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  • Graham Abbott

A Ceremony of Christmas

Today’s offering is one which explores some less-trodden byways of the classical repertoire. If we think of major works which are associated with Christmas, one or two immediately come to mind, like JS Bach’s Christmas Oratorio. And even though Handel never intended his most famous work to be regularly performed at Christmas (it’s a work designed for Lent), it seems unthinkable these days for the middle of December to go past in English-speaking countries without someone trotting out Messiah.

It occurred to me that there must be a lot of other works composed for Christmas which we rarely if ever hear today, but I wasn’t prepared for the huge number of pieces of this type which I encountered once I started looking. Today, avoiding Christmas carols, we’re going to cast our ears over just a few Christmas works which have been largely forgotten, many of which could easily be revived by choirs and orchestras. I’ve adapted the title of a work by Benjamin Britten to call this survey “A Ceremony of Christmas”.

Boticelli: Nativity (c. 1474)

We’ll start with the north German Lutheran tradition in which JS Bach worked. Of course every city in northern German in the Renaissance and Baroque had its own church with its own musical establishment, large or small. Bach’s much more famous contemporary Georg Philipp Telemann (the two men were friends) wrote a massive number of church cantatas; more than 1,700 of them are listed in the complete works, among them many intended for Christmas.

Four of Telemann’s Christmas cantatas are linked here. The musical riches in just these four pieces show that there’s an enormous resource yet to be properly understood in the music of Telemann. Perhaps it’s so vast it never will.

The German Lutheran cantata style didn’t end with the deaths of Telemann, Bach and their contemporaries. Johann Heinrich Rolle was of the next generation of German composers; his life is contemporary with those of Bach’s sons. Rolle spent much of his working life in the city of Magdeburg, and he was appointed organist at St John’s Church there in 1746. He eventually became the church’s music director in 1752, succeeding his father in the post.

Johann Heinrich Rolle (1782)

In December 1769, Rolle’s Christmas Oratorio was performed in a concert (rather than in a church service) in Magdeburg an it contains some delightful music in the hybrid style which spans the Baroque and Classical periods. This chorus opens the oratorio’s second half. [listen]


Going back a little historically, a French Christmas work which is occasionally heard today is the Midnight Mass of Marc-Antoine Charpentier, written in 1690s. Charpentier was a highly skilled and inventive composer whose work throughout his life was overshadowed by that of Jean-Baptiste Lully. The Midnight Mass sets the usual texts of the Ordinary of the Mass but interpolates into the musical setting ten traditional French carols, all of which have a dance-like quality to them. The addition of recorders to the strings and continuo instruments emphasises the pastoral quality of the music, something long-associated with Christmas music because of the part played in the story by the shepherds in the fields outside Bethlehem.

This is the Gloria movement from Charpentier’s Mass. [listen]


Rembrandt: The Adoration of the Shepherds (1646)

Charpentier wrote a lot of sacred music associated with Christmas. He composed five so-called “dramatic motets” on the Christmas story; we would call them Christmas oratorios and like the Mass they stress the pastoral elements of the story. One of these oratorios (it has the catalogue number of H416) dates from the 1680s and between the two narrative parts there is an exquisite instrumental movement which bears the title of Nuit (Night). This interlude sets the scene for the appearance of the angels to the shepherds and is a wonderful example of Charpentier’s dramatic skills in painting a picture in sound. [listen]

If you’d like to listen to the whole work, there’s a beautiful recording of it here.


Before we leave the Baroque period I want to share part of a work composed by Alessandro Scarlatti. Alessandro Scarlatti was one of the most famous opera composers of his day; he wrote more than sixty operas, as well as many other vocal works both secular and sacred. (He was the father of Domenico Scarlatti, the famous composer of harpsichord sonatas.)

Alessandro Scarlatti

In Rome, there was a tradition (which was observed from 1675 until 1740) in which a banquet was given at the Papal Palace on Christmas Eve after Vespers for the entire College of Cardinals. This was a relaxation before the strenuous demands of the midnight mass and it was an occasion for which new compositions were commissioned every year. For this banquet in 1705 Alessandro Scarlatti composed his Christmas cantata called Cinque Profeti (Five Prophets). It’s a lavish sequence of arias in which five Old Testament prophets (Daniel, Abraham, Ezekiel, Isaiah and Jeremiah) discuss the coming of the promised messiah. This is an aria sung by Isaiah which foretells Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan. [listen]


While the amount of glorious Christmas music from the Baroque could occupy us for all this post - and several more - it’s important to stress that composers of later generations also contributed music which celebrates Christmas in some way. A lot of it comes from French - or French-speaking - composers and there is a piece by François-Joseph Gossec which appears to follow in the tradition of Charpentier’s Midnight Mass. Around 1774, Gossec wrote an orchestral Christmas Suite which, while it sounds like it might have come from a comic opera, probably was intended to be used during a Christmas Eve mass. Like Charpentier’s mass, this suite is based on traditional carols which would have been immediately recognisable to the congregation. The last movement includes a chorus of shepherds who encourage the people to hasten to the manger with gifts. [listen]


François-Joseph Gossec (1791)

A more famous French composer of a later generation, Camille Saint-Saëns, wrote a Christmas Oratorio in 1858 when he was in his early 20s. By this stage of his life Saint-Saëns had already established a reputation as a leading composer, pianist and organist; indeed, he had been an internationally-acclaimed child prodigy. The Christmas Oratorio was written a year after Saint-Saëns’ appointment as organist to the famous church of La Madeleine in Paris, which explains the prominent part given to the organ in the piece. It sets texts from the psalms and the Christmas liturgy. This is a beautiful video of a live performance of the entire piece. [listen]


La Madeleine, Paris

The English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams wrote two major works on the Christmas theme. The Fantasia on Christmas Carols dates from 1912 and the cantata Hodie was written forty years later, in 1952. The Latin word “hodie” is the first word from the introit for Christmas Day: Hodie Christus natus est (Today Christ is born) and Vaughan Williams’ cantata is a major work in sixteen movements for boys’ choir, mixed choir, solo voices and orchestra. The narrative of the Christmas story is interspersed with movements setting poetry from a wide range of sources, including Milton, Thomas Hardy, George Herbert and the composer’s wife, Ursula Vaughan Williams. The whole piece can be heard starting from here.


But if you’d like to sample a smaller part, try the eleventh and twelfth movements, titled Lullaby and Hymn.


Before we conclude with some more English music I want to mention one of the organ works of Olivier Messiaen which is directly related to Christmas, the cycle of nine movements called La Nativité du Seigneur (The Nativity of the Lord) composed in 1935. Messiaen was of course one of the 20th century’s unique composers, and also one of its greatest organists. His music for his own instrument is a major part of the organ repertoire. As with all his religiously-inspired music, La Nativité emphasises the mystical, the emotional and the colourful, and it’s probably his most popular organ work.

This is the sixth movement of the cycle, called The Angels. [listen]


Grünewald: Concert of Angels and Nativity (c. 1515)

Benjamin Britten, whose Ceremony of Carols inspired the title of this article, wrote a number of works on the Christmas theme, including A Boy Was Born, one his earliest works to have brought him international attention. Another fruit of his early years - actually written while he was a student in the early 1930s - was a suite of choral pieces originally called Thy King’s Birthday but which is now known as Christ’s Nativity. These five choral pieces show Britten’s fascination with the musical possibilities of an unaccompanied choir and they cover an enormous range of moods. This is the final movement, called Carol of King Cnut, a setting of a poem by CW Stubbs. [listen]


There’s a vast amount of music inspired by Christmas out there and it’s great to get the chance to dip into it like this. I hope you’ve enjoyed the journey.

This article is based on a Keys To Music program first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in December, 2007.

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