What are the greatest pieces of classical music Christmas? We asked our readers to vote on their favourites and the results are in. There are plenty of festive favourites in the mix, but who will take the Christmas crown?
1o. Benjamin Britten’s A Boy Was Born
The English composer – whose predilection for Christmas cheer sees him named twice in this list, and the subject of Limelight’s December Composer of the Month feature – dedicated these technically demanding, unaccompanied choral variations to his father.
9. Hector Berlioz’s L’Enfance du Christ
Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique is perfect for Halloween, but the French composer has Christmas covered too. His oratorio L’Enfance du Christ or The Childhood of Christ depicts the immediate aftermath of Christ’s birth, from Herod slaughtering all the newborn babies in Judea to Mary, Joseph and Jesus fleeing to Egypt. While the epic work, which also sees Berlioz at his most intimate, is usually associated with Christmas, the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra is performing it next year in June.
8. Benjamin Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols
Britten began writing A Ceremony of Carols for high voices and harp on his return voyage to England following his stay in the USA during World War II – the work was immediately popular and continues to be popular on the choral menu at Christmas time.
7. Sergei Prokofiev’s Troika from Lieutenant Kijé
The Troika from Prokofiev’s orchestral suite Lieutenant Kijé (music he wrote for the 1934 Soviet film of that name) has long been associated with Christmas for its jingling depiction of a Russian three-horse sled. Greg Lake’s use of the music in his 1974 hit I Believe in Father Christmas has only served to cement Troika’s place as a regular classical music Christmas hit.
6. Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker
Tchaikovsky’s ballet The Nutcracker, which tells the fantastic story of heroine Clara – whose Christmas toys magically come to life – is a perennial favourite. Graeme Murphy’s imaginative retelling of the story for the Australian Ballet has been charming audiences for 25 years – though not always at Christmas, with the most recent performances in May and June this year.
5. Leroy Anderson’s Sleigh Ride
Few pieces of music have become as intwined with the sound of Christmas as Leroy Anderson’s brightly festive Sleigh Ride for orchestra, first recorded by the Boston Pops Orchestra in 1949. A 20th-century American Troika, the work’s musical depiction of horse and sleigh can be heard on countless Christmas albums and at Christmas concerts everywhere.
4. Arcangelo Corelli’s Christmas Concerto
Corelli’s sublimely beautiful Concerto Grosso in G minor, Op. 6 No 8, was marked “Fatto per la notte di Natale” or “composed for Christmas night” and is believed to have been written in 1690 for Cardinal Pietro Ottoboni – though it wasn’t published until after the composer’s death. The gentle rocking of the final, pastoral movement is said to depict the scene of Christ in the manger.
3. Michael Praetorius’s In Dulci Jubilo
German composer and music theorist Michael Praetorius set the 13th-century macaronic hymn In Dulci jubilo – “in sweet rejoicing” – many times during his lifetime, suggesting it fascinated him as much as it has choirs and fans of choral music ever since. A must-have on any choral Christmas disc.
2. George Frideric Handel’s Messiah
What’s Christmas without a Messiah? A staple of the Christmas concert season, Handel’s oratorio is perhaps one of the most popular pieces of classical music at any time of year. From the wonderful soprano solo I know that my Redeemer liveth to the mighty Hallelujah Chorus, Messiah has become an important Christmas tradition – whether on CD or live – for audiences the world over.
The Greatest Piece of Classical Music For Christmas
Johann Sebastian Bach’s Christmas Oratorio
Beating out Handel’s Messiah by a single vote, Bach’s Weihnachts-Oratorium or Christmas Oratorio has proved victor in our hunt for the greatest piece of classical music for Christmas. Given a sterling recent performance by the Australian Chamber Orchestra and Choir of London recently, Bach’s Christmas Oratorio offers a compelling alternative (or companion piece?) to Handel’s oratorio, celebrating the six major feast days of the Christmas period. Tenor Nicholas Mulroy – who sung the role of Evangelist with the ACO – described the oratorio as “some of the greatest music that Bach ever wrote… Which, of course, means that it’s some of the greatest music that anyone ever wrote!”