Musical Offerings for the Yuletide Season

IMG_0023 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.

  Weihnachten, A German Christmas, Seattle Pro Musica There was a 13-month back order delay when this disc was initially released, and the product was worth the wait.  The CD features a mix of German and Latin carols recorded in the acoustical near perfection of an St. James Cathedral in Seattle. The Best of the Christmas Tradition, English Medieval Christmas Carols, The New York Pro Musica Antiqua This outstanding and timeless collection of Medieval carols, recorded in 1956, is unusual in that it features a countertenor – and a world-class countertenor at that.  The effect is mesmerizing. Puer Natus Est, Tudor Music for Advent & Christmas, Stile Antico From a highly talented British a cappella ensemble comes a collection of 16th century carols which includes this Ave Maria.
  Agnus Dei – Music of Inner Harmony This collection includes compositions from the 16th through the 19th centuries, as well as one breathtaking arrangement by early 20th-century composer Samuel Barber, performed by a choir of boys and men in the chapel of Oxford’s New College (thusly named since the college was founded in 1379). Here is the choir’s performance of Lux Aeterna, based on a melody by Edward Elgar.
  I strongly recommend the following long and spectacularly beautiful track, Miserere me, Deus.  In a remarkable feat of musical discipline, the choir maintains its pitch while performing a cappella for more than 13 minutes.

English Carols

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).

  Christmas Night: Carols of the Nativity, The Cambridge Singers This collection includes the rare Adam Lay y Bounden, which is not only a beautiful carol but also a delightful elucidation of Medieval logic, to wit: “It’s a good thing that Adam sinned in the Garden of Eden, because if he hadn’t sinned, there would have been no need for Our Lady Mary.”  Here is Adam Lay y Bounden, performed again by the King’s College choir.
  Christmas Carols from King’s College, Cambridge Late in the afternoon on every Christmas Eve, King’s College in Cambridge broadcasts from its spectacular chapel a Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols.  Listening to the Festival live on the radio during a late breakfast is a Christmas Eve tradition at my house. This CD offers many of the Festival’s most popular carols recorded by the chapel choir. An especially magical aspect of the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols takes place in its first moments.  The show opens with a processional to Once in Royal David’s City, which begins with a solo boy soprano.  Every year the choir director tells three or four boys to be ready to sing the solo.  At the very last second, the director points to one boy.  The chosen boy stands and in the silence of the chapel begins to sing. Here is the Festival’s opening from 2013.

German Carols

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.

Welsh Carols

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!)

    Carols and Christmas Songs, Bryn Terfel The best-known Welsh opera singer is the bass-baritone Bryn Terfel.  This is his Christmas collection.

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.

  White Christmas, Bing Crosby Although Bing Crosby never knew the benefits of digital technology, his recordings of Christmas carols are engaging, sentimental fun.  His rendition of White Christmas is the best-selling record of all time.

Other Treats

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


5 thoughts on “Musical Offerings for the Yuletide Season

  1. Hello Cynthia, Thank you for this wonderful collection of exquisite Christmas music. I will keep it and enjoy it during the holidays. It’s a beautiful gift. Marie

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Cynthia,

    Bing’s recording of White Christmas isn’t just the best selling Christmas carol of all time: it’s the best selling single record of all time, far outpacing the runner-up, Candle in the Wind. The song, as written by Irving Berlin, and sung by Bing, was a perfect match of voice to melody. Can’t imagine not listening to Bing’s version at least a few times during the Xmas season. (JB@Minerva2BC on Twitter).

    Liked by 1 person

  3. This is an utterly remarkable effort! Thank you for collating all these wonderful pieces, and in presenting them in so impressive and user-friendly a format – with the many embedded links for the more curious, and the summarized history of each piece, this is an excellent essay for both the novice and the expert. Merry Christmas to you and yours! And thank you for the music!

    Liked by 1 person

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