Christmas Music is upon us, which means it’s time to rediscover all those favourite festive pieces of music, Find out how classical music does Christmas, from traditional carols to obscure gems you may not have heard…
1. Prokofiev – Troika
Taken from his Lietenant Kijé, Prokofiev’s festive sleigh-ride of a piece has since been nabbed by Greg Lake for his Christmas hit, ‘I Believe in Father Christmas’.
2. Mendelssohn – Hark The Herald Angels Sing
Did you know that the chorus of this classic carol was originally going to be, “Hark! How all the welkin rings / Glory to the King of Kings”? And its lyricist, Charles Wesley, originally wanted some slow and rather depressing music to accompany it? Thank goodness Mendelssohn stuck his oar in with his superb melody.
3. Whitacre – Little Tree
Eric Whitacre set a poem by E.E. Cummings to this gorgeous, haunting music. Not only that, he dedicated it to his little sister as well. Aww.
4. Britten – A Ceremony of Carols
Don’t expect to hear the usual carols in this gorgeous collection from Benjamin Britten. It’s still as festive as mince pies, but it’s an altogether more thoughtful and obscure set, with 11 carols given a unique spin.
5. Bach – Christmas Oratorio
One of the festive season’s most established classics, Bach’s Christmas Oratorio describes the nativity, the adoration of the shepherds and, slightly less festively, the circumcision and naming of Jesus.
6. André Rieu
The King Of The Waltz may be best known for travelling the world to give epic concerts of Strauss waltzes, but he also knows how to do Christmas. His Christmas concerts usually come from his castle in Maastricht, where you can expect fake snow, festive tunes and plenty of Christmassy waltzes. Marvellous.
7. Tchaikovsky – Nutcracker
The Nutcracker is something of a Christmas tradition. The festive tale of a toy soldier that comes to life has endured over the years and been subject to some radical retellings (Matthew Bourne’s is pictured). But it’s Tchaikovsky’s music at the centre that makes it that little bit more special.
8. The Holly and the Ivy
Now you really can’t do Christmas without ‘The Holly and the Ivy’. Another traditional carol that’s been subjected to endless arrangements and interpretations, it’s a staple in church services and secular concerts alike.
9. Hely-Hutchinson – Symphony of Carols
Written in 1927, Victor Hely-Hutchinson’s festive shindig of a piece takes the listener on a tour of some of the best-loved Chrimbo carols including O Come All Ye Faithful, God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen and The First Nowell.
10. Berlioz – L’Enfance du Christ
This epic Berlioz work tackles the not-exactly-tiny story of Christ’s youth, starting with his birth. It’s not exactly ‘Ding-Dong Merrily on High’, but it’s still fantastic stuff.
11. The John Rutter Christmas Album
John Rutter is probably the composer above all others that we associate most with Christmas. And with his huge wealth of material dedicated to the season it’s no surprise – we recommend the sensibly-titled John Rutter Christmas Album for all your caroling needs.
12. Karl Jenkins – A Celebration of Christmas
The most performed composer of his generation has a go at Christmas with this delightful set of carols. Expect modern arrangements of Christmas Carols from mediaeval times all the way up to today.
13. Tchaikovsky – Christmas waltz
Vivaldi’s wasn’t the only composer to write about the Four Seasons – Tchaikovsky gave it a go as well. His seasons actually contain a dainty little Christmas waltz, a delightful little nod to the festive season.
14. Elgar – A Christmas Greeting
It’s not one of his best-known works, but this delicate little Christmas song shows Elgar at his most Elgarian. Descriptions of the English countryside and calls of ‘Nöel!’ make this an underrated festive gem.
15. Vivaldi – Winter
Where would we be at Christmas without Vivaldi? Few composers ‘get’ winter quite like him – though it begins dramatically with a stormy first movement, the beautiful second movement is a cosy delight to be enjoyed with a nice drop of mulled wine.
16. Gruber – Silent Night
So the story goes, this classic carol was first performed on Christmas Eve in 1818 – but it was composed by Franz Xavez Gruber for the guitar, because the church’s organ was broken. Good thing they didn’t call an engineer.
17. In the Bleak Midwinter
Nothing says ‘Christmas’ like a choral arrangement of ‘In The Bleak Midwinter’. But which one should you choose? There’s the popular version by Holst (known as ‘Cranham’), or there’s an arrangement by choral whizz Bob Chilcott, but you’re probably most likely to hear Harold Edward Darke’s setting – the choir of King’s College, Cambridge, use it every year at Christmas.
18. Saint-Saëns – Oratorio de Noël
Camille Saint-Säens left this one to the last minute. Although it only took a fortnight to complete, he still submitted it just 10 days before its premiere performance in 1858.
19. I Saw Three Ships
Another caroling favourite, ‘I Saw Three Ships’ is actually blighted by a little geographical niggle. The text of the carol refers to ships arriving in Bethlehem, but the nearest boat access would be about 20 miles away from Bethlehem itself. But, if you can get past that, it’s still a Christmas cracker.
20. Handel – The Messiah
Handel confidently announces the birth of Christ with a radiant section of his Messiah that quotes St Luke’s gospel, ‘For Unto Us A Child Is Born’. Now that’s how you do Christmas.