In many ways, Christmas is designed for the eyes, ears, and taste of a child. A new CD released by the Bach Choir of Bethlehem (Pennsylvania) proposes that Christmas is meant for the voice of a child.
The recording by the oldest Bach choir in America — and one of its finest — features classical choral pieces along with Christmas stories and poems, loosely based on the format of the annual Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols.
Called “A Child’s Christmas in Bethlehem,” it has no Frosty, no Rudolph, and nary a jingle bell in earshot.
Some of the selected songs and stories on the CD will be unfamiliar. “Betelehemu” is a Nigerian carol about the holy city; “Snow of Bethlehem” is a story about the Moravians who founded Bethlehem, Pa., in 1741; and “A La Nanita Nana” is a traditional Spanish carol.
“It’s not commercial in its approach. It’s not a popular appeal. It’s meant to be something that uplifts and edifies,” said artistic director and conductor Greg Funfgeld. “One of my favorite lessons at Christmastime is when [the Bible] says, ‘Mary took all these things and pondered them in her heart.'” (Luke 2:19)
The CD prominently features the voices of children. Funfgeld brought in the Bel Canto Children’s Choir to join his Bach Choir, and many of the readings were done by children.
“Children are really drawn in when they hear the voices of other children,” said Bridget George, the executive director of the Bach Choir. “Even the experience of working with them was so precious.”
Case in point: “The Lamb” from William Blake’s “Songs of Innocence and Experience.” The simple poem of sing-songy couplets (“Little lamb, who made thee? Dost thou know who made thee?”) proved too delicate for an adult voice to carry.
“Its meaning is so profound. To read it so that both its delicacy and charm, and its profound depth comes through is not easy,” said George. So 14-year old Maya Briggs of Bethlehem came in to take a crack at it.
“She just blew us away. I have never heard a fresher, more delightful and meaningful interpretation of Blake’s ‘The Lamb,'” said George. “It just melts your heart.”
The 95 voices of the Bach Choir can do many things, but none of them have the unique quality of a children’s voice. Anyone who watches “A Charlie Brown Christmas” whenever it comes on television knows instinctively that the high, crisp, slightly unsure voice of a child carries as much weight as anything in the script.
“I think children can help us recover a sense of magic — of wonder, mystery, and joy — that sometimes adults have trouble accessing,” said Funfgeld.
You can hear an exceprt from “A Child’s Christmas in Bethlehem” via the orange audio button at the top of the page.