The best pieces of festive classical music
The BBC Music Magazine team gather round the metaphorical fire to choose their favourite seasonal pieces
It’s officially the festive season, so we’re all finally permitted to don our finest reindeer jumpers, have mugs of mulled wine thrust upon us on entry into any room, and generally indulge in all things rich and fruity (that counts for food and music in equal measures).
To coincide with our Christmas playlist on Apple Music (available here), the BBC Music Magazine team have chosen their favourite seasonal pieces.
‘Troika’ from Lieutenant Kijé Suite by Prokofiev
‘Troika’ from Prokofiev’s Lieutenant Kijé Suite conjures up a crisp, bell-filled wintry scene and fits this time of year perfectly. After a grand brass introduction, the famous fourth movement ‘Troika’ breezes along, creating the impression of a fast-moving sleigh. The music was written for a Soviet film in 1933 – when Prokofiev returned to his homeland after a ten-year residency in Paris – and charts the life of a fictional military officer.
Recommended recording: Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra/Andrew Litton BIS BIS1994
Tomorrow shall be my dancing day by John Gardner
There seems to be a dearth of cheery Christmas choral works – most tend to be reflective rather than joyful (think Warlock, Howells, Michael Head, etc etc). But John Gardner’s sprightly two-minute burst of joy is inspired, its off-set rhythms and constantly changing time-signatures giving a wonderful sense of forward movement. Gardner, born in 1917, was a prolific composer of orchestral, chamber, vocal and instrumental music, but it’s for this delightful Christmas miniature that he’s almost solely known today.
Recommended recording: The Sixteen/Harry Christophers CORO COR16004
‘Hail Mary, Gracious!’ from El Niño by John Adams
Adams’s nativity oratorio is one of the more unusual retellings of the Christmas story. The text is drawn from various biblical sources as well as a number of poems written by Latin American women, and the musical language is littered with inflections of Latin American folk music. Its theatrical writing is John Adams to a T, and the floating harmonies and unusual rhythms in this movement are warm and otherworldly. The trio of countertenors make this movement completely magical.
Recommended recording: Lorraine Hunt-Lieberson, Dawn Upshaw, Willard White, German Symphony Orchestra/Kent Nagano Nonesuch 7559 79634-2
A Ceremony of Carols by Benjamin Britten, particularly Interlude (Harp Solo)
Amid all the choral hurly-burly of Britten’s wonderfully invigorating A Ceremony of Carols comes the moment of extraordinary stillness that is the Interlude for solo harp. Based on the plainchant that we hear at the beginning of the work, this is music that reminds me of a frozen, deserted landscape, in which the only movement is the occasional drip from a slowly melting icicle. It’s extraordinarily atmospheric, and an essential part of my festive listening each year.
Recommended recording: James O’Donnell (organ), Sioned Williams (harp), Choir of Westminster Cathedral/David Hyperion CDA66220
O come, O come Emmanuel
If I haven't heard or sung O come, O come Emmanuel at least once over Christmas, even an extra mince pie won't stop me feeling short-changed on the festive front. This haunting hymn for Advent and Christmas has an ancient quality that I love. The text and tune developed separately through the centuries, and various versions exist, but the familiar words-and-music combination in English came into being in 1851. Rejoice, Rejoice!
Recommended recording: Choir of King’s College, Cambridge/Sir David Willcocks Warner Classics 9992365032
Freya Parr is BBC Music Magazine's Digital Editor and Staff Writer. She has also written for titles including the Guardian, Circus Journal, Frankie and Suitcase Magazine, and runs The Noiseletter, a fortnightly arts and culture publication. Freya's main areas of interest and research lie in 20th-century and contemporary music.