The Holidays are here! And, as we gather with family and friends to observe the season, music has a place of honor in our celebrations. Below is a brief guide to classical works that are sure to enhance your enjoyment of this special time.

Centuries of secular and sacred traditions have given us a wealth of music to choose from to celebrate the season.  While no list is complete, I hope these suggestions will give you plenty of options for listening.  Most of the works highlighted below can be heard throughout December on WETA Classical.

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Messiah by George Frederick Handel

A perennial favorite. Handel announces the birth of Christ with a section of Messiah that quotes St Luke’s gospel, “For Unto Us A Child Is Born”.   For many, the famed ‘Hallelujah’ Chorus, despite being written to proclaim Christ’s Resurrection, is considered THE classical music piece at Christmas.

Christmas Oratorio & Magnificat by J.S. Bach

Bach composed this Oratorio for the Christmas of 1734.  Each of its six parts would have been performed separately on feast days during the Christmas season.  This work is a great next step for classical music lovers already familiar with Handel’s Messiah.

In his Magnificat, Bach composed music for a Latin mass based upon the portion of the Gospel of Luke, in which the Virgin Mary is visited by an angel telling her that she will give birth to Jesus.  This 12-movement work in Baroque style was expanded by Bach to include Christmas hymns.

The Nutcracker by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

Arguably, one of the most performed ballets in history, the Nutcracker is centered around a Christmas Eve party in early 19th century Germany, complete with dancing mice and a magic Christmas tree.  The Waltz of the flowers and the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy are some of the best-known holiday melodies.

A Ceremony of Carols by Benjamin Britten

This Christmas choral staple is one of Britten’s best-known works.   It is scored for three-part boy’s chorus, solo voices and harp. It is based on medieval carols.

Oratorio de Noel by Camille Saint-Saëns

Saint-Saëns wrote this oratorio in just 14 days and completed it just 10 days before its premiere performance in 1858.  It is scored for soloists, chorus, organ, strings, and harp and is full of traditional Christmas church carols.

Winter by Antonio Vivaldi

The last in Vivaldi’s collection of violin concerti known as the Four Seasons, Winter musically depicts the cold and blustery weather of mid-winter.  The Four Seasons is probably Vivaldi’s best-known work.

Song for Snow by Florence Price

Written in 1930, this beautiful work for chorus and piano is a setting of a poem of the same name by American author, Elizabeth Coatsworth.  The vocal lines mimic falling snowflakes with a delicate piano accompaniment. 

Troika by Sergei Prokofiev

From the score Prokofiev wrote for the 1934 Soviet film "Lieutenant Kije," the music is evocative of a thrilling ride on a three-horse sleigh.

Sleigh Ride by Leopold Mozart

Speaking of sleighs, take a ride on a fascinating work by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s father, Leopold. Scored for strings and bells, the elder Mozart’s Sleigh Ride utilizes several sound effects that, for some performances, can include, among other things, dogs barking.

Sleigh Ride & A Christmas Festival

No suggestions of musical sleigh rides would be complete with the beloved Sleigh Ride by American composer Leroy Anderson.  He formed the original idea for the piece during a heat wave in July 1946, and he finished the piece in February 1948.  Its first performance was by Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops on June 7, 1948.  The original recordings of Sleigh Ride were instrumental versions. The lyrics, about riding in a sleigh and other wintertime activities, were written by Mitchell Parish in 1950.

Leroy Anderson also gave us his A Christmas Festival for orchestra.  First performed by the Boston Pops in 1950, A Christmas Festival is an extended medley of holiday carols and other Christmas favorites.

Fantasia on Greensleeves by Ralph Vaughan Williams

According to legend, the famous melody called Greensleeves was composed by King Henry VIII. It is often sung as the carol “What Child Is This?” In addition to this beautiful fantasia, Vaughan Williams also wrote a fantasia on other Christmas carols.

Angelus ad virginem - 13th Century

Here I’m including one of my favorite holiday pieces.  "Angelus ad virginem" (Latin for "The angel came to the virgin") is a medieval carol whose text is a poetic version of  the Annunciation by the archangel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary.  There is a wonderful performance by the Bach Choir and the Philip Jones Brass Ensemble under the direction of the late Sir David Willcocks.

Christmas Overtures by Nigel Hess & Samuel Coleridge-Taylor

Nigel Hess is a British composer of music for film, television, and theatre.  His 2007 A Christmas Overture was originally written for orchestra, but it has also been arranged for wind band.

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor was a British-Sierra Leonean composer and conductor who lived from 1875 to 1912.  His Christmas Overture features God Rest You Merry Gentlemen, and Hark the Herald Angels Sing, and is thought to have been put together from incidental music he wrote for a children’s play called The Forest of Wild Thyme

Carol Symphony by Victor Hely-Hutchinson

Carol Symphony is a collection of four preludes, written by British composer, conductor, and pianist Victor Hely-Hutchinson in 1927.  It is based on five traditional Christmas carols.

Walking in the Air by Howard Blake

Another personal favorite, "Walking in the Air" is a song written by Howard Blake for the delightful 1982 animated film The Snowman based on Raymond Briggs's 1978 children's book of the same name. The song forms the centerpiece of The Snowman, which has become a seasonal favorite on British television. 

John Rutter

I couldn’t conclude this overview of holiday music without acknowledging the contributions of British composer and conductor, John Rutter.  With the choir he founded in 1981, the Cambridge Singers, Rutter’s original compositions and arrangements of traditional carols are at home on any classical or popular holiday music playlist.

His recorded output is considerable, but two collections stand out for holiday listening:  the Cambridge Singers Christmas Album and the John Rutter Christmas Album, both on the label he founded, Collegium Records. Here you can find Rutter’s settings of such carols as The Holy and the Ivy, I Saw Three Ships, Joy to the World, and Deck the Halls, as well as original songs like the Donkey Carol, the Star Carol, Mary’s Lullaby, and Angel’s Carol.

Filed under: Christmas, Holidays

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