With a “Ho Ho Ho” and a “Jauchzet Frohlocket”, 24 famous names help us build your one a day musical guide to Christmas.
Welcome to Limelight’s 2016 Musical Advent Calendar. Rather than opening a window every day or feasting on chocolate, we asked 24 artists to tell us about their favourite piece of Christmas music. So travel with us from oratorio to ballet, from jazz to those wonderfully cheesy festive songs, from the sacred to the unashamedly pagan. With a new addition every day, by Christmas Eve there will be 24 pieces of music to get you into the Christmas spirit! Have a cool Yule!
Sir Mark Elder – Conductor
In Dulci Jubilo
When I was a boy, I sang in the Choir of Canterbury Cathedral. At Christmas, we were all incredibly excited to find out what special musical goodies awaited us. No Christmas was bearable without the carol In Dulci Jubilo. Even now, its beautiful melody still brings a lump to my throat!
Amy Dickson – Saxophonist
The Christmas Song by Nat King Cole
To be honest, I’d be thrilled to hear Nat King Cole’s The Christmas Song at any time of the year – it’s so gentle and warming (which is great for those of us in the Northern Hemisphere!). The arrangement is absolutely beautiful – I love that ‘60s string sound – and his voice has so much character.
Tamara-Anna Cislowska – Pianist
Vespers by Rachmaninov
At 100 years old, Rachmaninov’s Vespers has lost none of its captivating spell. For me, Vespers is a place where faith and the sublime meet, and what better way to spend time at Christmas, which for most people is a flurry of activity and events. It reminds me also of the extraordinary gifts of Rachmaninov himself, who was such a deep and elegant character and a true musical polymath.
Jo Litson – Limelight Deputy Editor
White Wine in the Sun by Tim Minchin
Like Tim Minchin, I really like Christmas, and his White Wine in the Sun is one of my (many) favourite Christmas songs. It’s Minchin at his most touching and sentimental – though not without a dash of his customary caustic wit. No matter how many times I hear it, I have tears in my eyes. And it’s such an Australian take on Christmas.
Paul Dyer – Harpsichordist and Music Director
Stille Nacht (Silent Night) performed by the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra
By Christmas Day, I will have baked 14 Christmas Cakes (mum’s recipe) and performed Stille Nacht 14 times in concert halls and churches in Melbourne, Sydney and Wollongong in our Noël! Noël! concerts. Come Christmas Day, I’ll be tucking into delicious fruitcake and be humming Stille Nacht to myself. Total Festive Bliss!
Clive Paget – Editor of Limelight
Hodie (A Christmas Cantata) by Vaughan Williams
As an Englishman, I expect Christmas to be cold and frequently bleak. Thomas Hardy’s The Oxen captures perfectly a sense of warm fires allied with a nostalgia for the innocence of Christmases past and a longing for something miraculous to believe in.
Christmas Eve, and twelve of the clock.
“Now they are all on their knees,”
An elder said as we sat in a flock
By the embers in hearthside ease…
Vaughan Williams set this in Hodie, his glittering and massively underperformed Christmas cantata. Although the piece has many joyous “Noels” and ringing out of crystal spheres, its simple heart lies in the solo baritone singing Hardy’s text.
So fair a fancy few would weave
In these years! Yet, I feel,
If someone said on Christmas Eve,
“Come; see the oxen kneel,
“In the lonely barton by yonder coomb
Our childhood used to know,”
I should go with him in the gloom,
Hoping it might be so.
Deborah Cheetham – Soprano/composer
The Twelve Days of Christmas from A Carnegie Hall Christmas Concert performed by Kathleen Battle, Frederica von Stade and others
Christmas begins in our house with the first playing of A Carnegie Hall Christmas Concert, featuring Kathleen Battle, Frederica von Stade, Wynton Marsalis and André Previn. This concert was recorded live on December 8, 1991 and contains some of the most beautiful arrangements of traditional Christmas music you will ever hear.
Brett Weymark – Conductor
The Man with the Bag by Kay Star
For many years, I existed on a diet of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio followed by a cocktail hour of cheesy Christmas songs such as Kay Star’s Man with a Bag – best christmas song ever! But recently I’ve been singing and listening to more plainchant, drawn to the great simplicity that hides a profound complexity. I’ll now listen to this timeless repertoire before moving on to the sophistication of a Winter Wonderland!
Margaret Throsby – Broadcaster
Missa Papae Marcelli performed by The Tallis Scholars
Christmas! Long, hot days, the drone of cicadas and the last of the purple agapanthus in vases through the house. With the aroma of roasting turkey wafting through, I have for years listened to a wonderful disc of Palestrina Masses performed by the Tallis Scholars directed by Peter Phillips. It’s exquisite! No matter that it’s not Christmas music, the gentle beauty of the singing seems to fit the day to perfection.
Stephen Hough – Pianist
Sleigh Ride by Leroy Anderson
Although I’m more likely to be by an open fire at Christmas, with or without the roasting chestnuts, than on a trip across the snow, Leroy Anderson’s Sleigh Ride is my choice. In its original orchestral version, it is slick, cheerful, captivating, dangerously catchy – and a work of genius.
Leo Schofield – Producer/Festival Director
Wachet auf, ruft ins die Stimme from Bach’s cantata BWV 140
Christmas carols drive me crackers. Most are mushy and sound transcendentally hideous especially when sung by amateurs of jolly choirs on muzak tapes in retail stores, inducing goose bumps of the wrong sort. And so-called ‘Christmas songs’ such as Jingle Bells and The Little Drummer Boy are enough to send one screaming into a padded cell. At the risk of seeming irredeemably fuddy-duddy may I plump for Bach, specifically Wachet auf, ruft ins die Stimme from cantata BWV 140 and Zion Hört Die Wachter Singen from the same sublime work. I know they relate to Easter but both are apropos and uplifting at yuletide. And then there’s ALL of the Christmas Oratorio, which is more Christmas oriented.
Phillip Scott – Actor/Musical Director
Lauda per la Natività del Signore by Respighi
My Christmas selection is a nativity cantata by Ottorino Respighi, Lauda per la Natività del Signore. It’s gorgeous! Written for three soloists, choir and chamber ensemble, it was composed in 1930 to an anonymous 13th-century text. A gentle, reflective work, it eschews pomp and instead evokes the simplicity of the Christmas story. Lyrical vocal lines and a prominent oboe part add to the pastoral atmosphere.
John Gaden – Actor
Every Christmas Day I try to listen to all or part of Handel’s Messiah. On a day of heat and torpor and Christmassy kitsch, it’s wonderful to hear Handel’s passionate rhythms and elegiac melodies. I especially love He shall feed his flock, but For we like sheep have gone astray is pretty good too. I once got a speeding fine for driving while singing along to the Hallelujah Chorus. Powerful stuff.
Katie Noonan – Singer/Festival Director
A Child Is Born by Thad Jones
A Child Is Born is a beautiful jazz song contemplating the miracle of birth and new life. Whether it is Jesus or your own child, nothing is more precious than the gift of life.
Nicholas Carter – Conductor
The Evening Prayer and Pantomime from Humperdinck’s Hänsel und Gretel
Nothing says Christmas in German Opera Houses more that Hänsel und Gretel. Humperdinck’s masterpiece is an opera I’ve been lucky to conduct lots of times in Hamburg (once with Cheryl Studer singing the Mother!), and now in Berlin. Usually the auditorium is packed with kids who every so often sing along to some of the well-known tunes. Always a magical evening.
Sara Macliver – Soprano
Noël! Noël! by the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra, 2001
Every year, my husband and I and our three children dress the Christmas tree together. I always put some music on, and my favourite is the live recording of The Australian Brandenburg Orchestra’s Christmas Concert Noël! Noël! at Angel Place in 2001. It brings back some very special memories and makes us all feel that Christmas has arrived!
Brett Dean – Composer
Illuminare Jerusalem by Judith Weir
My choice would be contemporary British composer Judith Weir’s simple yet highly imaginative setting of the medieval Scottish Nativity poem Illuminare Jerusalem. It was written for the Choir of King’s College Cambridge for their 1985 Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols. I especially love the magical entrance of deep organ on low voices at the end of each of its three verses on the word “Illuminare”…magically inspired! I recommend the 2005 recording made by the Choir of King’s College under Stephen Cleobury on an album entitled On Christmas Day.
Caroline O’Connor – Singer, Dancer, Actor
White Christmas by Bing Crosby and Sleigh Ride by The Ronettes
As a child growing up in Australia, White Christmas was “dream-like” but now, having celebrated magical white Christmases in New York, London and Paris, the lyrics have an even deeper meaning and ignite wonderful memories. The Ronettes’ version of Sleigh Ride just screams happiness! The arrangement produced by Phil Spector with the Wall of Sound treatment is so much fun, and a real favourite in our house.
John Bell – Actor
The Firebird Suite by Stravinsky
I reckon a jolly piece of music for the festive season is Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite. It’s got a nice traditional fairy story feel with a prince and princess, a magical bird and a scary demon. The music weaves its own magic too, ending with a grand processional extravaganza that makes you want to parade around the Christmas tree.
Emma Matthews – Opera Singer
The Little Road to Bethlehem by Michael Head
My favourite singer to listen to at Christmas time, is always Michael Bublé. I buy every Christmas Album. But my favourite Christmas song is The Little Road to Bethlehem by Michael Head. My Mum sang it, I sing it, and now my son sings it. It is pure and simple – I love it.
Sir Andrew Davis – Conductor
Childhood of Christ by Berlioz
My favourite work to listen to at Christmas is Berlioz’s Childhood of Christ. It is, for Berlioz, an unusually intimate piece and only goes into his manic mode very briefly. The most famous moment is the Shepherds’ Farewell chorus. It also includes the marvellous line “Jesus: quel nom charmant” – Jesus: what a charming name!
Nancye Hayes – Musical Theatre Performer
Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, sung by Judy Garland
My choice of Christmas song would be Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas with music by Hugh Martin and lyrics by Ralph Blane, sung by Judy Garland in the 1944 MGM film Meet Me in St. Louis. There have been many, and more recent, versions of this lovely song but for me the vulnerability and connection with the lyric that Garland brings to this original version always makes me feel a little melancholy but forever hopeful of better times ahead.
Benjamin Northey – Conductor
Waltz of the Flowers from The Nutcracker by Tchaikovsky
I’ve conducted many orchestral Christmas concerts over the years and this famous waltz always seems to capture the sense of joy and fun of the season. From its magical opening harp cadenza right through to the thrilling and triumphant orchestral conclusion, I just love it all! A true Christmas classic.
Timo-Veikko Valve – Cellist
Bach’s Christmas Oratorio
As a remedy to the Christmas Jingle pollution surrounding us for months, you can’t go past Bach’s magnificent Christmas Oratorio!