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.
Classical music has long been a magnet for the spooky and mysterious. From orchestral works to songs, there’s no shortage of pieces that either sound frightening or have some sort of bizarre or sinister backstory associated with them. So, to celebrate the month of October, here are six pieces to spark the imagination and send shivers up your spine:
1. Carlo Gesualdo: “Moro, lasso, al mio duolo” (1611)
The life of the Italian composer Carlo Gesualdo is similar in many ways to that of a character from a horror film. First off, in terms of his music, many of Gesualdo’s pieces make ample use of dissonance and other “crunchy” harmonies. Although this doesn’t seem too odd on the surface, some of these harmonies wouldn’t be widely used until the nineteenth and twentieth-centuries, which gives Gesualdo’s music an eerily modern feel for the time period in which they were written. Regardless, his use of dissonant harmonies in this particular madrigal (the title of which translates to, “I die, alas, in my suffering”) fits the poem’s theme of longing and emotional agony quite effectively.
Oh, and it just so happens that Gesualdo was also a murderer! One night in 1590, Gesualdo returned to his home in Naples to discover his wife in bed with another man. Furious, he flew into a rage and killed both of them in cold blood. And if this isn’t shocking enough, it turns out that after a thorough investigation, Gesualdo was eventually acquitted. (He was born to a well-off family and held some noble titles, so it clearly must have paid off to know the right people!) Today, Gesualdo has become one of the most infamous figures in music history, both for his stunningly original music and strange biography.
(For those who are interested in reading more about this fascinating figure – and for more grisly details – the music critic Alex Ross wrote a great article about Gesualdo for The New Yorker in 2011, which you can read here.)
Want to hear to some great music but don’t have the time (or attention span) to sit down and listen to a whole opera or an hour-plus-long symphony? Have no fear! There are plenty of pieces of classical music out there that don’t take a Bruckner-sized chunk out of your day; works that are mere minutes long, in fact. (Interestingly, the French composer Darius Milhaud wrote three operas that are each around ten minutes long!) Here are a six of my favorite “bite-sized” masterpieces, all of which are self-contained works that are seven minutes or less (not movements from a longer piece). Overall, it’s only about twenty-five minutes of music total. That’s basically one episode of The Office!
1. Igor Stravinsky: Greeting Prelude (1955)
Combine one of the most famous composers of the twentieth-century with one of the most famous tunes in the world and you get Igor Stravinsky’s Greeting Prelude. Stravinsky composed this short orchestral arrangement of “Happy Birthday” in 1955, as an 80th birthday present for the French conductor Pierre Monteux (who had conducted the world premiere of Stravinsky’s infamous Rite of Spring back in 1913). Clocking in at less than a minute long, the Greeting Prelude is far from a straightforward adaptation. Stravinsky transforms this simple (and rather banal) melody into a brief showpiece for orchestra, full of wide leaps, unusual chords, and cheeky wit, resulting in a surprisingly amusing setting of the song that has been embarrassing birthday “guests of honor” for decades.