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.
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.