Loretta Barnard

The Big Smoke’s definitive Christmas anthem list that’ll seasonify any classless function

Enough of the frivolous fluff we hear this time of year, I say! Time to culture-up our taste this Christmas.

 

 

It’s the festive season, and that means Christmas music. We’re a diverse bunch here at The Big Smoke, we enjoy all sorts of Yuletide musical offerings, from hip-hop, jazz, rock and pop (both recent and no-so-recent), to death metal, folk, synthwave, as well as traditional carols from other lands. Some of us here at TBS HQ are even partial to a bit of country and western. Yes, I’m afraid it’s true.

But today we’re taking the classical road – I told you we were diverse – and looking at a few Christmas works from the great composers. We’ve chosen a few short clips for your listening pleasure, a small selection to get you into the holiday spirit, just in case our recent article on Christmas standards didn’t get you all excited for Santa’s visit.

Now we all know Christmas is one of the most important religious feasts in the Christian calendar, so naturally there’s some music here that has a religious bent. But hey, you don’t have to be a Christian to enjoy this music: it can be savoured as either a celebration of faith or simply on an objective level as music of massive artistic merit. They’re not famous for nothing. And one of our featured pieces was written by a Jewish composer – which just goes to show you shouldn’t assume anything.


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Let’s get the Christmas ball rolling with the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy from The Nutcracker, Tchaikovsky’s beloved ballet set on a cosy Christmas Eve and first performed in 1892. Of course, the action takes place in Europe where it’s mid-winter, but luckily for we Antipodean listeners, the cold evening with stars twinkling and moonlight glistening on new-fallen snow is invoked to perfection by the celesta, that pretty little keyboard instrument that gives the piece a real magical touch.

 

Now for a change of pace. Italian composer Giovanni Gabrieli wrote this gorgeous choral motet around 1597. It’s called Hodie Christus Natus est (Today Christ is Born) and was composed specifically to be performed in the majestic St Mark’s Basilica in Venice, where Gabrieli lived and worked for most of his life. Listen to those glorious voices!

 

Classical music lovers don’t need to wait until the festive season to treat themselves to JS Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, first performed in 1734. It’s a lengthy and monumental piece, and I reckon if people sat down and listened to the whole thing, they’d embrace the whole “peace on earth and goodwill to mankind” thing. But here’s a short extract featuring the great Maurice Andre on trumpet – you can really hear the joy of Christmas in this inspired music.

 

 

Speaking of big works – orchestra and choir combined – it’s hard to go past Handel’s mighty Messiah (1742). It’s where the famous Hallelujah Chorus comes from, but we shouldn’t forget For unto us a Child is Born, another big fat powerful hymn that’s an integral part of Handel’s famous oratorio. Get ready for some goosebumps – the relationship between the voices and the instruments is really something:

 

 

Not all Christmas music is joyous. William Byrd, a devout Catholic who bravely continued to write religious music during the reign of Protestant Queen Elizabeth I, composed the motet O Magnum Mysterium (1607) which focuses on the mystery and marvel of the nativity. The music has a certain sadness to it but it’s ineffably beautiful.

 

 

Arnold Schoenberg’s twelve-tone method, his sometimes stark music and his Jewish faith, would appear on the surface to make him an odd choice for our Christmas collection. But it seems he enjoyed the festive season and in 1921 composed his Weihnachtmusik (Christmas Music) basing it on an old carol by Praetorius. Written for harmonium, string quartet and piano, it’s gentle, peaceful, calming. You’re welcome.

 

 

We began with Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker and that’s how we’re ending. This is the Waltz of the Snowflakes. What a composer – his music transports us to an idyllic place where gentle snowflakes fall on the woolly-capped heads of happy children. That harp, those voices, need I say more?

 

 

Merry Classical Christmas to all our readers.

 

 

Loretta Barnard

Loretta Barnard is a freelance writer and editor who, in a long career, has done almost everything possible in the book publishing industry. These days she actively pursues her love of music, literature and theatre, and is something of a wannabe roving ambassador for the creative and performing arts.

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