’s recording Inscape, Choral Music of Gerald Custer and is also on Spotify and available for purchase through Amazon.
Dr. Jerry Custer is a multifaceted choral musician, active as conductor, composer, author, clinician and teacher. After earning a bachelor’s degree from Westminster Choir College, he went on to earn a master's degree in orchestral conducting with additional work in historical musicology at The George Washington University, and the Doctor of Musical Arts in choral conducting at Michigan State University.
An award-winning composer and arranger, Custer has composed for church, college and university choirs across the country in addition to writing for Westminster’s choirs. His commissions include multiple works for the choir of the Interlochen Arts Academy, a choral symphony premiered at Carnegie Hall by the Metropolitan Youth Orchestra of New York, and a setting of the Stabat Mater Speciosa premiered by the choir of Hennepin Avenue United Methodist Church under the direction of William Mathis ‘71 and members of the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra.
With Dr. Blake Henson ‘05 he has co-authored three landmark texts: The Composer’s Craft: A Practical Guide for Students and Teachers, From Words to Music: A User’s Guide to Text for Choral Musicians, and Arranging: A Beginner’s Guide. He presently teaches theory and composition at Wayne State University.
Reflecting on Jerry's musical roots, Bruce Campbell '68, his high school choral director says, "I've used Jerry's music for some time now. I have the first vocal solo he wrote when he was in high school. His first job while in college was editing Lee H. Bristol's music. Bristol was Westminster's President at that time. I used his music with my high school choir in upstate New York, my Cazenovia College Chorale and my church in Syracuse. He came to my last church service two years ago and conducted two of his sacred pieces."