Most of the time we have the freedom to choose what music we listen to, and when we listen to it. Then there is the Christmas season, when most of the music we hear is chosen for us by the tastes of previous generations, and anyone else eager to enter a copyright pantheon where the royalties are particularly attractive. Unless you want to become a social recluse between Thanksgiving and the New Year, Christmas songs you have already heard hundreds of times before are almost impossible to escape.
Through department store intercoms, shopping mall sound systems, and weaved into social events from office parties to church services, the tyranny of Christmas music is familiarity bordering on brutality. What may have charmed us when we were children risks horrifying us with its perennial banality. Even recent, not-so-familiar songs can induce cringes. The saving grace of this music genre is the delicious irony that we can thank Jewish composers—take a bow, Irving Berlin—for a great deal of the standard Christmas songbook.
Thankfully, there is another side to this seasonal genre. Several sides, in fact. Like so many finer things in life, this is music that honors the season, but in forms too sophisticated, melodies too elaborate, and emotional effects too somber and respectful to fit conventional demands of what must instead be “jolly,” “festive,” or so overtly religious that they crowd out more mysterious spiritual and emotional effects.
There is a temptation among true music fans to go “all in” for the obvious masterpieces, e.g., J.S. Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, BWV 248, (1734), or of course, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker (1892), or George Frideric Handel’s Messiah (1741). But these are, frankly, time-consuming works. What is needed is music ideal for stolen holiday moments between trips to the kitchen, back to the dining room, or greeting guests at the front door in between. Go epic if you like, or if you must, but do not ignore a whole constellation of Christmas songs and music that almost never get the play they deserve. In the interest of making an old holiday new, and maintaining a body and soul free of hackneyed, holiday ear-worms, here are a few gems you may not know, but that deserve a place in anyone’s Yuletide list of moderate- to heavy-rotation:
- “A Ceremony of Carols” (1942) and “A Hymn to the Virgin” (1930) by Benjamin Britten: The twentieth-century composer best known for large-scale operatic works featuring doomed male protagonists, e.g., Peter Grimes, Billy Budd, Death in Venice, was also a deft composer of chamber works and small-scale Christmas-themed compositions. “A Ceremony of Carols” makes medieval carols soar over the accompaniment of a harp, and with nothing more modest than solo voices. Written when he was only a teenager, “A Hymn to the Virgin” is straight, pure choral, and has a stained glass luminescence reminiscent of early church music and chants.
- “Song for Snow” (1930) by Florence Price: Is there another Christmas song clocking in at two minutes finer than this? Probably not. But poetry, not brevity, is the point here. Sadly neglected during her time, Price was a consummate composer of melodic lines both compact and expansive. This Christmas song, built around Elizabeth Coatsworth’s lyric “The earth is lighter than the sky,” takes weather as its subject, and is all the more moving for it.
- “Christmas Eve: Orchestral Suite” (1894) by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov: Yes, you can have a Russian Christmas without going full Nutcracker for the twenty-fifth year in a row. More accurately, the story scored here takes place in Ukraine, and is based on a story by Russian novelist Nikolai Gogol. You can easily take on the full, four-act opera this suite was written for, but all the grace and charm of Rimsky-Korsakov’s unique magic is here, delivered by a harp with a full orchestra, robust horns included. This is lithe, dramatic, yet intimate music. Perfect for fire-side listening.
- “What Sweeter Music” (1987) by John Rutter: In a just world, this is what would be piped through department store speakers to commemorate the season. Then again, no. John Rutter’s “What Sweeter Music” is too moving and sublime for crass, commercial purposes. (Although, oddly, it was used as the soundtrack for a Volvo advertisement. Go figure.) Unapologetically Christian, and with refrains poetic enough to break the heart, this wonderful 1987 carol is proof that our modern era has produced wonderful Christmas music, and might still produce masterpieces in the future.
- “Jesus Christ the Apple Tree” (1967) by Elizabeth Poston: Here we have a Christmas song so structurally faultless and delicate it borders dangerously on the maudlin. What saves it from that fate is its austere refusal to approach anything except the Calvinist rigor of the lyrics’ apparent author, the eighteenth-century English minister Richard Hutchins. Many composers have taken a crack at composing music for it, including John Rutter (see above), but none more successfully than Elizabeth Poston, who scored it to immaculate perfection two centuries after Hutchins penned his lyrics for a previous hymn. Scholars debate whether the lyrics draw their emphasis from the Song of Solomon, the tree of life in the Gospel of Luke, or just the plain old English winter wassailing in the apple orchards. When a song is this glorious, it probably draws its inspiration from all three, and then some.
For those who can afford whole albums, or have a basic Spotify or Amazon music account, there is of course much more to explore. One reliable rule of thumb for discovering the best Christmas music you have never heard is to go old, and also go to the British Isles. Three collections in particular showcase ideal blends of festive joy and somber reflection that define the best traditions of Christmas: Bright Day Star by the Baltimore Consort, Wolcum Yule: Celtic and British Songs and Carols, arranged and directed by Andrew Lawrence-King, and Christmas Night Carols of the Nativity by The Cambridge Singers with The City of London Sinfonia conducted by John Rutter. Any one, or all three of these, will provide you with quality music sufficient for at least your next five Christmases. Probably more. There is no reason to suffer through another holiday of musical clichés and battle-ax standards better heard by children. All it takes is a few clicks, and a few risks, to find yourself a new set of Christmas music standards.