A Playlist for Christmas

Another holiday season is upon us, and with that comes a wealth of season-appropriate music. (Some good and some not so good. Here’s looking at you, Bob Dylan, and your Christmas album. Yikes.) The sacred realm, in particular, contains an absolute treasure trove of works that honor and celebrate the birth of Jesus. So much of this music has played an indispensable role in my life, and the season is not complete until I’ve given at least one listen to John Adams’s El Niño and Benjamin Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols, to name just two pieces.

To celebrate this time of year, me and my good friend/fellow music nerd, Geoff Nelson, have culled together a playlist that journeys through the story of Christmas, beginning with the longings of Advent and ending with hope for the new year. As with our Holy Week playlist this past March, our selections encompass a broad spectrum of styles and sounds, often wandering between them in unique and surprising ways. (Who knew that Palestrina and The Oh Hellos actually work really well together?) The playlist can also be approached in different ways. Since it is 31 tracks long, it can either be used as a sort of musical “Advent calendar” (i.e., listening to one track each day throughout the 31 days of December), or it can be consumed in a single sitting.

No matter how you approach it—and no matter your faith background—we sincerely hope that our musical selections will inspire reflection, hope, and joy as the world celebrates this holiday season.

Advent – Waiting and Longing

  1. “Once in Royal David’s City” (arr. Arthur Henry Mann, Stephen Cleobury)
  2. Samuel Barber: Die Natali – Chorale Preludes for Christmas, op. 37
  3. “Come Thou Long Expected Jesus” (Kings Kaleidoscope)
  4. Paul Manz: “E’en So Lord Jesus Quickly Come”
  5. “Benedictus” (The Porter’s Gate)
  6. George Frideric Handel: “For unto us a child is born” from Messiah

Annunciation to Mary

  1. Sergei Rachmaninoff: “Bogoroditse Devo” (Ave Maria) from All-Night Vigil
  2. “Baby Son” (John Mark McMillan)
  3. Josquin des Prez: “Praeter rerum seriem” (Beyond the natural order of things)
  4. Johann Sebastian Bach: “Gloria Patri” from Magnificat, BWV 243

Journey to Bethlehem

  1. “I Wonder as I Wander” (Rachel Wilhelm)
  2. Elizabeth Poston: “Jesus Christ the Apple Tree”

Annunciation to the Shepherds

  1. Witold Lutosławski: “My też pastuszkowie” (We are shepherds) from Twenty Polish Christmas Carols
  2. Arcangelo Corelli: Concerto Grosso, op. 6, no. 8, “Fatto per la notte di Natale” (For the night of Christmas) – 3. Adagio – Allegro – Adagio
  3. Francis Poulenc: “Hodie Christus natus est” from Quatre motets pour le temps de Noël (Four Motets for Christmas)
  4. “Angels We Have Heard on High” (arr. The Westerlies)

The Manger

  1. Michael Praetorius: “Es ist ein Ros’ entsprungen” (arr. Jan Sandström)
  2. Ralph Vaughan Williams: “The oxen” from Hodie
  3. John Tavener: “The Lamb”
  4. “O Day of Peace” (Josh Garrels)
  5. Benjamin Britten: “In freezing winter night” from A Ceremony of Carols

The Birth of Jesus

  1. Jennifer Higdon: “O magnum mysterium”
  2. “Joy, Joy!!!” (Bifrost Arts)
  3. James MacMillan: “In speldoribus sanctorum” (In the splendor of holiness)
  4. “Mvmt II. Begin and Never Cease” (The Oh Hellos)

Reflection, Celebration, and Foreshadowing Holy Week

  1. Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina: “Christe Redemptor Ominum” (Christ, Redeemer of all)
  2. Thomas Adès: “The Fayrfax Carol”
  3. Cecilia McDowall: “Now may we singen”

Arrival of the Wise Men & the New Year

  1. John Adams: “The Three Kings” from El Niño
  2. Arvo Pärt: “Nunc dimittis” (Now Lord, let your servant depart)
  3. Jessica Meyer: “Ring Out, Wild Bells”

Header image: Nativity: Birth of Jesus (c. 1304–1306), by Giotto.

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