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Classical 101

Five Pieces Of Christmas Music You Need To Hear This Holiday Season

multicolored Christmas lights decorating a guitar
Chris Combe

It happens every year – there’s so much to do in preparation for the holidays that by the time the holidays actually roll around, you’re plum tuckered out. Some wondrous Christmas music can help keep the wind in your sails.

And there is no shortage of wondrous Christmas music. As a special gift for you, I’ve included here some spectacular performances of some of my favorite works of Christmas music. Some are restful and awe-inspiring. Others are exuberant and joyful. And all of them can take your mind off everything that “must” get done, so you can enjoy the season.

Witold Lutosławski Twenty Polish Christmas Carols

Do take a moment to experience the shiveringly beautiful Twenty Polish Christmas Carols by the 20th-century Polish composer Witold Lutosławski. These arrangements are truly a breed apart from the typical chorus-and-orchestra Christmas carol arrangements.

The repertory of Polish Christmas carols Lutosławski explores in this collection is quite different from the traditional Western European fare of Bring a Torch, Jeannette, Isabelle, O Tannenbaum and the like, so the songs feel fresh. Beyond that, Lutosławski’s harmonizations are full of moments of beguiling dissonances, slight and passing pangs of the dark side of the nativity story, and his orchestrations shimmer like moonlight on icicles.

Witold Lutosławski’s Twenty Polish Christmas Carols, performed by the Polish Radio Symphony Orchestra and the Polish Radio Chorus, Antoni Wit conducting:

Britten A Hymn to the Virgin

It’s quite simply one of the most stunning works of Christmas music around. English composer Benjamin Britten was still a 16-year-old schoolkid – and out on a sick day, no less – when he set the ancient English-Latin text to some of the most sublime music ever created.

Britten had the Marian text lying around in an anthology of English poetry he had won as a prize in some school contest or other. His setting is a novel take on the English verse anthem, juxtaposing the full choir singing the lines in English with a quartet singing the lines in Latin. Britten’s modal musical language brings out the ancient perfume of the words. This piece connects you to the ancient roots of the Christmas holiday, while sounding ever new. An absolute masterpiece.

VOCES8 sings A Hymn to the Virgin by Benjamin Britten:

Ave Maria settings

The Ave Maria text has inspired countless composers through the centuries to pen glorious choral music for Christmas. I am hard-pressed to name my favorite Ave Maria setting, but one of my favorites is the glorious Bogoriditse Devo (Ave Maria) from Rachmaninoff’s All-Night Vigil.

Rachmaninoff – Bogoroditse Devo, from the Russian Orthodox All-Night Vigil, performed by the St. Petersburg Chamber Choir, Nikolai Korniev conducting:


Bach Christmas Oratorio

It’s really hard to be a Scrooge when Bach’s Christmas Oratorio is going on. The work’s opening chorus, Jauchzet, frohlocket! (Shout for joy, exult!), says it all. Put that in repeat mode, and you’ll be set for a while. It’ll make you happier, and it might even make you smarter!

Jauchzet, frohlocket!, from Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, performed by the venerable Leipzig Thomanerchor:


Medley of Christmas Spirituals, arr. Joseph Jennings

Nothing shouts Christmas joy like the Medley of Christmas Spirituals that the great countertenor, choral conductor and composer Joseph Jennings arranged for Chanticleer. Jennings and Chanticleer recorded the medley on Our Heart’s Joy: A Chanticleer Christmas, a recording that hails from Jennings’ time as Chanticleer’s music director and what arguably could be called the choir’s golden age. The arrangement is a spectacular showcase – without being showy – of what a group of well-honed voices can do.

Simply put, the singing is electrifying. Listen in particular for the phenomenal countertenor stylings at 2:30, 2:21 and 5:32 to the end of the medley.

Medley of Christmas Spirituals, arr. Joseph Jennings and performed by Chanticleer:

Jennifer Hambrick unites her extensive backgrounds in the arts and media and her deep roots in Columbus to bring inspiring music to central Ohio as Classical 101’s midday host. Jennifer performed with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Civic Orchestra of Chicago before earning a Ph.D. in musicology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.