Singing The Lost Words Back to Life

Singing The Lost Words Back to Life
Nature words are disappearing from children’s vocabulary. James Burton and the Boston Symphony Children’s Choir are bringing them back.

In 2007, and then again in 2015, Oxford University Press released new editions of its “Junior” Dictionary, which omitted dozens of familiar nature words that had apparently fallen into disuse – “acorn,” “bluebell,” “dandelion,” “otter,” and “willow,” among others.

This summer, the Boston Symphony Children’s Choir (BSCC) is singing the words back to life.

James Burton, Alan J. and Suzanne W. Dworsky BSO Choral Director and Conductor of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus and Boston Symphony Children’s Choir, has composed The Lost Words, a 30-minute piece for children’s choir and orchestra, along with a version for piano accompaniment.

The Boston Symphony Children’s Choir with Burton and Macfarlane
The Boston Symphony Children’s Choir with Burton and Macfarlane  

The unusual libretto for the piece is The Lost Words, a children’s book by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris, written in response to the Oxford Junior Dictionary’s omission of nature words. The book includes illustrations of these words, together with poems (or "word spells") designed to be spoken aloud and bring the lost words back into existence. Published in the U.K. in 2017, and late 2018 in the U.S., The Lost Words has already won various literary prizes and inspired crowd-funding projects, thousands of school projects, a hospital art project in London, and other related artistic projects including a folk music album and a BBC Prom planned for this August. Through a joint commission between the BSO and the Hallé Orchestra, Burton has set 12 of these word spells for children’s choir using a variety of musical styles.

Burton, who has composed plenty of vocal music in his career, says this piece is unlike anything he’s worked on before. “I've never done anything quite like this,” he says. “But I don't think there's anything like this book.”

“Having children myself, and being aware of their vocabulary and what they're exposed to, it just seemed it was an unfortunate, slightly tragic reason that this book existed,” he said. “But what an amazing, creative, positive, beautiful, playful, forceful response to that seeming sort of crisis…. It’s quite a remarkable thing.”

The Lost Words author Robert Macfarlane visited Symphony Hall in June to listen to the Boston Symphony Children's Choir rehearse Burton’s piece
The Lost Words author Robert Macfarlane visited Symphony Hall in June to listen to the Boston Symphony Children's Choir rehearse Burton’s piece  

The BSCC gave the world premiere of the entire piece with the version for piano on Sunday, July 21 as part of Tanglewood’s Summer Sundays program. They will also perform a portion of the work at the Tanglewood on Parade concert with the BSO accompanying on Tuesday, July 23.

“I've wanted it to be music which the children would respond to,” said Burton. And so far, he says, “the kids are reacting beautifully. I just would love for them to feel that they can be responding in their hearts and minds as well as learning about the piece and the singing.”

And indeed, Gita, Navaa, and Taban’s faces lit up when they tried to decide on their favorite movements of the piece.

“I love Bluebell,” says Taban, 13. “It’s just so calm and relaxed and, I don’t know, wonderful.”

Gita, 13, likes Otter – “it’s really exciting,” she says. Navaa, 12, agrees. She says, “it gets in your head and stays there.”

These singers, who have been in the BSCC since its inception, all feel strongly about the meaning behind the piece.

“These [movements] are taken from words that aren’t in the dictionary,” says Gita. “You’d think, why would you take away words that…they’re there, they’re part of nature?”

“Exactly!” says Navaa. “Nature’s being destroyed, but it doesn’t mean nature isn’t there anymore.”

And in fact, Burton says The Lost Words “is not so much concerned with children. Children are doing fine!” he said. He and members of the children’s choir discussed this with Macfarlane, the author of the book, when he visited Symphony Hall in June to hear the piece and share his thoughts and inspirations for the poems.

“It's perhaps more about what the adults are doing and, after all, it wasn’t a child who omitted ‘acorn’ from the Junior Oxford Dictionary!” Burton said. “What does that mean about what we adults are doing, and what we're teaching, and what we value? So it's a children's book, but it's [for] children of all ages.”

And what better place to celebrate and revive these nature words than Tanglewood? Burton says the children’s choir members are excited to have the chance to return to the Berkshires this summer.

“For the kids to come just for a few days, it makes another indelible musical mark on their young lives, and doing a world premiere of any piece is always exciting,” he says. 

Gita, Navaa, and Taban all agree that singing at Tanglewood feels different than anywhere else.

“You’re surrounded by nature and it’s so peaceful,” says Navaa.

Taban smiles when she thinks about the Tanglewood grounds. “It’s just so alive and free,” she says, “and you can sing there! It’s just the best of everything.”

To purchase tickets for the performance of The Lost Words at Tanglewood on Parade on July 23, visit

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