There’s no denying that choral music steals the limelight at Christmas, organ music allotted a few paltry minutes at the end of the service. By then, most of the congregation has headed for the exit and a warming glass of mulled wine, the organist’s final bars accompanied by the clunk of a west-end door.
We’re all missing out. The organ repertoire is, in fact, a cornucopia (or should that be cornopean?) of thrilling festive works that deserve wider currency.
It is time, then, to shine a light on the very best Christmas organ music – pieces that will hopefully inspire both organists and congregations. From JS Bach’s ingenious, ear-grabbing chorale preludes to Messiaen’s vast nine-movement La Nativité du Seigneur, there are centuries of Christmas organ masterpieces to explore and enjoy. Here are 12 of the best.
The best Christmas organ music
Buxtehude Chorale Fantasia on ‘Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern’ (c 1690)
When the 20-year-old JS Bach secured a leave of absence to hear the doyen of the North German organ school on his home patch, it was not an undertaking for the faint-hearted. The round trip to make Buxtehude’s acquaintance in Lübeck entailed a blister-inducing foot slog of 500 miles. Hardly surprisingly, Bach extended his stay and was able to savour the Advent and Christmas music in the Marienkirche, including the famous Abendmusik concerts arranged by Buxtehude. Given the season he might also have heard the aged organist play his extended Fantasia on the Epiphany hymn ‘How brightly shines the morning star’, a multi-sectional work including a meteor shower of swirling figuration and a joyous jig fugue.
JS Bach Canonic Variations on ‘Vom Himmel hoch da komm’ ich her’ (1747)
Bach and Christmas probably start with the clarion call of Wachet auf, a cantata movement enshrined in the embrace of a famous chorale arrangement, published by Schübler. And for the big day itself, the chorale preludes on In dulci jubilo either roar (BWV 729) or playfully scintillate (BWV 608). But for an extended example of Bach bringing all his contrapuntal firepower to bear within a work that never fails to twinkle, the 1747 Variations on Luther’s Christmas hymn ‘From Heaven above to earth I come’ is a show-stopping tour de force.
Demonstrating compositional prowess to the max, it nonetheless fancifully struck 19th-century biographer Philipp Spitta as ‘like the gaze of an old man who watches his grandchildren around the Christmas tree and is reminded of his own childhood’. Stravinsky added baubles of his own in a festive 1956 reworking for choir and orchestra.
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Daquin Nouveau Livre de noëls (c. 1757)
He might be best known for that delightful little harpsichord miniature Le coucou, but Daquin (1694-1772) was one of the greatest organists of the age and pipped Rameau to a church post in 1727 before ultimately taking charge of the organ loft at Paris’s Notre Dame cathedral. Not to miss out on the French craze for noël arrangements, around 1757 he brought out a book of keyboard pieces based on the folk-like carols traditionally woven into the Christmas Eve Midnight Mass. A Musette recalls the Shepherds and their bagpipes, while a dancing ‘Suisse’ finale concludes the set in bombastic high spirits.
Brahms Chorale Prelude on ‘Es ist ein Ros entsprungen’ (1896)
Brahms expressed an early ambition to become a virtuoso organist, but he wasn’t the first to discover that fluent piano skills don’t necessarily translate. And after a modest clutch of pieces composed in the 1850s, he turned his back on the instrument until, in the year before his death, he embarked on a set of chorale preludes, a postscript to the late piano pieces. Among them is a tender meditation on that Lutheran Christmas favourite, Es ist ein Ros entsprungen, its noble melody artfully disguised and supported by a pillow of yearning chromaticism.
Ives ‘Adeste fidelis’ in an Organ Prelude (1897)
After his riotous 1891 Variations on America for organ, it might have been expected that, six years on, when Charles Ives (1874-1954) turned to the jubilant strains of O Come, All Ye Faithful, he would pull out all the stops to evoke its rejoicing. In the event ‘Adeste fidelis’ in an Organ Prelude (Ives’s spelling), turns out to be just as subversive, if differently so. To a hushed, shimmering accompaniment, the theme mournfully uncurls upside down before righting itself over harmonies more mystical than ‘joyful and triumphant’.
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Karg-Elert Chorale Improvisation on ‘In dulci jubilo’ (1912)
Although mostly associated with the organ these days, spurred on by Grieg, Karg-Elert (1877-1933) started out composing for piano, and found his way to the King of Instruments by way of the harmonium. The music he wrote for it – like that of Max Reger, his predecessor as professor of composition at the Leipzig Conservatory – revels in the sonorities of a large Romantic organ. Complete with double pedalling and dense textures, his big bear-hug of an improvisation on the 14th-century carol is no exception. A festive workout for player and instrument alike.
Dupré Variations sur un vieux Noël (1923)
The 18th-century French love affair with elaborate organ variations on Christmas carols by no means ended with the deaths of Daquin, Dandrieu and Balbastre. One of the most ingenious and virtuosic sets of the 20th century emerged in 1923 from the pen of Marcel Dupré (1886-1971), a composer-performer schooled by the formidable trinity of Guilmant, Vierne and Widor. Based on Noël nouvelet, it engineers thickets of contrapuntal complexity concealed beneath a disarming surface enchantment. By way of preparation for the inevitable fugato and grand toccata, Variation Nine sounds as if it’s gone a little too liberally at the Christmas sherry.
Langlais La Nativité (1932)
Not be confused with Messiaen’s extended epic, Langlais’s La Nativité is the second of three Poèmes Evangéliques written in 1932 for a composition competition – Langlais’s first organ music to make it into print. The set is bookended by representations of the Annunciation and the Entry into Jerusalem, while the central nativity tableau, a serene pastorale, falls into three sections. After the angels have brought their glad tidings, the shepherds are invoked in an old song, Salut, ô sainte-crèche, remembering Langlais’s native Brittany, before the music peacefully subsides into contemplation of the Holy Family.
Messiaen La Nativité du Seigneur (1935)
Mountains, medieval stained glass, birdsong and a profound knowledge of theology collide in arguably the most important single organ work – certainly the most extended – pondering the Christmas story. Composed in 1935, its nine ‘meditations’ embody Messiaen’s latest thinking about rhythm, melody and harmony. And they range over the pictorial such as the worshipping Shepherds or journeying Magi, and abstract reflections on the meaning of the unfolding story. ‘Dieu parmi nous’ wraps everything up in a final festive flourish.
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Distler Partita on ‘Wachet auf’ (1935)
While this Partita by the German organist and composer Hugo Distler (1908-42) is roughly contemporaneous with Messiaen’s La Nativité, it couldn’t be more different. Whereas Messiaen’s work breathes the incense of mysticism, Distler in his preface demanded that composers should ‘blend the spirit of the present day… with the hierarchical and strict art of the past’, a credo that shines through every neo-Baroque note, its title nailing its colours to the age of Buxtehude and Bach. Flanked by a toccata and fugue, even the central movement is called ‘Bicinium’, which invokes the two-part inventions of the Renaissance and early Baroque.
Maxwell Davies Fantasia on ‘O magnum Mysterium’ (1960)
Between periods studying in Rome and America, Peter Maxwell Davies (1934-2016) taught music at Cirencester Grammar School where, in 1960, he composed a sequence of carols and sonatas for the students on the Christmas Day plainsong O magnum mysterium. He described the work as a contemplation on ‘the wonder and promise of the Nativity’, and at its conclusion placed this mighty 15-minute solo organ Fantasia. Moving towards and from a powerful climax, it’s a sparse, austere antidote to Christmas excess.
Eben Variations on Good King Wenceslas (1986)
Czech composer Petr Eben (1929-2007) could be forgiven for an outburst of national pride underpinning his 1986 Variations, but in fact the choice of theme was all about bridge-building. Commissioned to write a piece for the unveiling of Chichester Cathedral’s newly-restored organ, he looked for something that would connect his homeland to the UK. Then he remembered the English medieval dance-carol subsequently adapted to extol the virtues of his nation’s saintly monarch: Good King Wenceslas. Problem solved! Theme ingeniously teased out, the variations are punctuated by regal fanfare interjections to show off the Chichester reeds.
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