The Madrigal Dinner-Concert
The Presbyterian College Choir ushered in the Christmas season with the annual Christmas at PC performances over the weekend of November 30-December 2. Kneel to the Child of Light, the theme of the production this year, was again conducted by Dr. J. Porter Stokes, Chair of the Music Department and Director of Choral Activities at the college. This performance, always spectacular and moving, has become a much-anticipated tradition across our campus and the upstate.
In earlier years on campus, The Madrigal Dinner-Concert founded in 1966 by Dr. Charles T. Gaines, began a Christmas tradition which spanned 33 years.
After joining the Fine Arts Department on campus in 1965, Dr. Gaines approached student Sam Hobson, PC class of 1969, regarding his intention to initiate a madrigal singing group on campus. After initial plans were made, Sam began research over the next summer into authentic 16th century English style of dress, then designed costumes for the first performance in December 1966. The Clinton Chronicle reported that November that “there were no patterns available for the costumes and Mr. Hobson had to make them [patterns] and give careful instruction to many seamstresses who sewed the costumes, in some cases, mothers of the singers.” Later according to The Laurens County Advertiser of December 11, 1991, Sam also attended the Berea School of Dance in Kentucky where he learned English Morris dancing, later sharing the steps with the PC performers. In addition, Sam designed the Madrigal Singers Coat of Arms as shown here.
The Madrigal Dinner-Concert featured a typically English dinner served in the 16th century style of Merrie Olde England. Greenville Dining Hall was transformed into a “Great Hall” and trumpet fanfares announced various courses of the meal and highlighted the entrance of the richly costumed Madrigal Singers. Performers entertained and madrigals were sung throughout the meal of roasted beef, Yorkshire pudding, native cheeses, plum pudding, and hot mulled cider that was prepared by Mr. Vernon Powell and the dining hall staff each year. The cost of an adult dinner reservation at the inaugural event in 1966 was $3.00.
Madrigals are secular songs based on pastoral fables or love themes, written primarily for unaccompanied voices. Up to eighteen singers were selected each year from the PC Choir based on musical ability and vocal talent. A magician, a jester, up to ten Morris dancers, strolling troubadours, a trumpeter, and occasionally tumblers dressed in appropriate costumes were chosen from the student body to contribute to the entertainment of dinner guests, much as was done in the 16th century.
Preparations for the event began at the start of fall semester each year. Additional students were recruited from the PC Choir and student body to serve the four course meal to guests. Choir members were responsible for managing the publicity, decorations, and reservations for this event which was always held immediately before final exam week.
In January of 1969, a video recording of the performance was made to be shown on SC-ETV the following December. The Madrigal Singers also appeared on WIS-Columbia’s Today in Carolina. The Morris dancers and Jester appeared with the Singers in all segments and Merlin the Magician was featured in one segment, as well. According to The Laurens Advertiser, the Madrigal Singers performed at local schools, including Laurens District High School in 1975 and Laurens Grammar & Ford Elementary schools in 1977.
In 1986, the Madrigal Singers were invited to re-create their dinner performance in Greenville, S.C. at the Hyatt Regency as a benefit for St. Francis Hospital. Dr. Gaines worked with the hotel chefs to duplicate the menu, including the processional Boar’s Head. Possibly the oldest continuing festival of the Christmas season, the presentation of a boar’s head at Christmas came to symbolize the triumph of the Christ Child over sin.
Dr. Chuck Gaines retired from the faculty of Presbyterian College in May 1998. By that time the Madrigal Dinner-Concert had drawn guests from across the southeast to the performance each year. The event is remembered fondly as an important part of PC’s colorful history.