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“The Road to Bethlehem”: The Music of Christmas 2023

 From the desk of Dr. Peter Latona, Director of Music

Every fall at the Basilica, there comes the task of selecting music for our Annual Christmas Concert. There’s a kind of comforting familiarity to the ritual; I’ll pull out my stack of music scores, open the file with my Christmas notes, pour a cup of coffee, and begin searching for inspiration.

This year, the piece at the top of the stack was one I hadn’t looked at before, titled “The Little Road to Bethlehem,” by Michael Head (1900-1976). I decided to play it through, and discovered it was a charming piece with an utterly simple text – almost child-like, but most endearing.
Nativity Mosaic

“As I walked down the road at set of sun,
The lambs were coming homewards, one by one,
I heard a sheep-bell softly calling them
Along the little road to Bethlehem.

Beside an open door, as I drew nigh,
I heard sweet Mary sing a lullaby.
She sang about the lambs at close of day
And rocked her tiny King among the hay. 

Across the air the silver sheep-bell rang,
‘The lambs are coming home,’ sweet Mary sang,
‘Your Star of Gold is shining in the sky,
So sleep, my little King, go lullaby.’”

– Margaret Rose, 1888-1958

The image of the road to Bethlehem reminded me of when I performed organ recitals in Bethlehem, Jerusalem, Jaffa, and Nazareth during a visit to the Holy Land. My thoughts also went to the tragic war and violence happening in that part of the world this very day. The graceful charm of the music and the simplicity of the text – with its mention of the sheep-bell softly calling the lambs along the road to Bethlehem – filled me with emotion as it focused my attention on Bethlehem and all that it means and represents.

That piece went on the “yes” pile.

The next piece I chose had been listed at the top of my notes: “Bethlehem Down,” by Peter Warlock (1894-1930). A slow, brooding hymn written in a minor key with voices singing low registers, it doesn’t exactly leap off the page as an obvious choice for a Christmas concert. The first verse of the text references the gifts of the Magi, “myrrh for sweetness and gold for a crown.” Verse three, however, draws a parallel and points to Christ’s passion and death as the poem by Bruce Blunt (1899-1967) continues, “myrrh for embalming and wood for a crown.” He that lay in the arms of Mary as an infant now lies in her arms, asleep once again, on Good Friday. But, of course, as Christians, we know the rest of the story. 

“‘When he is King we will give him the King’s gifts,
myrrh for its sweetness, and gold for a crown,

Beautiful robes,’ said the young girl to Joseph,
fair with her firstborn on Bethlehem Down.

Bethlehem Down is full of the starlight,
winds for the spices, and stars for the gold,
Mary for sleep, and for lullaby music
songs of a shepherd by Bethlehem fold.

When he is King they will clothe him in gravesheets,
myrrh for embalming, and wood for a crown,
he that lies now in the white arms of Mary,
sleeping so lightly on Bethlehem Down.

Here he has peace and a short while for dreaming,
close-huddled oxen to keep him from cold,
Mary for love, and for lullaby music
songs of a shepherd by Bethlehem fold.”

 – Bruce Blunt, 1899-1967

The Many Roads to Bethlehem

Basilica Christmas Choir Concert 2023The two carols, “The Little Road to Bethlehem” and “Bethlehem Down,” both represent two contrasting reflections on the Nativity. Of course, artists, musicians, and poets have offered countless expressions of the mystery of the Incarnation over the centuries. While the Church’s teaching on the Birth of Christ remains unchanging, for each of the faithful, Christmas and the Christmas Season are shaped by our own experiences, traditions, and values. We all have our own “road to Bethlehem.”

Our hope is that the Choir of the Basilica’s annual concert for 2023 serves as a “road to Bethlehem” for all those who hear it. A good bit of the program includes arrangements of familiar Christmas carols: “Lo how a rose e’er blooming”; “Away in a Manger”; “We Three Kings”; “Bring a Torch Jeanette, Isabella”; and more. My wish is that those who experience the concert are transported from the bustle of daily life, even if for an hour; are mesmerized by the exceptional singing and beautiful music; and are drawn into the Crypt Church, the spiritual heart of the Basilica. May this program be part of your journey to Bethlehem this Christmastide – consider it our gift to you.

Experience “The Road to Bethlehem”

You can watch the “The Road to Bethlehem” and hear the heavenly voices of the Choir of the Basilica below!

Finding the Light in the Darkness: A Christmas Reflection from Monsignor Vito
5 Pieces of Art to Reflect on This Christmas