Let’s face it, most Christmas music is lame. And it’s that same lame Christmas music that gets blared over loudspeakers in shopping malls all across this great country of ours. Ask most people about classical Christmas music and they’ll probably say something about that horrifying version of Pachelbel’s Canon in D by an electronic group that calls itself an orchestra. Ugh. But fear not, for I bring you good tidings of great joy which shall be to all classical fans. For unto us is born this day in the City of Angels a playlist, which contains more than five hours of actual classical Christmas music that doesn’t suck. It’s embedded below. I’ll point out some of my highlights:
- There are a few of my favorite bits of The Nutcracker because it’s The Nutcracker and The Nutcracker is undeniably awesome.
- “Bethlehem Down” is a Christmas carol by Peter Warlock and Bruce Blunt who got totally plastered on Christmas Eve 1927, wrote this carol, sent it in to The Telegraph’s annual Christmas carol contest, and won.
- Since there are so many great choral recordings of classical Christmas music…and since they’re so easy to find, the choral stuff I’ve included on this particular playlist is off-the-beaten-path choral stuff. For example, Charles Ives’ “A Christmas Carol” and the two Sibelius carols “Jouluna” and “En etsi valtaa, Ioistoa” are all just absolutely stunning. (And you won’t encounter them on the stereo system at your local Target store.)
- I’m sure you know Leroy Anderson’s “Sleigh Ride” quite well, so instead of that, I’ve included his “A Christmas Festival,” which is a delightful medley of popular Christmas tunes…and the “Sleigh Ride” I *have* included is one by Frederick Delius. Don’t worry, there are plenty of sleigh bells throughout.
- My favorite thing on this playlist is probably the least-known work as well…and I say that not as a hipster who “liked it before it was cool,” it’s just that “Une cantate de Noel” by Artur Honegger is not the most popular Christmas tune. But I think it’s worthy of 20 of your minutes. What Honegger does is harness the power of the darkness before the birth of Christ in the first few minutes of the piece and then turns that into blazing light and glory upon the angels’ announcement of the nativity. The work ends in a truly awe-inspiring mash-up of familiar Christmas carols, each sung in its original language. To me, this is wonderfully moving…and a reminder that we are all connected together as one species, regardless of race, gender-identity, class, or religion.
- Throughout, I’ve interspersed selections from one of my favorite Baroque Christmas albums, “Bright Day Star” by the Baltimore Consort. Some familiar things, some not-so-familiar things. Including the final selection on the playlist: “Hey for Christmas!” sung to the Dargason tune, about a drunken party gone wrong (what other Christmas carol contains the line “the sweat down their buttocks ran”?)
- The last piece I’ll point out is, I think, the smartest one. “Die natali,” (pronounced DEE-ay nah-TAH-lee), by Samuel Barber. This is an incredibly intricate tapestry of seven well-known Christmas carols that never ceases to surprise and delight me when I hear it again for the first time each Christmas season.