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17 lesser-known pieces of Christmas music that deserve more recognition

There’s more to Christmas music than Bach and Handel, but just how familiar are you with the wider world of festive music? Join us as we explore 17 lesser-known gems that really should be on your yuletide listening list…

Best lesser-known Christmas music

Isn’t it about time we started getting to know Christmas music a little better? No, we’re not suggesting you spend the festive season listening to, say, Silent Night or Once in Royal on continuous loop. We’re talking about the huge number of works, great and small, that hardly ever get even a mention, let alone a performance.

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Shouldn’t we be welcoming back into the warmth some of those works that have long found themselves pushed out into cold, unloved and largely forgotten? It’s not as if there’s nothing out there.

Many of the finest composers have, over the centuries, applied their genius to festive works, but surprisingly few are widely known about. And let’s be frank, here – do we really need quite so many Messiahs every year? When it comes to the festive music scene, few other works come even close to challenging the domination of Handel’s much-loved oratorio.

Bach’s Christmas Oratorio will doubtless get a few welcome run-outs this season, and the high-voices-with-harp combination of Britten’s Ceremony of Carols is always guaranteed to pull in a crowd. If you’re lucky, you may get to wallow in the pleasures of a Berlioz L’enfance du Christ or a Schütz Christmas Story or two or, on a more intimate level, the intricate delights of Messiaen’s Vingt regards sur l’enfant-Jésus for solo piano or his La Nativité du Seigneur for organ. But, in terms of larger-scale Christmas works, that’s pretty much it.

So, we asked BBC Music Magazine’s panel of experts to name the works that they believe deserve to be more familiar. They sent back a sackful of replies, with suggestions ranging from Liszt magnum opuses to charming Brahms trios. Below, we select our 12 favourites, one for each Day of Christmas, and five stocking-fillers to complete the yuletide scene. It’s time to start exploring…

Palestrina:  Missa Hodie Christus Natus Est (1575)

The Renaissance great greets Christmas with an immaculately crafted choral gem

Palestrina’s Missa Hodie Christus Natus Est is a parody mass: namely, a reworking of an earlier motet of the same name. It was written in 1575, during Palestrina’s second stint as choirmaster of St Paul’s Basilica in Rome. The work is a wonderful example of poly-choral writing: Palestrina heightens the interaction between the two choirs by using contrasting voicing, one high choir, and one low.

Writing for two independent choirs in this manner was a relatively new practice: evidence that even late in his career Palestrina was still pushing boundaries. It is a truly special work, as expansive moments that rock seamlessly between the two choirs are contrasted with quicker dance-like sections. The mass’s opening is identical to that of the motet, though sadly without the jolly antiphonal ‘Noe’ sections that follow in the original.

Recommended Recording: The Sixteen/Harry Christophers

Coro COR16105

Charpentier: Messe de Minuit pour Noël (c.1694)

Good humour aplenty infuses the Baroque composer’s blend of sacred and secular

Imagine going to Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve expecting solemnity… and suddenly hearing a succession of popular tunes, some decidedly chirpy, in the music that the choir is singing. What would your reaction be? We don’t know what the parishioners at the Église Saint Louis, Paris, thought, as we’re not sure when exactly they first heard the new Messe de Minuit written by their maître de musique Marc-Antoine Charpentier. But they would have known what Charpentier was doing: using tunes from familiar Christmas songs as the basic melodic material for a piece of religious music. Their titles – ‘Joseph est bien Marie’, ‘Or, nous dites Marie’, ‘Une jeune pucelle’ – are unfamiliar to English speakers, but the melodies would have been as instantly recognisable in the early 1690s as ‘Silent Night’ and ‘Once in Royal David’s City’ are to contemporary audiences.

Ten of these ‘noëls’ are quoted in total, and it’s tempting to assume that Charpentier was simply having some harmlessly irreverent seasonal fun with his well-heeled Jesuit parishioners. More generally, though, his use of popular material slots comfortably into the Jesuit philosophy of enculturation, the presentation of the Gospel message in forms and styles appropriate to the time and place in which it is presented. What’s certain is that the Messe de Minuit is one of the freshest, most glowingly joyful of all works written for the Christmas season – ‘a perfect synthesis’, as Charpentier expert Catherine Cessac puts it, ‘between the secular and the liturgical, between popular and learned writing’.

Recommended recording: Aradia Ensemble/Kevin Mallon

Naxos 8.557229

Fry: Santa Claus Symphony (1853)

Ho ho ho. A colourful orchestral romp from one of the 19th century ’s quirkier composers

William Henry Fry was an interesting character. The first ever person to hold the post of music critic on a daily newspaper in the US, he was nothing if not inventive as a composer himself – his Niagara Symphony of 1854 employed 11 timpani to create the sound of cascading water, while his Santa Claus Symphony of the previous year includes one of the first known orchestral uses of the saxophone.

Though Fry called the latter a ‘symphony’, it is really more of a tone poem, set in one continuous movement with a distinct storyline to it. Over its 25-or-so minutes we hear, among various other things, a Christmas party in full swing, the forlorn sound of a traveller getting lost in the snow and, played by the bassoon, Santa himself sidling down the chimney. Admittedly, calling Fry’s festive frolic a ‘masterpiece’ might be over-egging the Christmas pudding a tad, but the piece is a lot of fun.

Recommended recording: Royal Scottish National Orchestra/Tony Rowe

Naxos 8.559057

Saint-Saëns: Oratorio de Noël (1858)

The young Frenchman makes his mark with a choral work of atmosphere and gentle charm

Saint-Saëns was just 22 when, in 1858, he became the organ player at the prestigious Madeleine church in Paris, where Liszt, hearing him improvise, judged him the greatest organist in the world. The young Frenchman was also keen to display his credentials as a composer, and he did so immediately, premiering the Oratorio de Noël in his inaugural Christmas season.

Oddly, just one of the work’s ten movements has a text directly relating to Christmas, though the gentle, pastoral atmosphere of that movement – the story of shepherds abiding in the fields – permeates most of the others, the intimacy of the music enhanced by the delicate scoring for harp, organ and strings, and the plangent writing for five soloists. Bach and Mozart are clear models, and there’s also an ethereal foreshadowing in ‘Tecum Principium’ of the aquarium in Saint-Saëns’s own Carnival of the Animals that would appear three decades later.

Recommended recording: Vocalensemble Rastatt & Les Favorites/Holger Speck

Carus CARUS83352

Brahms: Geistliches Wiegenlied (1864)

Brahms welcomes a child to the world with warmth and affection

Brahms was good friends with the violinist Joseph Joachim for many years. When Joachim’s son was born in 1864, he was named Johannes in honour of Brahms and, in return, the German composer wrote the ‘Geistliches Wiegenlied’ (Sacred Lullaby) for the new baby. Joachim Junior’s present is a miniature masterpiece. Cast in a gently rocking 6/8 metre and in the pastoral key of F major, the song opens with a solo viola playing the medieval Christmas carol ‘Joseph, lieber Joseph mein’ – Brahms even includes the words in the score.

The warm, dusky timbre of the viola is joined by the piano and alto – Johannes’s mother was the contralto Amalie Weiss – who sings a German translation of a poem by the Spanish Renaissance poet Lope de Vega (1562-1635). While she sings a beautiful lullaby to ‘the child of heaven’, the viola weaves its own line, and echoes of the ancient carol are heard throughout this uniquely heartwarming work.

Recommended recording: Alice Coote (mezzo), Maxim Rysanov (viola), Ashley Wass (piano)

Onyx ONYX4054

Liszt: Christus (1873)

A glorious choral celebration, composed on an epic scale

Franz Liszt first toyed with the idea of writing an epic oratorio on the life of Christ while living in Weimar in 1853. However, composing such a work proved to be a much more fraught process than he had originally envisaged and, from the earliest sketches, Christus occupied his thoughts for the next 12 or so years. Even after finishing the score, Liszt felt resigned to the prospect that his magnum opus, a work lasting three hours and involving huge vocal and orchestral forces, would probably remain unperformed for many years. In fact, excerpts from the work were heard in Rome in 1867 and Vienna in 1871 (the latter featuring Bruckner as organist), and the first complete performance took place in Weimar in 1873, with Richard and Cosima Wagner among the attendees.

The opening part of Christus is entitled ‘Christmas Oratorio’ and is divided into five self-contained movements. A deeply contemplative polyphonic orchestral introduction, based on the plainchant ‘Rorate coeli desuper’ (‘Drop down ye heavens from above’) is followed by a gentle Pastorale and Annunciation of the Angels, a hymn for chorus on the text ‘Stabat mater speciosa’ and the tender Shepherds’ Song at the Manger. The final movement, entitled ‘March of the Three Holy Kings’, is much more outgoing – a brilliant piece of orchestral programme music with Hungarian inflections depicting the Three Wise Men following the Star of Bethlehem and placing their gifts before the baby Jesus.

Recommended Recording: Fanziska Hirzel etc; Czech Philharmonic Choir Brno, Beethoven Orchester Bonn/Roman Kofman

MDG MDG9371366

Sibelius: Christmas Songs, Op. 1 (1897-1913)

Short but stylish simplicity, as first enjoyed in the  Finnish composer’s household itself

Sibelius’s Christmas Songs might not be well known in England but in Finland two of them are firm yuletide favourites – ‘Giv mig ej glans, ej guld, ej prakt’ (‘Don’t give me splendour, gold or pomp’) and ‘On hanget korkeat’ (‘High are the snowdrifts’) are still sung across the country, reflecting the Sibelius family’s own festive traditions at their house, Ainola. ‘[Sibelius] played “High are the snowdrifts”, and he played so loud, with the pedal down as if he were playing the organ,’ remembers his granddaughter Laura. ‘This was all very jolly.’ Sibelius grouped the five songs together in 1915 as his Opus 1, but they were written at various points between 1897 and 1913. Four of the songs are settings of texts by Zacharias Topelius and one by Wilkku Joukahainen. Sibelius made several arrangements of ‘Give me splendour’, the most popular of the group, for different choral forces.

Recommended recording: Monica Groop (mezzo), Love Derwinger (piano)

BIS CD-657

Bartók: Romanian Christmas Carols (1915)

The folk tradition lends a surprisingly fiery festive feel to Bartók’s sets for solo piano

Prior to World War I, Bartók was intensively involved in collecting and transcribing folk music in the region of Transylvania. Among the material that most fascinated him was a collection of colinde (Romanian Christmas Carols) which were performed by groups of male carol singers that traditionally visited various houses in their own village on Christmas Eve.

These carols were very different in character and temperament to their Western equivalents, being often fiery and quite aggressive and employing irregular metrical patterns. Although most of the texts were directly connected to Christmas themes, Bartók noted that some depicted legends stretched back to the pagan era. In 1915 he arranged 20 of these colinde for piano into two equally balanced sets. The melodies are decorated with typically pungent harmonisations and Bartók exploits their rhythmic complexities in a sequence which incorporates strikingly varied tempos and contrasting tonalities. In essence, the work represents an early 20th-century equivalent to the waltz movements composed by his great predecessors Schubert and Brahms.

Recommended recording:  Zoltán Kocsis (piano)

Hungarton HCD 32527

Schoenberg: Weihnachtsmusik (1921)

Schoenberg takes a break from stark serialism for the more convivial pleasures of Christmas

It was a long-standing tradition in the Schoenberg household for the family to make music together, particularly during the Christmas holidays. In 1921, the year when he was well on the way to formulating his system of composition with 12 notes, the great man decided to take time off from these rigours by composing a work with a specifically festive theme. The result was the enchanting Weihnachtsmusik for two violins, cello, harmonium and piano.

In stark contrast to the tortured chromaticism of the Fünf Stücke für Klavier, which he was writing during this period, Weihnachtsmusik is conceived in the key of C major. It is essentially a somewhat idiosyncratic fantasia on Christmas carols which opens with a beautiful harmonisation of the Praetorius’s carol ‘Es ist  ein’ Ros’ entsprungen’. Already from the outset, hints of the even more familiar carol ‘Stille Nacht’ percolate the texture. Indeed, the way in which he manages to combine these two melodies later on in the work in contrapuntal dialogue is ingenious and deeply affecting.

Recommended recording: Arditti Quartet 

Naïve MO782160 (download only)  

Vaughan Williams: On Christmas Night (1926)

What the Dickens? Vaughan Williams brings Ebenezer Scrooge to life on the ballet stage

Agnostic he may have been, but Vaughan Williams embraced the spirit of Christmas with unbridled enthusiasm. His 1954 festive cantata Hodie still receives occasional performances, as does his unashamedly chocolate-boxy Fantasia on Christmas Carols from 1912. And then, from 1926, there’s his Dickens-inspired ballet On Christmas Night, which, rather sadly, has itself disappeared into the deep dark night.

Written in collaboration with Adolf Bolm, one of the leading dancers and choreographers of his generation, On Christmas Night tells the familiar story of Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, beginning with his creepy encounter with the ghost of Marley and rounded off with the joyful reconciliation with friends and family, accompanied here by an exuberant rendition of ‘The First Nowell’. There are other glimpses of familiar fare along the way, including an off-stage Watchman singing ‘Past Three o’Clock’, but the majority is Vaughan Williams’s own handiwork. It is all very colourful, occasionally dramatic and ultimately heartwarming.

Recommended recording: Joyful Company of Singers; City of London Sinfonia/Richard Hickox

Chandos CHAN 10385

Respighi:  Lauda per la Natività del Signore (1930)

Wandering shepherds meet celestial angels in an old-world ambience

Respighi’s best-known Christmas-related music is heard in his 1927 Trittico botticelliano, whose central movement, ‘Adoration of the Magi’, plays on a theme of ‘Veni, veni Emanuel’. But three years later came the choral work that the Italian described as his ‘personal Christmas card to the world’. Setting words by the 13th-century priest Jacopone da Todi, Lauda per la Natività portrays the Virgin Mary, shepherds and angels expressing their wonder at the birth of Christ – in music that aptly wanders between pastoral and ethereal, as weaving melodies from the woodwind and vocal soloists lead us from one celestial choral moment to the next. Respighi could rarely resist indulging his fascination with the music of centuries past, and Lauda per la Natività is no exception – the old-world ambience that permeates so much of his output works its magic here too.

Recommended recording: Britt-Marie Aruhn (soprano) etc; The Mikaeli Chamber Choir/Anders Eby

Proprius PRSACD9057

Lutosławski: Twenty Polish Christmas Carols (1946)

Charming, cheering carol settings that were born from the least likely of circumstances

In 1946, Poland had barely begun recovering from the shellshock and cultural despoliation of the wartime period. The country was also confronting a hard reality: the unyielding Communist dogma of the new regime controlling it. For Witold Lutosławski this meant suppressing the elements of modernity in his music in favour of the populist approach favoured by Social Realist policies. The happy outcome of these unhappily constraining circumstances was one of his most charming, easily approachable compositions – the Twenty Polish Christmas Carols, written to a commission from the Polish Music Publishing company. The carols were drawn from a collection published a century earlier, and their tunes are for the most part unfamiliar outside Poland. Lutos√awski’s settings are full of interesting harmonic detail and typically crystalline orchestration – ‘more on the level of miniature compositional studies than mere arrangements,’ as one commentator has put it. And sublimely beautiful they are too.

Recommended recording: Polish Radio Chorus and National Radio SO/Antoni Wit

Naxos 8.555994   

Haydn: Parvulus Filius (c1800)

Was this really by Haydn, or possibly by his contemporary Franz Schneider? It’s not exactly clear. Whoever the composer was, he produced a three-minute motet that, scored for singers, strings, organ and two horns and cast in a sunny A major, positively bounces along with genial Christmas spirit.

R Strauss Weihnachtslied (1870)

At an age when most children are leaping around giddily at the prospect of Santa and co, the six-year-old Richard Strauss instead sat down to write this little song for voice and piano. Setting festive words by Christian Schubart, it is about a minute long, surprisingly sophisticated, and really rather delightful.

Fauré: Noël (1885)

Over a bustling piano part, a soprano soloist breathlessly tells about the star guiding the Three Wise Men to the baby Jesus. The excitement builds over two minutes until at the end, we reach a climax with the joyful words ‘This child will be your king!’.

Elgar: A Christmas Greeting (1908)

A collaboration in miniature from Team Elgar – the music is by Edward, the words by his wife Alice – A Christmas Greeting is scored for high voices, violins and piano. Sharp-eared listeners will spot a reference to Handel’s Messiah in a five-minute work that is otherwise unmistakably Elgarian.

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Debussy: Noël des enfants qui n’ont plus de maisons (1915)

Here’s the other side of Christmas. ‘The Christmas of children who no longer have homes’ is, as the title suggests, a bitter swipe at how Debussy’s country has been blighted by German invasion – the anger that soprano soloist and pianist pack into the song’s two-and-a-half minutes is unmistakable.