Health and Wellness

Classical Christmas Music: 10 of the Greatest Pieces of Holiday Music

By Ryan Spooner

If you’re dreaming of a Symphonic Christmas, we have a channel for you. With our Classical Christmas channel, you can take a sleigh ride through over 400 years worth of classical Christmas music!

It features a mix of beautiful Christmas selections from some of the most important composers of all time. Our staff have picked 10 of our favourites, each with a fun fact about the composition. Happy Holidays!

1. Christmas Oratorio, BWV 248: Jesus, Shepherd My Beginning - Johann Sebastian Bach
Performed by: Robert Shaw and The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra

This is one of the festive season's most established classics. First performed near the end of Bach’s career in 1734, it follows the birth of Jesus, the first visit from the shepherds, through to the Epiphany, when the magi present gifts to the holy baby. Each of its six parts of the Christmas Oratorio would have been performed separately on feast days. The total running time for the entire work is nearly three hours.

2. Hark! The Herald Angels Sing - Felix Mendelssohn
Performed by: London Regency Choir

First appearing in 1739, Hark! The Herald Angels Sing was originally written by Charles Wesley, one of the founding ministers of Methodism. He opened the song with the lyrics:

HARK how all the Welkin rings
Glory to the King of Kings

This was changed to the familiar Hark! The Herald Angels Sing by George Whitefield in 1754. In 1855, British musician William H. Cummings supplied the music, adapting Felix Mendelssohn's secular music from Festgesang to fit the lyrics of the hymn.

3. The Holly and the Ivy
Performed by: The Royal College of Music

Another traditional carol that's been a staple in church services and secular concerts alike. The title uses traditional Christmas plants to symbolize the birth of Jesus. The holly represents Jesus and the ivy represents his mother, Mary.

The melody for the carol was first published in Cecil Sharp's 1911 collection English Folk-Carols. The melody is notable in being confined to the notes of the hexachord.

4. L'enfance du Christ, Op. 25: The Shepherds' Farewell - Hector Berlioz
Performed by: Arturo Delmoni, Natasha Lipkina, Nathaniel Rosen & Nina Bodnar

The Shepherds' Farewell started as an organ piece written by Berlioz for a friend’s album at a party in 1850. "I thought it had a certain pastoral, naive mysticism about it," the composer said later, "so I decided to put the appropriate words to it." He soon turned it into a choral movement, portraying the shepherds saying goodbye to the baby Jesus.

Though this song is focused on parts of the Nativity, Berlioz himself was not religious as an adult. However, he said that he remained susceptible to the beauty of the sacred music that had fascinated him as a child.

5. The Four Seasons, Op. 8 - Violin Concerto No. 4 in F Minor, RV 297, Winter: 2. Largo - Antonio Vivaldi
Performed By: Emmy Verhey, Camerata Antonio Lucio, Alun Francis

No one captures the seasons like Vivaldi. The winter section of his Four Seasons Concerto begins with the drama of a winter storm and moves to a cozy second movement - encapsulating the power and beauty of the season.

Each of the seasons was accompanied by a sonnet. When you listen to this song, here are the words to keep in your mind:

We tread the icy path slowly and cautiously,
for fear of tripping and falling.
Then turn abruptly, slip, crash on the ground and,
rising, hasten on across the ice lest it cracks up.
We feel the chill north winds course through the home
despite the locked and bolted doors...
this is winter, which nonetheless
brings its own delights.

6. Silent Night - Franz Gruber
Performed By: Oxford St. Peter's Choir

This classic carol was first performed on Christmas Eve in 1818. It was composed by Gruber for the guitar, because the church's organ was broken. Thank goodness for that happy accident. The song has had a rich legacy. It was declared an intangible cultural heritage by UNESCO in 2011. Bing Crosby’s recording is the fourth best-selling single of all-time!

7. The Messiah, HWV 56: For Unto Us a Child Is Born - George Frideric Handel
Performed By: Ama Deus Ensemble

When people think of Handel’s Messiah, they often think of Hallelujah, but there are other points of triumphant dramatic effect throughout the oratorio. For Unto Us A Child Is Born confidently announces the birth of Christ with its own radiant chorus.

Handel wrote his beloved oratorio in a three-week burst of intense activity during the fall of 1741. Some say it is a sign of divine intervention, others credit a little recycling on Handel’s part. The well-known chorus from For unto Us a Child Is Born is a reworking of an Italian duet, Nò, di voi non vo’ fidarmi that Handel composed just a few months earlier.

8. O Come All Ye Faithful
Performed By: Nathaniel Rosen, Alexander Romanul, Arturo Delmoni & Katherine Murdock

Though the exact authorship is often disputed, O Come All Ye Faithful has become one of the best known Christmas hymns around the world. The text has been linked to everyone from St. Bonaventure in the 13th century to King John IV of Portugal in the 17th.

9. The Seasons, Op. 37a: 12. December: Christmas - Tchaikovsky
Performed By: Michael Ponti

Tchaikovsky’s The Seasons is a set of 12 piano pieces in which each piece represents a month. They were written to be published in a magazine; subscribers would receive a new piece each month in 1876.

For December, Tchaikovsky wrote a graceful waltz and subtitled it Christmas. The magazine accompanied it with the following verses by the poet Vasily Zhukovsky:

Once upon a Christmas night
the girls were telling fortunes:
taking their slippers off their feet
and throwing them out of the gate.

10. Concerto Grosso No. 8 in G Minor, Op. 6, Christmas Concerto: 2. Allegro - Corelli
Performed By: Gennedy Tcherkasov and The Moscow Conservatory Chamber Orchestra

Corelli’s sublimely beautiful Christmas Concerto was marked “composed for Christmas night” and is believed to have been written in 1690 for Cardinal Pietro Ottoboni – though it wasn’t published until after the composer’s death.

Christmas Music On Calm Radio

Here is a glimpse at some of the selections of classical music found on our Classical Christmas channel. If you are looking for a different flavour of Christmas music, we have multiple channels for you to choose from.

If you are looking for a Christmas gift for that music lover in your life, give them a subscription to Calm Radio.

Happy Holidays & Happy Listening!

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