Okay, this may be a little off-topic for the blog. But sometimes music can be the purest theology, or something.
Last time I said there was plenty of good Christmas music if you know where to look. Fortunately, these days you need generally look no further than YouTube…
I’m a secret fan of classical music, particularly at Christmas when the alternatives are so dire. So this playlist may not be for you. But give it a go – it can’t be worse than George Michael. (I’m including YouTube links but they may not be the full works or best recordings.)
Ariel Ramirez: Navidad Nuestra (1964)
Get caught up in the infectious rhythms, full-blooded singing and ethnic instrumentation of this quirky Latin American folk setting of the Nativity story. A series of instantly hummable songs takes the listener through the events from the Annunciation up to the Flight into Egypt.
Argentinian composer Ariel Ramirez is more famous for his Catholic folk mass setting Misa Criolla. Like that work, Navidad Nuestra is vibrant, rooted in South American folk culture, and bursting with brilliant tunes. I love it. It’s probably even better if you speak Spanish though.
Benjamin Britten: A ceremony of carols (1942)
Lyrically, this is an oddly English mish-mash of Christian and pagan, medieval Catholic and more Protestant-friendly fare. Musically, it’s haunting and atmospheric, and just a little strange – treble choir with solo voices and harp accompaniment, and some unusual harmonic colour. Beautiful.
John Tavener: Ikon of the Nativity, etc
The recently-deceased John Tavener composed a number of pieces for Christmas. His choral setting of Blake’s poem The Lamb has become a seasonal staple. Perhaps more directly relevant is the atmospheric Ikon of the Nativity.
My preference would be The Protecting Veil, a meditation for solo cello and orchestra focusing on Mary the Mother of Christ. Two of its seven movements relate to Christmas themes (Annunciation and Incarnation); others then go on to deal with Good Friday and Easter and, less expectedly, Mary’s ‘dormition’.
Jakub Jan Ryba: Czech Christmas Mass (1796)
Slightly less haunting is this distinctively Czech nativity, which I think even sets the birth of Jesus in rural Czechoslovakia. Although it’s classical and choral, it does at times feel a little like a bunch of farmers singing along to the accordion in an Eastern European tavern. But it’s kind of fun in a late baroque-ish kind of way.
J.S. Bach: Christmas Oratorio (1734)
Some (not me) view Bach as the greatest composer of all time, and he’s certainly one of the most directly Christian. Here’s his distinctive treatment of the Nativity story, from Annunciation to Magi. I don’t think it’s quite as original or memorable as his Easter ‘Passions’… and of course it’s all in German J. But it does rather uniquely include Jesus’ circumcision.
Handel: Messiah (1741)
While we’re on baroque, I can’t omit Handel’s Messiah – for many the definitive Christmas classical work. Messiah really covers a far grander scope than just Christmas – the Nativity is only one small section, and the oratorio goes on to deal with Jesus’ passion, resurrection and glorification. But the Christmas part does have some cracking tunes. And it’s in English 😉 .
Berlioz: L’Enfance du Christ (1854)
French composer Hector Berlioz isn’t noted for religious works, but he did come up with this dramatic, semi-operatic account of the Flight into Egypt. It starts with Herod, goes on to the slaughter of the innocents, and finishes up with the Holy Family setting up home abroad. Best-known is the rather charming ‘Shepherds’ farewell’.
Messaien: La Nativité du Seigneur (1935)
20th-century French Catholic composer Olivier Messaien is an acquired taste, but I’m a big fan. This series of organ meditations on aspects of the Nativity story draws on bird calls and uses some truly bizarre multi-note chords. If it’s all a bit too weird, skip straight to the gloriously dissonant finale ‘Dieu parmi nous’ (God with us or among us). The Deity whom Messaien depicts seems transcendent, ‘other’ and strange – but kind of in a good way.
Camille Saint-Saëns: Oratorio de Noêl (1858)
This isn’t so far my favourite work by the composer of ‘Carnival of the Animals,’ but it might be a grower. Consisting of 9 psalm settings in Latin, it also doesn’t seem all that Christmassy to me, except perhaps in a strictly liturgical sense. But it’s quite pretty.
Arthur Honegger: A Christmas Cantata (1953)
This unusual Christmas chorale from Swiss composer Honegger starts quiet and slightly spooky but ends up with a rather charming rendition of the carol ‘Es is ein Ros’ entsprungen’.
John Rutter: The Christmas album
This is the one ‘Christmas album’ I’ll allow through my strict filter. Rutter has arguably done more than any other living composer to revive the art of carol-writing, and his many contributions to the repertoire include the Star Carol, Angels’ Carol, Jesus Child etc. His music can be a little over-sweet for some tastes, but his style lends itself perfectly to the genre.
Kings Cambridge organist/choirmaster David Willcocks is responsible for most of the best-known carol arrangements, with the descants we know and love (even if we can’t hit the notes). Trouble is, if you put his name into YouTube you generally end up with someone called David Wilcock and some ridiculous New Age crap.
Give Victor Hely-Hutchinson’s instrumental A Symphony of Carols (1927) a go. Best part is the middle section – an unusual, almost folk-dance arrangement of The First Nowell which the BBC used as the theme tune for their adaptation of John Masefield’s spookily seasonal Box of Delights.
Graham Kendrick: The Gift / Rumours of Angels
Yes, you read that right :). I’ll stick my neck out and say that GK is probably the best songwriter of the charismatic renewal movement. Sadly he’s known by most only for ‘Shine Jesus Shine’. He’s also let down by some poor recordings of his songs – admittedly mostly performed by himself.
Kendrick has certainly made his mark on Christmas, with three separate albums based around the Nativity story. Again I don’t think his own versions do the material justice; to my ears it all sounds underwhelmingly bland and middle-of-the-road. But the actual songs are mostly thoughtful, well-crafted and worthy of better treatment. My favourites are ‘Tonight (Glory to God)’, ‘The Christmas child’, and the bittersweet ‘Thorns in the straw’. You may just have to take my word for it though.
…And if after all this I find that you’ve been listening to ‘Jingle bell rock’ or ‘Winter wonderland’, there will be trouble… 😉