Christmas: a time for peace on earth and good will to men. The streets twinkle with fairy lights and the shops are filled with festive tunes. Some of our deepest Christmas associations often come from the music which defines the season. We’ve put together a musical journey through the history of Christmas classical music from the medieval era to the present day.
1. Ther is No Rose – Anonymous
This beautiful medieval carol compares the Virgin Mary to a rose. Its stunningly simple lyrics are set to music in the Trinity Carol Roll. This recording was made in Trinity College library by Alamire.
2. Christmas Oratorio – JS Bach
Bach’s Christmas Oratorio is one of the best known pieces of classical music performed at Christmas. Written for Christmas 1734, the Oratorio features six sections, each intended to be performed on a different Christmas feast day.
3. Christmas Cantata – Alessandro Scarlatti
Scarlatti wrote for Rome, at the very centre of the Catholic church, where, long before in the seventh century, the custom was established in which mass is celebrated three times as the Pope began to celebrate the Christmas office in a number of churches around Rome. His Christmas Cantata would have been used during these religious celebrations.
4. Messiah – GF Handel
Composed in 1741, Handel’s Messiah was notably written with a libretto in English. The text was compiled from the King James Bible and the Book of Common Prayer. The Messiah is now one of the most frequently performed pieces of choral music ever written.
5. The Shepherd’s Farewell – Hector Berlioz
The Shepherd’s Farewell is part of Berlioz’ oratorio L’enfance du Christ. The musical narrative is based on the flight of the holy family into Egypt. The Shepherd’s Farewell was originally written as a work for organ, but Berlioz soon turned it into a choral piece for Christmas.
6. The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy – Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
The Nutcracker is a charming ballet set on Christmas Eve with music composed by Tchaikovsky. His Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy is one of the many highlights from this joyful festive experience.
7. This is the Truth Sent from Above – Trad / arr. Ralph Vaughan Williams
This traditional tune was revived and arranged Ralph Vaughan Williams. The composer discovered the tune from a folk singer who had learned it through the oral tradition. Vaughan Williams liked it so much that he also used it to open his Fantasia of Christmas Carols, written in 1912.
8. A Ceremony of Carols – Benjamin Britten
Britten wrote A Ceremony of Carols in 1942 while he was on a boat, travelling from the US to England. The texts are taken from a series of medieval poems, set to music for three treble voices and a harp.
9. O Magnum Mysterium – Morten Lauridsen
Written in 1994, American composer Morten Lauridsen’s setting of O Magnum Mysterium has quickly become a classic work of choral music for Christmas. The words come from a responsorial chant from the Matins of Christmas, and contemplate the wonderful mystery of Christ’s birth.
10. Winter Lullabies – Howard Goodall
The composer Howard Goodall is perhaps best known for his music written for television shows including The Vicar of Dibley and Blackadder. Winter Lullabies, for solo harp and boys’ voices, comprises six loosely-interwoven movements, and despite Thomas Campion’s jovial toast to the delights of winter with which it begins, the texts mainly centre on the hardship and the challenges of winter, particularly for mothers and their infants.
If you’re looking for some festive classics this holiday season, try our collection of music for Christmas. Click here to see more.