Opera + Classical Music Features

Why I Love… Christmas music

A festive addition to our continuing series. Barry Creasy picks his favourite Christmas tunes.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder: Hunters in the Snow (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

I admit it; I’m coming out with my hands up. I love Christmas music. It may just be because I’ve always loved Christmas (or, more specifically, the lead-up to Christmas), or possibly that so much of the material is vocal (and, as a singer, I’m naturally interested), or it may be that Christmas allows a more focused analysis of its associated musical celebration. But all of the musical output around the season fascinates and delights me; not just King’s ‘Nine Lessons and Carols’ (although the annual radio broadcast is a part of it), but the lengthier compositions written for, or used around the season, the Christmas pop music (no solo artist worth their salt doesn’t produce at least one Christmas album) and all the cheesy croon-fests of yesteryear.

I think it’s worth, at this point, reminding the religious purists that, although it’s supposed to be a Christian festival, our mediæval forebears mixed a healthy dose of Yule with their Christmas, and the secular – the pagan, if you will – never really went away (albeit that these days it’s driven by mass commercialism). Carols – with their non-liturgical texts – were traditionally a thing of the streets and taverns, and not of the Church. Indeed, Christmas carols (as opposed to Christmas hymns) started to be sung in churches really only in the late 19th century. In this sense, ‘White Christmas’ is just as traditional as ‘The Coventry Carol’.

This article, then, is my celebration of the wide variety of Christmas music on my shelf (or, rather, on my MP3 playlists), and I’ve chosen ten albums to illustrate it.

Up first is some Benjamin Britten. Regular readers will know that I’m not a huge fan of this composer, but there are one or two pieces I like. The crystalline combination of harp and boys’ voices in A Ceremony of Carols (my recording is the 1993 one of Westminster Cathedral Choir under David Hill with Sioned Williams) is redolent of the season, and it’s the first Christmas music I play every year, as I decorate the tree.

Probably the first Christmas hymn in English was ‘While Shepherds Watched’, which appeared in around 1700. Its first adopter position probably also explains why there are so many tunes to it (including ‘On Ilkley Moor Bar t’At’!). For their 2005 CD Christmas Carols, Andrew Parrott and the Taverner Consort put together a historically informed collection of carols, hymns and anthems (including the original version of ‘Stille Nacht’) that makes for an informative and enjoyable listen. It includes a spritely orchestrated Baroque setting of ‘While Shepherds Watched’ by John Foster (1752–1822) that makes a vibrant change from the usual tune.

While we’re on Christmas hymns, no collection would be complete without some familiar favourites. Sir David Willocks’s time at King’s ensured that his arrangements of these became choral staples. Rather than choosing a King’s recording, though, I’m going for some rather beefier performances by the Bach Choir under Willcocks in the 1980 The World of Christmas Carols. Further oomph is provided by The Philip Jones Brass Ensemble who make the performance of ‘O Come All Ye Faithful’ (with Willcocks’ heroic use of the respelled Tristan chord on ‘Word’ in the last verse) truly fabulous.

I often complain about the plethora of performances of Messiah around Christmas (especially as so many of these are pared down to Part I). I’d be the last to diss Handel (and it’s a wonderful work – although a live performance of Mozart’s 1789 reworking would be an unlooked for treat), but there are plenty of other larger Christmas works around that deserve an outing. The first of these I’ve chosen is Respighi’s Lauda per la Natività del Signore (the 2012 Richard Hickox recording). Originally conceived as music to accompany a crib scene with shepherds, its unusual orchestration (wind instruments, piano duet, percussion, chorus and three soloists) imparts a twinkly atmosphere to its pastoral idiom.

Another seldom performed work is Gerald Finzi’s In Terra Pax (my recording is also Hickox, from 1979). Finzi’s ‘English Pastoralist’ style really shines through in this beautiful, string-heavy setting of Robert Bridges’ poem ‘Noel: Christmas Eve 1913’ that has a part for narrator that any baritone would jump at the chance to sing.

This… is my celebration of the wide variety of Christmas music on my shelf…”

The church cantata tradition of the German Protestant states is also fertile ground for Christmas music. Bach’s Weinachts-Oratorium is the most well-known of these, but this year I made a new discovery: the seasonal cantatas of Christoph Graupner (1683–1760). The 2010 album with Mannheim Hofkapelle and Ex Tempore under Florian Heyerick, is marketed as Graupner’s Weinachts-Oratorium, but, unlike Bach’s through-composed set of cantatas, this is really just a collection of Graupner’s Advent, Christmas, New Year and Epiphany cantatas from across his output, bundled together. They make for a riveting listen, though, and there’s everything you’d want from the period style, including some lovely variations in instrumental texture (one of them contains a pair of chalumeaux). Several familiar Lutheran chorales make their appearance in new orchestrations, but perhaps the star is Graupner’s version of ‘Wachet auf’ (in ‘Heulet, denn des Herrn Tag ist nahe’) which contrasts well with Bach’s occasionally lumpenly performed version.

Every big name vocal ensemble has produced a Christmas collection, and the choice of material is large; I’ve opted for the Finnish group Lumen Valo and their 2016 CD Neitsy Äitix. Finland has a strong choral tradition, and there are tracks on the album by the country’s contemporary composers such as Hanna Järveläinen and Juhani Komulainen, but it also contains short works by Poulenc, Victoria and Praetorius. It may be stereotypical to say it, but there’s a precise, clean Nordic sound to the singing throughout the album; it’s demonstrated the most in the ‘simple but perfect’ performance of a hymn popular with Finns at Christmastime: ‘Maa on niin kaunis’.

I’m not normally a huge fan of folk music, but, somehow, at Christmas, it has the ability to inject a welcome helping of the pagan into the mix – redolent as it is of wassailing, Yule logs and The Lord of Misrule. John and Caroline Bushby’s 2008 album Heap on More Wood is the musical equivalent of a crackling fire, mugs of mulled cider and too much to eat. Here’s the title track.

And so to the pop and the cheesy. I could go for Ariana Grande’s Santa Tell Me, Like it’s Christmas by The Jonas Brothers, or Slade and Paul McCartney from my teenage years, but I’m going to go even further back. There’s a very American side to Christmas as we know it these days; it’s full of twinkly lights, Coca-Cola logo coloured Santa and a drive to put money in the pockets of toy manufacturers. And I’m OK with that; it’s all part of the changing traditions of Christmas, along with Miracle on 34th Street and Holiday Inn. Indeed, it’s probably true to say that the mid 20th century saw all this come into being. And so I’ve chosen something from my childhood that sums it up; recorded in 1957 (just before I was born) Now is the Caroling Season by Fred Waring and The Pennsylvanians was in my parents’ collection. It’s as American as it gets, with lush arrangements of carols that slam into one another to provide a general Christmassy background rather than making for serious listening. It’s candy canes; it’s Mattel toys; it’s the skating rink at Rockerfeller Plaza; it’s… Sleigh Ride.

Sticking with the American theme, my final choice is a bit of fun. Straight No Chaser is one of the many a cappella groups that have achieved fame over the last couple of decades. Their debut release was a Christmas album, the 2008 Holiday Spirits, and before long their wittily slick version of ‘The 12 Days of Christmas’ from this album (although the YouTube video is of a much earlier live performance) went viral.

As it’s Christmas, there has to be a bonus track, and it’s a 2020 release for those who love their Christmas flavours to be unashamedly syrupy. So, uncork the Bailey’s; dust off that bottle of advocaat and mix a snowball; splash the brandy into the Babycham. Here’s a taster for Jolly Holiday 2020 from André Rieu and his Johann Strauss Orchestra.

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