Though 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.i ts’ 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.