Christmas classical music: the best festive pieces of all time
Want to tuck into some meatier festive pieces? Here, we present seven of the finest large-scale Christmas works…
From ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’ and ‘Silent Night’ to Slade’s ‘Merry Xmas Everyone’ and The Pogues’ ‘Fairytale of New York’, Christmas has no shortage of memorable and deservedly popular carols and songs – and highly welcome they are too. But what if you want to tuck into something a little longer. Here, we present seven of the finest large-scale Christmas works…
The best pieces of Christmas classical music
Bach’s Christmas Oratorio
You’d have had to have set aside quite a chunk in your diary to hear the first performance of JS Bach’s Christmas Oratorio – consisting of six parts, it was sung over six different feast days between Christmas Day 1734 and Epiphany on 6 January 1735.
Bach was evidently a firm advocate of the mantra ‘repair, re-use, recycle’, applying it liberally to his music – much of the material in the Christmas Oratorio will have been familiar to its first listeners, as it had previously appeared in earlier choral works.
Unlike Handel’s Messiah (below), the Christmas Oratorio confines itself strictly to the Christmas narrative, beginning with the birth of Jesus and ending with the adoration of the Magi. There are highlights aplenty, but few match the opening ‘Jauchzet, frohlocket’ chorus for instilling the festive feel-good factor.
In a way, including Handel’s Messiah in a list of the greatest festive works feels a bit of a cheat. Only Part I of this mighty three-part oratorio deals with the Christmas story – by the time we get to Part II, we’re already onto Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection. What’s more, the work’s first performance in 1742 took place not in chilly December, but on 13 April in Dublin. Nonetheless, it has become an essential part of the yuletide repertoire, with countless performances taking place over the Christmas period right across the globe. Though the rousing ‘Hallelujah’ and ‘For Unto Us a Child is Born’ choruses are the perennial favourites, there are also more subdued moments, such as the sublime arias ‘Every valley’ and ‘He was despised’.
Saint-Saëns’s Christmas Oratorio
When the 25-year-old Camille Saint-Saëns wrote his Christmas Oratorio in December 1858, he clearly had one eye on Bach’s notable predecessor, as there are little stylistic nods to the great man throughout the piece.
Saint-Saëns’s ten-movement piece is shorter and more compact than Bach’s, though is lushly orchestrated for soloists, chorus, strings, harp and, of course, organ – at the time, the composer held the post of organist at La Madeleine in Paris and was a renowned player. His oratorio is a comparatively restrained affair, interspersing the Christmas narrative with reflective texts, though the uplifting final ‘Tollite hostias’ chorus always leaves the listener with a spring in the step.
Rimsky-Korsakov’s Christmas Eve
Festive operas are surprisingly thin on the ground, and the two most famous ones set partly on Christmas Eve – Puccini’s La bohème and Massenet’s Werther – have thoroughly miserable, unseasonal outcomes. Head instead, then, for Rimsky-Korsakov’s jolly romp, which tells of Vakula the blacksmith’s bid to win the affection of the lovely Oksana by stealing and bringing her the Empress’s slippers, an adventure that comes complete with a night-time ride through the stars to St Petersburg. Rimsky’s opera, which is based on a story by Gogol, enjoyed its first performance in 1895 and he later distilled some of its finer moments into an equally enjoyable orchestral suite.
Respighi’s Lauda per la Natività del Signore
Rimsky-Korsakov’s famed mastery of orchestration can be seen in the music of Ottorino Respighi, who was briefly a pupil of his in the early 20th century. Today, the Italian is best known for his barnstorming ‘Roman Trilogy’ – the Fountains of Rome, the Fountains of Rome and Roman Festivals – though many of his less ebullient, more refined works are well worth investigating.
Try, in particular, his 1930 Lauda per la Natività del Signore for soloists, chorus and small instrumental ensemble. In this 20-minute cantata, Respighi brilliantly conjures up the mystery and awe of the Nativity scene, not least through the use of pastoral tunes on the wind instruments. One of his most evocative trademarks – the interweaving of Gregorian chant – is also there too.
Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols
Inspiration comes in unexpected places. In Britten’s case, this was having the idea to write a Christmas work while crossing the Atlantic on a cargo ship heading from the US to war-torn Britain in the spring of 1942 – hardly festive. Discovering a book of poems in a shop in New England at the beginning of the journey had provided the spark, and by the time the ship docked in Liverpool, his suite of songs for three-part treble or soprano choir and harp was well on the way to completion. Beginning and ending with a processional chant, the Ceremony’s highlights include the atmospheric chill of ‘In Freezing Winter Night’, the hauntingly plaintive ‘That yongë child’ and the simply exquisite ‘There is no rose’.
Vaughan Williams’s Hodie
Vaughan Williams loved carols. As well as writing a Fantasia on Christmas Carols in 1912, he also incorporated several into 1926’s Dickens-based masque On Christmas Night and, at his death in 1958, was working on a new carols-based suite called The First Nowell. His biggest-scale Christmas work, however, was Hodie, a 16-part cantata written in 1954.
Vaughan Williams drew on all manner of texts for the work, including well known passages from the bible plus poetry by the likes of Milton and William Drummond. The narrative takes us on the familiar journey from the birth of Christ through to the visit of the Magi, though there is plenty of reflection and rejoicing on the way. The critics were initially sniffy about it, but it has lasted the test of time well.
Jeremy Pound is currently BBC Music Magazine’s Deputy Editor, a role he has held since 2004. Before that, he was the features editor of Classic CD magazine, and has written for a colourful array of publications ranging from Music Teacher to History Revealed, Total Football and Environment Action; in 2018, he edited and co-wrote The King’s Singers: Gold 50th anniversary book.