A Twentieth Century Christmas (Part II)

Here are four more neglected classical Christmas works from the twentieth century, which is the second of my two part series. (You can read the first part here.) Without further ado, let’s continue…

May you be as excited as Buddy this holiday season!

1. Daniel Pinkham: Christmas Cantata (1957)

An American composer and organist who excelled at composing pieces for choir, Daniel Pinkham’s musical language embraced the gamut of twentieth century composition, including both tonal and atonal idioms. His Christmas Cantata, written for choir, organ, and two brass choirs, is perhaps his best-known work.

The piece is divided into three movements – the first opens dramatically, as the choir (singing in Latin) implores the shepherds to tell them what they witnessed at the manger. The music then becomes upbeat and dancelike as the shepherds speak of the marvel of seeing the newborn baby Jesus. (The score here is reminiscent of Stravinsky, full of tricky rhythmic devices and unusual harmonies.)

The second movement is a transcendent setting of the famous Latin text “O Magnum Mysterium,” which recalls the long, flowing melodic lines of Gregorian chant. The third and final movement sets the words of the angels – “Gloria in excelsis Deo” (“Glory to God in the highest”). It begins with soft excitement but gradually grows in volume before ending on a splendorous “Alleluia.” Surprisingly, Pinkham manages to pack a ton of musical material into a tight, economic package – all three movements combined are only about ten minutes total.

2. Arnold Schoenberg: Weihnachtsmusik (1921)

It may surprise some people that Arnold Schoenberg, the twentieth century “bad boy” of atonal composition, wrote some beautifully tonal music. Among these pieces is his Weihnachtsmusik for two violins, cello, harmonium, and piano. Translated to “Christmas Music,” this piece is a wonderful setting of Praetorius’ “Es its ein Ros’ entsprungen” (known in English as “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming”).

After a fairly straight-forward presentation of the carol at the beginning of the piece, it is put through a contrapuntal “blender” as snippets of the carol interweave in and out of one other, mixed with other countermelodies. The beloved carol “Silent Night” even makes a brief appearance within the counterpoint (at around 4:00 in the video below). It is quite astonishing to think that Schoenberg wrote this beautiful little piece while developing his infamous twelve-tone method of composition (which would soon shake the foundations of the classical music world).

3. Claude Debussy: Noël des enfants qui n’ont plus de maisons (1915)

One piece that could easily be placed in the “Depressing Christmas Songs” category is Claude Debussy’s “Christmas Carol for Homeless Children.” Composed in the heat of World War I (and the night before Debussy underwent a colostomy), the text gives voice to all the French children who were displaced by the German invasion of their country in 1914. Amidst a rhythmic piano part, they angrily wish for the spirit of Christmas to punish the Germans for their deeds – “Christmas! Little Christmas! Don’t go to their houses, never go there again. Punish them!” (The full text, which was also penned by Debussy, can be read here.)

Originally written for solo voice and piano, the work takes on new potency in an arrangement for treble choir:

4. Ralph Vaughan Williams: Hodie (1953-54)

Vaughan Williams’ Hodie is the twentieth century answer to Handel’s Messiah. Scored for mixed choir, soloists, treble choir, and large orchestra, this large-scale work recounts most of the Christmas story, from the Annunciation all the way through the arrival of the Wise Men.

Uniquely, the text of the work is taken from multiple sources. Passages from the Bible move the narrative along and are sung mostly by the treble choir, who are accompanied solely by the organ. (I had the pleasure to sing in the treble choir for a performance of the work when I was in fourth grade, which remains one of my fondest musical memories.) The Biblical narration is interspersed with episodes from the choir, vocal soloists, and orchestra, who reflect on the action with poetry texts from John Milton, Thomas Hardy, and Ursula Vaughan Williams, the composer’s second wife. (Vaughan Williams also used a mixed text in his 1936 cantata Dona nobis pacem.)

The cantata is split into sixteen movements, lasting over an hour in length, but the opening two movements provide a nice taster. (For curious listeners, the entire work is included in the Spotify playlist at the bottom of the page.) The opening is an electrifying setting of the Latin words “Hodie Christus natus est” (“Today Christ is born”), complete with blazing brass and choral cries of “Nowell!” In the second movement, introduced by the chant-like narration from the treble choir, we hear a dramatic setting of the angel Gabriel’s visit to Joseph. The words of Gabriel , sung by the tenor soloist, are punctuated by a thrilling affirmation from the choir and orchestra: “He shall be great; and shall be called the Son of the Highest: Emmanuel, God with us.”

The rest of the work is truly wonderful and a fitting addition to the classical Christmas repertoire. These days though, it is sadly underplayed but hopefully this will not always be the case!

(Also wonderful is the composer’s 1912 Fantasia on Christmas Carols, a choral and orchestral setting of four different English carols, which I have included in the Spotify playlist below.)

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