During the festive season, tradition holds sway. Families and communities come together, while our thoughts return to the securities of childhood. Singing carols and listening to much-loved music are the stuff of idealised memory to which, in troubled times, we cling more than ever. Yet the Christmas story has a radical edge, revealing divine purpose in obscure, risk-laden circumstances. So, in the true spirit of Christmas, we should perhaps set aside custom and search instead for neglected musical treasures in unlikely places.
For example, as an alternative to Handel’s Messiah, we could choose to listen to Heinrich Schütz’s A Christmas Story (1666). The drama unfolds apace, vividly presented by a tenor-evangelist, with passages of gloriously angelic music for solo soprano. The work’s choruses dance with joy, while the distinctive colours of the early Baroque orchestra, encompassing recorders, trumpets and trombones, ravish the ear.
Those seeking a grander musical experience may prefer Berlioz’s L’enfance du Christ (1854). Filled with pathos and humanity, among its highlights is the tender duo sung by Mary and Joseph to their new-born child, O mon cher fils.
Another attractive work from the romantic era is Franz Liszt’s oratorio Christus (1866). After the death of two of his children, the composer underwent a religious transformation, relinquished his career as a pianist and even took holy orders. Christus was an ambitious declaration of intent. The first part of the work tells the Christmas story, evoking pastoral scenes in music of expansive beauty, and concluding with an extended march to mark the arrival of the Magi.
A less well-known figure from that period is the German composer, Peter Cornelius, who wrote The Three Kings, a carol that has melted many a cold heart over the years. But few will know that this popular favourite is just one of six beautiful Christmas Songs (1856) written for bass-baritone – part of a German tradition of warmly sentimental home-entertainment for the long winter evenings.
A cappella choral music written for a liturgical context is a goldmine for seasonal repertoire. William Byrd’s anthem Vigilate (1589) suits Advent, reminding us to stay awake, since God may arrive at any moment. A cock’s crow is represented by fast-rising scales in a piece full of virtuoso contrapuntal flourishes.
Less ornate is James MacMillan’s O radiant dawn (2007), one of his Strathclyde motets, which invokes the coming of Christ at first light with music of pleading, prayerful simplicity.
Music-lovers hankering after festive exuberance will find nothing to match Arthur Honegger’s Une cantate pour Noël (1953). After a mournful procession, the chorus breaks into a joyful quodlibet; an ingenious combination of well-known Christmas tunes, including Silent Night, Es is ein Ros entsprungen and Wachet Auf. The cheer of children’s voices adds to the mood of innocent playfulness, yet this spiritual optimism is all the more surprising when we learn that Honegger was not especially religious, and that this was his last composition before his death in 1954.
Opera is not usually a feature of Yuletide, although Gian Carlo Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors (1951) was once a staple of every American Christmas. Written for NBC as an hour-long television broadcast for Christmas Eve, the story tells of a disabled boy and his mother who are visited by the Magi on their way to greet the baby Jesus. The encounter proves a miraculous turning point for the pair, who are living in miserable poverty. Menotti’s music is touching, expressing with guileless lyricism the intimate feelings between mother and child, capturing also the awe and anticipation felt under a night sky.
Finally, I want to mention two works which go beyond a conventional understanding of Christmas. Arnold Bax was a British composer who became obsessed with the myths, history and politics of Ireland. He wrote his tone poem Christmas Eve (1912) as a vision for peace and unity in that troubled country. Like WB Yeats, Irish reunification was for Bax a symbol of his personal longing for wholeness. In the music, we hear 20 minutes of sumptuously scored variations based on the plainchant associated with the Credo, which culminate in the magnificent entry of the organ.
In Bax’s world, Christ’s birth signalled a gateway to the fullest realisation of our human potential.
The composer Gerald Finzi possessed a childlike sense of wonder, despite an upbringing marred by tragedy. Near the end of his life, when lymphatic cancer was slowly killing him, Finzi brought together his love of English landscape and the spirit of Christmas in an exquisite work for choir, soloists and orchestra. In Terra Pax (1954) combines an extract from Robert Bridges’s poem, “Noel: Christmas Eve 1913”, with words from Luke’s Gospel. The music is by turns mysteriously nocturnal, innocently joyous and expressively poignant. Three times, Finzi’s angel sings “Fear not!”, emphasising that eternity’s call bodes terror as well as elation.
In Terra Pax is Finzi’s plea for harmony between Man and Nature, peoples and nations, stemming from his heartfelt pacifism. Peace and goodwill were his light amid the darkness, and we may discover them both, hidden among twilit hills and twinkling stars.
What then makes a successful piece of Christmas music? There is no simple formula, although it should arouse the joy of anticipation and a contemplative sense of the eternal. Robert Bridges put it most eloquently: “But to me heard afar it was starry music, Angels’ song, comforting as the comfort of Christ …”
His words released music of superlative beauty from Finzi, and we are surely refashioned in the divine image by witnessing such a revelation. With that elevated purpose in mind, may I wish that your Christmas festivities be similarly enriched by many rare and inspiring musical experiences.
Peter Davison is a musicologist and cultural commentator who for many years was artistic consultant to The Bridgewater Hall in Manchester