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Christmas       Back to Musical Occasions

Music has been an essential part of religious festivals for the last thousand years. Much music has been written especially for performance at Christmas, and other pieces have been traditionally performed at this time of year. The following suggestions are works with a Christmas link that might put you in a festive mood!


Playlist - An English Christmas

Leroy Anderson  Sleigh Ride

Vaughan Williams Carols

J S Bach Christmas Oratorio

Tchaikovsky Nutcracker

Prokofiev Troika from Lieutenant Kijé Suite 

Corelli Christmas Concerto

Britten A Ceremony of Carols   

Sibelius Karelia Suite

 For those of us that don’t live in a coniferous forest, it takes nothing more than the smell of pine needles to make us think of Christmas. There are plenty of pieces of music that have the same effect, so this week we listened to some traditional Christmas music, and explored a few less well known yuletide classics.

Of all the pieces of music that have become synonymous with the season of goodwill, the Troika from Sergey Prokofiev’s Lieutenant Kije Suite is probably the most immediately recognisable.

The Lieutenant Kije Suite started life as the soundtrack to a film about an imaginary soldier who is created through a bureaucratic error. Far from “Christmassy”, the film paints an absurd picture of life under Emperor Paul I. The Troika (Sleigh Ride) has become a Christmas favourite thanks to the association with Father Christmas and his reindeer, although in reality Prokofiev had a rather more military connection in mind.

No Christmas concert would be complete without carols. A number of major composers have contributed to the standard repertoire of carols, although probably the best known of them is Felix Mendelssohn. His Hark the Herald Angels Sing has become a staple finale to carol services throughout the world.

Pyotr Il'yich Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker is another enduring Christmas favourite. The ballet is set on Christmas Eve, and comes complete with all the usual balletic confectionary: dancing dolls, fairies and an evil Rat King.

There are plenty of composers who, if it were not for their Christmas carols, would probably be entirely forgotten today. Many of them were church organists or priests, and they had one enduring success. Once in Royal David’s City , often sung by a lone chorister at the start of a carol service, was written by Henry John Gauntlett, to words by Cecil Frances Alexander.

Likewise, there are a number of composers who wrote some rather neglected Christmas works. Herbert Howells3 Carol-Anthems  is a good example of 20th century Christmas music, as is Benjamin Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols .

One composer who has taken a rather more contemporary approach to yuletide music is John Tavener. His hymn The Lamb  became particularly popular in the after being used on an advert for Orange mobile phones. The hymn begins like many carols, with a simple melody. As each verse goes by, the harmony accompanying the tune becomes more and more complicated.