A Twentieth Century Christmas (Part I)

There’s a ton of great classical Christmas music and carols out there but to be honest, there’s only so many times that I can hear “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” or the “Hallelujah Chorus” before wanting to kick a Christmas tree over (OK, not really!) Feeling the same way? Well, as the angel Gabriel said, “Do not be afraid!” In this post (which will be split into two parts), I will bring to light eight lesser-known classical Christmas pieces from the twentieth century, which are sure to provide some variety to your Christmas playlist and help ignite the spirit of the season. Here are the first four:


1. John Tavener: Today the Virgin (1989)

Not to be confused with the Renaissance composer John Taverner, the twentieth century English composer John Tavener is often labeled as a “holy minimalist” alongside his contemporaries Henryk Górecki and Arvo Pärt. While the accuracy of that label is debatable, Tavener’s music is, without a doubt, steeped in spirituality. Specifically, his deep love of the Russian Orthodox religion and subsequent conversion in 1977 informed much of his creative output; many of his pieces set texts from the Orthodox liturgy and evoke the sounds of the church’s rich choral tradition (such as his frequent use of static vocal drones). Tavener (who died in 2013) is probably best remembered for his choral piece Song for Athene, which was heard by over two billion people worldwide during the broadcast of Princess Diana’s funeral in 1997.

Eight years prior, in 1989, Tavener penned the short a cappella choral work Today the Virgin. The piece is a delightful setting of a text by Mother Thekla, which celebrates the wondrous mystery of Mary giving birth to Jesus Christ. Throughout the piece, a single-note vocal drone resonates underneath the words and the repeated refrain – “Rejoice, O World, with the Angels and the Shepherds, give glory to the Child!” – is punctuated by a melismatic “Alleluia,” which increases in length and joyfulness as the work progresses.

2. Samuel Barber: Die Natali – Chorale Preludes for Christmas, Op. 37 (1960)

Amidst all of the great classical Christmas music, this piece in particular is tragically underplayed. Die Natali (“Christmastide”) was written in 1960 by the American composer Samuel Barber, of Adagio for Strings fame. It was requested on commission from the Koussevitzky Music Foundation, which spurred the creation of some of the twentieth century’s most notable works of classical music (including Bartók Concerto for Orchestra, Britten’s Peter Grimes, and Messiaen’s Turangalîla-Symphonie.)

In this purely orchestral work, which lasts around 17 minutes, Barber takes a number of beloved Christmas carols (“O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” “Good King Wenceslas,” “Silent Night,” and others) and ties them together into a fabulous one-movement suite. These are far from simple arrangements though. The orchestral writing here is colorful and marvelously done, and the carols themselves are transformed through a variety of contrapuntal devices, which constantly surprise and delight the ear.

3. Thomas Adès: The Fayrfax Carol (1997)

Most of the carols that we know and love tend to evoke peaceful images of the first Christmas – starlit night, picture-perfect Mary and Joseph looking upon the sleeping baby Jesus, the stable animals quietly rustling in the background. The Fayrfax Carol by the British composer Thomas Adès overturns this popular image. Commissioned for the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols at King’s College, Cambridge, Adès sets an anonymous 15th century carol that hints at Jesus’ passion. It also displays his idiosyncratic musical language in an a cappella setting – biting, yet intriguing harmonies which seem to bridge the gap between tonality and atonality.

The poem, which was penned in Old English, opens with the words of Mary. She sings a lullaby to her newborn son, set in a lilting 6/8 meter with peaceful, yet uneasy chords. Mary then begins to weep and when Joseph asks her what’s wrong, she responds (with a mix of confusion and amazement) that the Son of God – her son – is just a normal baby lying in a manger. The newborn Jesus then speaks, comforting Mary and revealing to her his true mission on Earth:

“My mother dear, amend your cheer, and now be still;
Thus for to lie, it is soothly, my Father’s will.
Derision, great passion infinitely, infinitely,
As it is found, many a wound suffer shall I.
On Calvary, that is so high, there shall I be,
Man to restore, nailed full sore upon a tree.”

At the work’s close, Mary’s lullaby appears for a third and final time. This time though, it seems to take on the mood of a lament as Mary realizes the Earth-shattering ramifications of her son’s future suffering. Overall, Adès’s piece is a cold, but ultimately touching and thought-provoking addition to the classical Christmas repertoire.

4. Arthur Honegger: Une cantate de Noël (1953)

Another unique, and rarely heard, classical Christmas work is Arthur Honegger’s “Christmas Cantata” of 1953. Written two years before his death, Honegger (a member of the French composer group “Les Six”) conjures up a dazzling collective of seasonal sounds in this 22-minute choral and orchestral piece.

The work is split into three parts. The first opens ominously in the lowest voices of the orchestra, representing the darkness of the world before the birth of God’s son. The choir then enters with words from Psalm 130 (“De profundis” – “From the depths, I have cried out to you, O Lord”) and the combined forces begin to grow in dissonance and intensity. Suddenly, as the cries from the choir reach their breaking point, the soft voices of a children’s choir sweetly announce the imminent coming of Jesus Christ.

The second part of the cantata differs greatly in character from the opening. A baritone soloist announces the words of the angel Gabriel before a lighthearted quodlibet is presented in the choir. Here, a number of Christmas carols from various countries are layered on top of each other (including “Es ist ein Ros’ entsprungen” and “Il est né le divin enfant”), as all nations of the world come together for Christ’s birth.

Psalm 117 (“Laudate Dominum” – “Praise the Lord, all nations”) is given a shimmering choral-orchestra treatment in the work’s final section. The light of the world has finally come to Earth and the world celebrates in response! After the choir’s final, glorious “Amen,” the piece ends as it began – with the orchestra alone. Snippets of previous melodic material shine through the instrumental texture as the work gradually fades into a soft, peaceful close.

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