Claude Debussy’s Noel des Enfants Qui N’ont Plus De Maisons (Christmas Carol for Homeless Children)

imageThough Claude Debussy is one of my favorite composers, I hadn’t heard “Noel des Enfants Qui N’ont Plus De Maisons” (“Christmas Carol for Homeless Children”) until recently. It’s on soprano Carmen Balthrop’s lovely CD The Art of Christmas, Vol. 1. It’s a strange, disturbing (and possibly disturbed) thing — Debussy wrote it in 1915 during World War I as a plea for vengeance, a prayer from the French children that the Germans should have no Christmas.

Some of the lyrics: ‘We have no more house, nor home! Enemies took all we had, all gone, all gone, even our own little bed! The school they burned, they burnt our teacher, too… Surely Daddy to fight has gone, poor Mommy is in heaven — died and did not see all this. O! What shall we do now? Jesu! Infant Jesu! Do not go to them, don’t go to them ever, punish them all! Avenge the children of France!….Noel! Noel! We want no toys, but may we please get back again our daily bread….Jesu! Listen to us, our wooden shoes we have no more, so please give victory to the children of France!’

This war carol — which is an oxymoron if there ever was one — is the least joyful Christmas song I know, a hymn of gloom and doom that makes ‘Mary and Joseph’ sound positively giddy. It sounds better in French, of course, especially if you don’t know what the words mean.

Madame Balthrop’s lovely voice gives it an impersonal tone; in childrens’ voices, though, it’s devastating. It’s not long – but it packs quite an emotional wallop in just two and a half minutes, with an insistent, haunting melodic frame around an almost staccato vocal line. ‘Noel Des Enfants Qui N’ont Plus de Maisons’ is too well crafted to be mere propaganda. It’s a wrathful indictment.


Kathleen Bartholomew

Born in the middle of the last century, Kathleen Bartholomew has no clear idea of how she got into the current one, except that she has apparently failed to die. She is an over-educated product of 12 years of Catholic school, and still pursues the researches in history, herbology, archeology and palaentology that began under the aegis of the nuns during a recent interregnum in religious glaciation. An obsessive reader from the age of 9, she joined Green Man Review to meet the free books. For the last 30 years, Kathleen has also hosted alternated personalities Kate Bombey (Elizabethan) and Ariadne Bombay (Victorian). Mother Bombey runs the Green Man Inn at the original Renaissance Pleasure Faire at various locations in California; Mrs. Bombay presides over the Green Man Public House at the Dickens Christmas Fair in San Francisco. This has enabled Kathleen to mix 300 years' worth of diverse cocktails and given her permanent temporal dislocation syndrome. She lives in genteel poverty in Pismo Beach, California, with thousands of books,and Harry, a parrot who thinks he's a space pirate.

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