James Kevin Gray is the composer of the Christmas Carol Little Babe, Born of Mary. He is also one of our newest composers. We had a chat with him to find out more about the motivations, inspirations, and his process behind this piece.
Little Babe, Born of Mary was created for a live Public Radio broadcast of a community-wide Service of Lessons and Carols held at St. John’s Baptist Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, where I serve as Minister for Worship and Music.
Whilst in the midst of composing a new carol for the event, I sang the words, ‘Little Babe born of Mary’ using the opening sequence of notes from a piece I had written three years earlier for a different text. It fit, and I decided to create a new text to fit the pre-existing music — though I did not begin writing immediately. Instead, I spent a week immersing myself in the Christmas Story and internalizing what the story meant to me, as well as other people throughout all ages and cultures. When I began to craft the text, I was surprised by how quickly the process went and soon discovered the overarching theme for the piece: a theme of mystery.
The Ancient Hebrews used the word, ruach, and the Greeks used the word pneuma, which means ‘breath’, to describe the Spirit of God. This piece has many moments of rest where the audience, as well as the singers, can experience the feeling of breathing during the silence. It is my hope that all would feel a sense of meditation during the rests and enjoy those moments of silence as much as the moments of sound and statement. Furthermore, the melody is chant-like to allow the text to be fully understood, and the harmonies are modern yet without superfluous notes that hide or take away from the simplicity of phrases.
For me, the peak of the piece happens in measures 28-30; “God with us sent here to dwell.” The word, “dwell,” is held by the sopranos who linger and seem to suspend time. This portion of the piece centres on the great mystery of this little babe’s birth: how could God dwell here among us in such a fragile and helpless state? This reminds us how, at times, we each find ourselves in that same state; fragile and helpless. As we ponder this mystery, we might see that God’s divine spirit can help us find joy and purpose in the midst of whatever is happening in our own lives.
Each child born today, whilst not the Christ child, still holds almost limitless potential to change and effect the world as they grow into adults. What we do as community, and how we nurture and cherish them, will greatly affect whether the change they create will be good or bad. This is why I dedicated Little Babe Born of Mary to my son Mason, so that I might be reminded of the part I play in helping him reach his fullest and brightest potential.
Featured image credit: Christmas Crib Figures by Alexas_Fotos. Public domain via pixabay.