It's time again to start planning music for the Christmas season and devising ways to involve children in our Christmas worship. Year after year we search for new ways to tell the old story. What many weary children's choir directors and harried church school coordinators aren't aware of is that good complete programs are readily available.
While altogether too many mediocre cantatas have given the genre a bad name, some musical programs do offer quality music suitable for children's voices. These programs are easily produced and flexible enough to accommodate large or small groups and, most importantly, they tell the Christmas story in a fresh but faithful way.
Of the three I have described below, two would be appropriate as preludes or postludes to a worship service; the third would better serve as the first part of a church school program or a children's choir carol concert.
A Night for Dancing by Hal Hopson. Dallas: Choristers Guild, 1974. No. CGCA-155. $1.00. Performance time: 20 minutes.
This little cantata relates the story of Christ's birth through the eyes of Matthew the shepherd boy and all the animals that accompany him as he meets Mary, Joseph, and Jesus.
The opening "Procession of Joy" is a spirited piece in which all participants move joyfully toward the stable. Next, in "The Adoration of the Animals," Joseph greets the visitors and leads them to Mary and the baby Jesus. All the animals kneel and listen carefully to "Mary's Lullaby." Matthew and his friends respond with a prayerful "Carol of the Animals" that concludes with the audience joining their voices in the final "Gloria." The cantata ends with a benediction, "Go Now in Peace," leading into the "Dance of the Nativity," during which the animals and Matthew leave as joyfully as they came, spreading the good news to others on their way.
A Night for Dancing is appropriate for a wide range of children's voices. While the animals' parts can and should be sung by five- to eight-year-olds, the parts for Matthew, Joseph, and Mary require older elementary children or even junior high- or highschool-aged young people. Although the program includes no speaking parts, the solos demand a few strong singers— "Mary's Lullaby" in particular needs a clear soprano voice.
Hopson has included simple yet effective suggestions for dramatization. Directors can easily increase the number of participants by adding one or more shepherds to Matthew's part, using pairs or even groups of animals to sing the animal solos, or adding a choir of angels to strengthen the singing throughout. Costumes can be kept simple: robes for Mary and Joseph, pillowcase togas for Matthew and the shepherds, choir robes for the angels, and tagboard masks for the animals. One very effective performance tip is this: be sure to use the whole sanctuary or room. If the stable consists of a manger placed near the front, the procession should come from the rear of the room so that the congregation/audience feels they are part of the story.
With its straightforward retelling of Christ's birth, its concluding benediction, and its joyful recessional, A Night for Dancing would make a fitting conclusion to a service of worship.
A Gift for Him by Terry Kirkland. Nashville: Triune Music, 1982. Lorenz Music, No. TU 147. $2.95. Performance time: 15 minutes.
Although all the melodies in this brief Christmas musical are new, they are not difficult to learn. As composer Kirkland says in his introduction to the cantata, his intention was to write simply so that young children could learn the songs quickly and perform them well.
A Gift for Him is written for unison or two-part singing with piano and optional handbell accompaniment. The handbell parts are also relatively simple, requiring only two octaves of bells (although additional notes are scored for those groups that desire three octaves). The piece is well within the grasp of kindergarten through third graders; if the performing group includes older children, several selections lend themselves well to short solos with dramatic interpretation.
The musical tells the Bethlehem story, beginning with the introductory "It's a Quiet Night" and continuing with songs telling of the arrival of Jesus, the worship of the shepherds, and finally the angels' alleluias. The joyful conclusion reveals how the children can return "gifts" to Jesus by showing patience like that of Joseph and Mary, spreading the good news as the shepherds did, and singing praises as the angels sang them long ago.
Because this cantata is brief and carries a clear and simple message, churches may want to use it as a prelude or postlude to a worship service. The program's emphasis on returning gifts to Jesus makes it a suitable "musical offering" for a liturgical setting.
The composer suggests using visual art to illustrate the various scenes as the children sing. With simple costuming and a minimum of dramatic interpretation, several children could easily act out the story as it is sung. No matter how elaborate or simple the visual effects become, the eloquent simplicity of the melodies coupled with the lovely addition of handbells will convey the Christmas message in a new and memorable way.
Silent Night by Hal Hopson. New Berlin, WI: Jenson, 1980. No. 43319021. $2.95. Performance time: 15 minutes.
This children's musical is so full of dramatic possibilities, musical integrity, and just plain fun that it is worth devising a setting in which to perform it. Silent Night is not suited for performance during a worship service, but it would make a delightful beginning for a church or school Christmas celebration. Although written for children's chorus, it could be performed by a wide range of singers—young children to sing the chorus parts and older children, or even adults, to sing and act the parts of Herr Gruber, Pastor Mohr, Hilda, and Karl, the organ repairman.
The musical tells the familiar story of how Franz Gruber composed "Silent Night" one Christmas Eve long ago. Hopson's lighthearted addition of three church mice—Hickory, Dickory, and Dock (who feast on the organ bellows, making the instrument horribly out of tune and unplayable)—may be more fantasy than fact, but it makes for some delightfully humorous moments.
The musical concludes with Herr Gruber singing his carol accompanied by his guitar and all the village children. The final words, "All together now," invite the audience to join in singing the beloved old carol.
Suggestions for simple costumes and staging are included in the score. Although the speaking parts are brief enough to be handled by younger children, a production featuring adults in these roles would be especially fun for all involved. (For example, your minister playing Pastor Mohr and the church organist acting the part of Herr Gruber could turn an ordinary program into a memorable event!) Any number of children may be added to the group of carolers so that all members of the youth choir or church school can participate in the performance. The chorus parts are not complicated and convey the happiness andjoy of the season.
The three programs described on these pages by no means exhaust the possibilites available for Advent and Christmas. Many excellent children's musicals, cantatas, and programs are published; all it takes is a bit of ingenuity and imagination to tailor one of them to fit the needs of your children and your church. One word of caution, however, before you begin planning your performance: once you produce a successful musical involving the children and the congregation in worship, you will have committed yourself to coming up with another one—and another one—and another one! But the joy and pride on the children's faces as they participate in a worship service should make it all worthwhile