The best French 19th-century festive works
We explore some of France's most famous Christmas music from the 19th century
Berlioz’s magical Christmas tale (or ‘Trilogie sacrée’), L’enfance du Christ, is one of the world's most famous pieces of festive classical music.
However, popular though it may be, it is not the most famous contribution to the Christmas choral repertoire from 19th-century France.
Six years earlier, Adolphe Adam composed his ‘Minuit, chrétiens!’, setting a poem by Placide Cappeau – under its English title with words by John Sullivan Dwight, O Holy Night has become a world favourite.
For a fairly substantial festive listen – though rather shorter than L’enfance du Christ – there’s Saint-Saëns’s Christmas Oratorio. A ten-movement work written in 1858 when the 23-year-old composer was an organist at La Madeleine in Paris, it is scored for soloists, chorus, organ, harp and strings, and in style owes much to both Bach and Berlioz.
Many of Saint-Saëns’s contemporary compatriots also wrote Christmas music, but on a much smaller scale. Try, for instance, Gounod’s charming Noël for female voices piano and ad lib organ, Guilmant’s Coeur de Jésus Enfant for soloist, chorus and organ, Fauré’s buoyant Noël for voice and harmonium or, popping into Belgium, Franck’s more reflective La Vierge à la creche for choir and organ (or piano).
Massenet’s most famous festive offering is thoroughly miserable – the title character of his 1887 opera Werther kills himself on Christmas Eve – so head instead for his La Neige for solo voice and piano.
And, finally, away from the vocal and choral world, there’s the Farandole from Bizet’s L’Arlésienne Suite No. 2, an orchestral setting of the ancient carol The March of the Kings.