For me, a principal joy of the Christmas season is its emphasis upon beauty – exquisite decorations and lights, gastronomic delicacies, enticing aromas, the holidays’ uplifting message of hope, and an abundance of ethereally beautiful music. Today I would like to recommend for you some of my holiday musical favorites in a variety of genres. (Each recommendation is an anthology. Most likely, the collections’ constituents are available individually as MP3s.)
Medieval, Renaissance, and Tudor Music
The plainchant of Medieval Christmas music and the polyphonic cascades of the Renaissance can serve as transcendently peaceful backdrops for even the most hectic hours of the holiday season. This oldest of Christmas music offers an inspiring testament to the power of the Christmas story. Sublimely beautiful melodies date from a time when life was, in the words of Thomas Hobbes, “nasty, brutish, and short.” Christus Natus Est (Chant for Advent and Christmas), Monks of Abbey of Liguge One of several Latin chant recordings created specifically for Christmas, this anthology does a masterful job of setting the tone for the season. Christmas Music from Medieval and Renaissance Europe, The Sixteen If you buy only one collection of Medieval and Renaissance Christmas music, this offering from the The Sixteen might be your best bet. It features flawless performances of English and continental European pieces dating from the 14th to 18th centuries. Here is a live recording of one of the tracks, O Magnum Mysterium.
England has a long tradition of Christmas carols arranged for either choirs of boys and men or (more recently) mixed choirs of men and women. Many of the most virtuosic performers in this genre are affiliated with the college chapels at Cambridge University. Here are some of my favorites. Carols from Trinity, The Choir of Trinity College, Cambridge This collection of 56 tracks features skillful musical arrangements and outstanding performances of classic favorites, including many popular in the U.S. If you were to buy only one collection of English carols, I would recommend this one. Here is A Great and Mighty Wonder, more familarly known as Es Ist Ein Ros’ Entsprungen, one of the innovative arrangements included in the Trinity College collection (albeit performed by their friendly rivals at King’s College).
The world’s most famous boy choristers, the Vienna Boys’ Choir, have produced several Christmas albums. The Little Drummer Boy, Christmas Favorites by the World Renowned Vienna Boys’ Choir This collection includes some English-language favorites interspersed among German classics. Christmas in Vienna, Vienna Boys’ Choir All of the carols in this collection are in German. Here the boys sing Still, Still, Still.
Music, and specifically singing, has traditionally played a central role in Welsh civic culture. Many towns in Wales have men’s choirs that perform in both English and Welsh. A Welsh men’s choir produces a uniquely beautiful and deep sound. A Welsh Male Voice Choir Christmas This two-disc collection offers many traditional English and American favorites in English as well as several carols in Welsh. Here is the Llanelli Male Choir singing O Holy Night. (Listen especially for the basses!)
Traditional American Songs and Carols
Rocky Mountain Christmas, John Denver In the 1970s, the late John Denver released this wonderful collection, which was one of my family’s favorites when I was growing up. It includes American classics such as The Christmas Song and Silver Bells and several less-well-known carols, such as Christmas for Cowboys.
The Nutcracker Tchaikovsky‘s atmospheric score for his most famous ballet, The Nutcracker, enhances any Christmas music collection. This recording by the London Symphony is especially good. Christmas Album, The Canadian Brass Traditional Christmas carols…clever, upbeat arrangements…virtuosic performances by a brass quintet…Look no further than this collection for excellent holiday party music.
Quote for Today
Music is the mediator between the spiritual and the sensual life. – Ludwig van Beethoven