For what it’s worth, I actually like that Mariah Carey Christmas song. I know I’ll take some heat for that, but whatever, I don’t really care. It’s a well-crafted pop song (if that’s possible), which doesn’t sound dated (it’s nearly 20 years old) like most pop music does after like two weeks.
Side note: Mariah Carey could live off the “All I Want For Christmas is You” royalties alone. It’s impossible to chart worldwide royalty numbers, but it is the best-selling Christmas single of all time (12 million copies) on the best-selling Christmas album of all time (more than 15 million copies), and in Great Britain alone, Carey is projected to rake in close to $750,000 this year for that one song.
But if all you want for Christmas is a little more substance in your Christmas music, then this blog’s for you. Below are 12 pieces of classical Christmas music in case you’re sick of Mariah Carey.
1. Ottorino Respighi: Three Botticelli Pictures – Sometimes referred to as the Botticelli Triptych, this is a trio of tone poems based on three paintings by the Italian Renaissance master, Sandro Botticelli. The delightful outer two movements (“Spring” and “The Birth of Venus”) have nothing to do with Christmas, but the middle movement “The Adoration of the Magi,” is an exquisite setting of the carol we know as “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” Respighi blends that ancient advent chant into a haunting Eastern-flavored fantasia for orchestra. The work incorporates the early music pastorale rhythm meant to evoke shepherds’ bagpipes.
2. Chanticleer – This is not just a single album recommendation because really any of the San Francisco-based ensemble’s holiday albums will bring surprise and delight. This is the group that introduced us to Franz Biebl’s stunningly beautiful setting of the Ave Maria text.
I’m also a particular fan of Chanticleer’s a capella arrangement of Gustav Holst’s “In the Bleak Midwinter,” from their “Sing We Christmas” album.
3. George Frederic Handel: Concerti a due cori – Consider these the requisite Messiah entries on this list. Not that I have anything against the original, but as a cellist who has endured far too many bad performances of The Messiah over the years (including under conductors who still insist in taking the Pastoral Symphony at a glacial tempo, conducting it in 12), I can no longer objectively evaluate the oratorio. (Okay, okay…it’s a masterpiece, I know.) I much prefer Handel stealing from himself in these three concerti. “Lift Up Your Heads” makes an appearance in the Concerto #2. My favorite is the sprightly instrumental “And the Glory of the Lord,” in the Concerto #1.
4. Richard Wagner: Siegfried Idyll – While not strictly Christmas music (no hummable Santa Clause melodies here), how can you not love a piece of music written to be a birthday/Christmas present a for the composer’s wife? (Cosima Wagner was born on December 25th. Read more here.)
5. John Adams: El Niño – This is my Messiah. Adams calls it “a Nativity oratorio with texts drawn from English, Spanish and Latin sources ranging from the pre-Christian prophets to mid-twentieth century Hispanic women writers.” One of my favorite moments comes at the end of Part 1—a blazing chorus set to the Chilean poet, Gabriela Mistral’s The Christmas Star, about a flaming star. The text of the poem here on the old KUSC blog.
6. Morten Lauridsen: O Magnum Mysterium – There are numerous recordings of this iconic Lauridsen work—many of them great. But I prefer the recording by the ensemble who gave the world premiere performance, in 1994: The Los Angeles Master Chorale. (Also in the realm of holiday music on this CD, Lauridsen’s setting of the Ave Maria text.)
7. Arcangelo Corelli – Concerto grosso Op. 6, No. 8 – We’ve come to call it simply the “Corelli Christmas Concerto.” It’s full title is Fatto per la notte di Natale (“Made for the night of Christmas”). The concerto was first performed on Christmas Eve around 1690. As in Handel’s Messiah, Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, and many other works of the time you get the lilting pastorale rhythm in the final movement. My absolute favorite recording (by the period instrument band Europa Galante, led by Fabio Biondi) makes this 300+ year old music sound much, much younger.
8. Francis Poulenc: Four 4 Motets pour le temps de Noël – Everything you’ve heard about a new golden age of choral music began with Poulenc. His music is fiercely original and if you listen carefully you can almost hear a foreshadowing of the Lauridsens and Whitacres to come. Poulenc’s harmonies are a marvel of modern architecture—so intricate, so pristine that at first glance it feels like they could break at any moment, and yet they’re some of the most solid construction around. My favorite of these Four Christmas Motets is the third: “Videntes stellam” (Seeing a Star), which tells the story of the Magi far more effectively than “We Three Kings” could ever hope to.
9. Nico Muhly: Senex Puerum Portabat – Nico Muhly’s recording (A Good Understanding) is easily one of my favorites of all time. Grant Gershon and the LA Master Chorale provide this absolutely breathtaking interpretation of a lesser-known Christmastime (okay technically, post-Christmastime) text. My favorite moment comes midway through, when the choir bursts into a wild, spontaneous, and uncontrolled “Gloria in excelsis Deo.”
10. Peter Tchaikovsky: The Nutcracker – Quite simply, a classic. Can anyone other than Tchaikovsky make something as simple as a descending major scale sound so passionate?
11. The Baltimore Consort: Bright Day Star – This has been one of my favorite holiday albums for a long time—and even after all these years it never fails to disappoint. Familiar Christmas carols abound, but in unexpected forms—like an improvisation on Es ist ein Ros entsprungen for solo flute…or “Hey for Christmas!” sung to the Dargason tune, about a drunken party gone wrong (what other Christmas carol contains the line “the sweat down their buttocks ran”?)
…or my favorite, the lively and eminently danceable version of Ding Dong Merrily.
12. Arthur Honegger: Une Cantate de Noël – How can an obscure 23-minute cantata be my #1 classical Christmas work? The answer is simple, but it’ll take 23 minutes: just listen to it. It is one of the most profoundly moving pieces you’ve never heard. Une Cantate opens as darkly as possible, with the lower voices in the choir singing in unison over top of an ominous pizzicato from the cellos and basses. The music, Honegger says, is meant to depict the chaos of the world before Christ’s birth. This mood builds and builds, with the chorus crying out in anguish at the breaking point. A children’s choir announces the arrival of the infant and after an initial rejection of the news from the full chorus, everyone breaks out into spontaneous song—with four or five traditional Christmas carols, each in its original language, layered on top of one another. Peace and goodwill toward all, indeed!