Christmas Stamps in Classical Music
Updated: Nov 21, 2021
Christmas is a special time to reflect on the year past. Certainly 2020 was a difficult year for art. Many of us now look to Christmas music for consolation. I would like to share with you my list of classical pieces with a bit of introduction. Christmas is historically a subject of inspiration for artists, specifically musicians. What are the unique imprints of “Christmas music,” let’s discover together.
The two main categories of Christmas music are: 1) Songs called Carols, 2) instrumental music about Christmas. As a Pole, I would like to mention how important carols are for our cultural heritage. They are folk songs that reflect the character of the people that created them. The melodies are expressive: spiritual, sad, tender, and pleasant. The text expresses a Polish atmosphere. We do have simple memorable tunes with basic harmonies. Simplicity makes them easy to memorize and pass to the next generations. The most famous are: the oldest evensong by Polish kings: Bóg się rodzi (God is born),W Żłobie leży (It lies in the Manger), Gdy Śliczna Panna (As the Lovely Maiden), Lulajże Jezuniu (Hush Little Baby). On the other hand, there is a long list of music inspired by Christmas. I would like to choose some pieces from the classical repertoire to recommend for listening during this time of year.
Going back into history, how did Christmas influence great masters from the past?. My setlist of course starts from J.S. Bach’s: Christmas Oratory, that can be heard yearly, performed at Carnegie Hall. Bach as an organist and cantor in Leipzig was obligated by contract to compose each week a new cantata. The most famous masterpiece he composed is a compilation of 6 cantatas for 6 Feast. The first Part depicts the Birth of Jesus Christ based on text from the Bible. The Oratory is full of joy and solos, choruses and ensembles, as an example, the beautiful Bass Christmas Aria:
Großer Herr und starker König
If we are talking about Christmas Oratory, many composers, even in Baroque time, composed incidental music. As an example, I would like point out later-romantic French Oratory by professor, composer and organist: Saint-Saëns: Oratorio de Noël. This piece is in the tradition of cantata, divided into 10 movements with only one instrumental prelude which is written in memory of J. S. Bach. The piece is only 30 minutes and the dominant part has organs. Vocal parts are very lyrical and textural use of the harp gives an original element to the instrumentation, preceding another epoch in French music:
Another Oratory which also includes a Christmas episode is the famous Messiah by Haendel, when the moment of the birth of Jesus is described by double chorus-full of melisma. Whenever I hear it, it always brings back memories from when, as a student, we performed the German version of it with Maestro Helmuth Rilling.: For unto us a child is born, which in the German version adopted by W.A. Mozart (in fact in mother tongue of Haendel) sounded: Denn uns ist ein Kind geboren:
Outside of vocal music, we can also find examples in instrumental music dedicated to Christmas. Even a bit older than Bach A. Corelli composed Concerto grosso in G minor, Op. 6, No. 8 ”Christmas” made for the night of Christmas. The Dance like Finale: Pastorale, has a character that envisions Christmas time wonderfully without words, without any quote, pathos but imaginatively depicting the shepherd’s song in baroque style in the pastoral mood. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T7b-5ZwVtgI
Romantic composer Frederic Chopin in his First Scherzo B minor Op. 20 in the center of the piece quoted polish carol . The piece was composed around Christmas time in Vienna away from family. In a very initiative-atmospheric way we can hear echoes of Lulajże Jezuniu (Lullaby Jesus Child) with his harmonization. That is also a special fact - it is the only one direct quote in the entire output of Chopin. This peaceful lullaby from the 13th-century was used in the nativity scenes that young Chopin must have seen multiple times. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nJhacebV24k
A different aspect is to present music about Christmas-like stage works, such as ballets. (Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker.) The plot begins with decorating the Christmas Tree. This Music is frequently used in Christmas commercials. While Tchaikovsky was composing this ballet, he considered it only as his incidental work and probably had no idea that it would be one of his most played works after his death. As a composer, he valued Swan Lake more. However, Nutcracker is still the most famous ballet that has raised many generations of children over the centuries. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5dXvOgvuSCE Another Russian composer, neoclassical vitalistic composer, is S. Prokofiev. In his Film, Suite, Lieutenant Kije has a Christmas scene where Sleigh Bells-Troika-Dance ”I believe in Father Christmas” and the use of specific Russian rhythms and percussion wonderfully recall the Sleigh rides on the snow. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mq3hRVAC1GE How about the appearance of Christmas in opera?. An important piece to mention in Russian opera is: Korsakov’s “Christmas Eve,” where we can hear some tunes of the carols. He wrote the libretto based on Gogol and composed music. It is a masterful opera, sadly not so often performed, but it was a starting point for many so called “national composers” like: Stravinsky, Musorgsky, Dvorak and Janacek. The holiday season is a time when music is heard almost everywhere, mainly Christmas music. The most popular Christmas tunes are widely recognizable; especially Ukrainian traditional carols are recalled a few times in the opera. It is unusual to have an opera set at Christmas time, along with various allusions to ancient, pagan rituals. But the spirit of Christmas leads the narration, showing that love and joy wins. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vyT2ue6Ud-k So those are the masters from the past but how do modern composers compose music with Christmas stamps? There are some that I especially love to listen to and would like to recommend considering. One of the most famous examples that first comes to my mind is the postmodernist use of the carol Silent Night by Russian composer- Alfred Schnittke. It is a wonderful use of modern colors, timbres and mediation, in a completely defined and unique way. Let us listen to this piece for Violin and Piano: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3r_U92ZFPDo Polish composer Lutosławski also did his own arrangements of Polish songs: Twenty Polish Christmas Carols for soprano and primary with piano. He extended his own harmonic language, full of sparks and glittering passages: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FuJb1NtEa_Y Krzysztof Penderecki, another polish master, used Christmas motive in his II Symphony. This work started his new way of composing, rediscovering the epoch of Romanticism. He started composing it on Christmas Eve. The piece premiered in New York by the NY Philharmonic by Z. Metha in 1980. The motive of Silent Night is a main motive that connects the music in a very contrapuntal way, typical for this composer. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KB-LYDmYrhI
On the opposite side is a radical avant-garde modernist, such as K. Stockhausen, who used the shape of a Christmas tree as a structural element rather than a typical score of Die zehn wichtigsten Wörter that he wrote as a Christmas Card for “Der Zeit”. The composer used 10 words, notation of pitches and dynamics as typical scores do but in Christmas Tree shape.
Recently, post-tonal composers tend to come back to Christmas like in the US where there are many references to Christmas, as well as those from the European tradition. Steven Stucky, music specialist from Lutosławski, composer and teacher, recalled the text of Polish Lulajże Jezuniu, a carol used also by Chopin as mentioned above in his vocal choral piece: “Hush little Jesus”, my little pearl, in a new composition base on his harmonies: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RfHm-Gxv3-8 And another young American composer and pedagogue, Kevin Puts, came back to the idea of the opera that incorporates the topic of Christmas, like Korsakov. In the opera Silent Night, it is set during WWI and the days around Christmas time. The main character Nikolaus responds with a Christmas song ("Silent Night"). Soon the Scottish bagpiper starts to accompany him and Nikolaus raises a Christmas tree on the bunker. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PQiW1_ZL3UI
There are also a lot of examples of modern instrumental music where we can find stamps of Christmas, such as solo pieces for the piano. An unforgettable example is O. Messiaen’s - 20 Visions of the Nativity. This French organist, ornithologist composed a phenomenal masterpiece: 20 theological overlooks on the meaning of the Birth of Jesus. A piece that I remember hearing for the first time live in concert gave me chills. The work is a meditation on the infancy of Jesus. The Piece: Noël also stands as an important independent piece in the entire cycle, often performed separately from the cycle. The theme is joyful, glorious and mystical . Let’s hear it:
On the other hand, another mediation about scenes of the Nativity, but completely different, is by American composer George Crumb composing a 7-movements composition for the piano, A Little Suite for Christmas, A.D. 1979 written in 1980. The suite is conceptually related to the Nativity frescoes in Padua, Italy. The last movement of this cycle is the carol full of the imitation of bells: Everything in dreamy and spatial in manner. It is also interesting to take a look at the innovative notation that this master composer is using No.7.Carol of the Bells: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jOG4JgjjaxY Those are some of the many examples of music which uses quotes or refers directly to a program. Is it the only way to create musical stamps of Christmas? Probably new generations of artists will find other ways, new connections and blend with their heritage. Through moods like pastoral, festive, shining textures, easy to communicate - direct melodies, straightforwardness, and humbleness we refine this music by special signature. In conclusion, a bit of my personal notes: When I came to the US in 2011, I remember clearly my first Christmas away from home. It was very different. I was in Pittsburgh and it fascinated me how A. Warhol used Christmas in his pop art combining his Slavic tradition with pop art. I immediately loved those blends of different dimensions and also tried it in music. So, in my String Quartet No.1 ”Postcards from Pittsburgh” that I was composing at that time, I added a little Christmas stamp-the incipit of Wśród Nocnej Ciszy (In the silence of the night)-the most beloved carol by Pope JPII. A few years later, for my first Christmas spent in NY, I composed for the Lexington Chamber orchestra, this time entirely based only on one carol ”Christmas Postcard”. This piece for Strings is derived exactly from the same quote as Chopin’s Scherzo, although used in contemporary polytonal and poly-dimensional canon with some modifications and defragmentation: https://soundcloud.com/jakubpolaczyk/christmas-postcard-for-strings
Carols always bring us a lot of memories of our homeland and childhood. We might say that they grow old with us. They are like photos who carry our history. I do also cultivate the tradition of singing carols with friends and family and will continue to do so this year. I also composed a few family songs for Christmas in the last few years. Each Christmas is different. I hope this year will be special, even though we are socially distanced, but not distanced from music and art. I hope everyone keeps making music, coming back to live music, but also enjoying Christmas with some of the pieces that they can find on this playlist or add them to your Christmas repertoire.
Merry Christmas to all!
December 6, New York