10 fresh and underrated classical holiday pieces

Holiday music can be pleasant and refreshing as long as it’s . . . well, good. We comfort creatures don’t mind the familiar, but even the most spirited among us eventually tire of Messiah, The Nutcracker, and Sleigh Ride.

That’s where andante mosso steps in, bringing you, courtesy of YouTube, 10 classical pieces that can make for fine holiday listening—and you won’t find sleigh bells or whip cracks in any of them:

1 – Ubi caritas from Four Motets on Gregorian Themes – Maurice Duruflé

Maurice Duruflé (1902 – 1986) was a French organist and composer whose works, including the famous Requiem, are largely based on melodies from plainsong chant harmonized and developed in interesting ways. This motet, Ubi caritas et amor (Deus ibi est) / Where there is charity and love (God is there), is a simple, warm, lovely tribute to the spirit of Christmas, performed here by the Cambridge Singers.

2 – Chorus: “Jauchzet, Frolocket” from The Christmas Oratorio – J.S. Bach

One of the most underplayed Christmas masterworks in the repertoire, Bach’s monumental Weinachtsoratorium deserves, even among speakers of English, no less attention than Handel’s vastly more famous contribution. In the opening chorus, presented by John Eliot Gardiner and his amazing Monteverdi Choir, the listener is extolled to “rise up and praise” the Christmas miracle.

3 – “There is No Rose” from Ceremony of Carols – Benjamin Britten

British composer Benjamin Britten (1913 – 1976) wrote his Ceremony of Carols, Op. 28, for solo voices, female chorus, and harp. Its eleven movements are based on Middle English texts. “There is No Rose” is one of loveliest, and probably the most famous, of the set. It is performed here by the Choir of Trinity College, Cambridge.

4Waltz (Movement III) from Symphony No. 5 in E minor – Tchaikovsky

Tchaikovsky wrote more than just ballets, you know. This waltz, an inner movement and a moment of relief amid the pathos and tumult of the Fifth Symphony, always reminds me of holiday snowfall—and the ubiquitous ensuing snowball fight. This is an excellent reading from the Slovenian Philharmonic.

5 – “Alleluja” from Exsultate, jubilate – Mozart

Mozart composed his solo motet Exsultate, jubilate during a period in which he was job-hunting for a church post in Italy. Most of this liturgical music is better known to today’s audiences through concert performances, and this piece is no exception. Check out this delightful rendition by male (yes, male) soprano/countertenor Michael Maniaci.

6 – “Prelude” and “Forlane” from Le tombeau de Couperin – Maurice Ravel

The National Radio Orchestra of Italy delivers a sparkling performance of two movements from Ravel’s suite (originally for piano) Le tombeau de Couperin, a work that is simultaneously an homage to early French music and a tribute to Ravel’s friends who perished in the First World War; each movement is dedicated to one of the fallen. The “Prelude” is full of bustle and wonderment, and the “Forlane” is a sly, mysterious dance colored with biting harmonies and jagged rhythms that seem to suggest an icy cold, perfectly clear winter evening.

7 Tarantelle in A-flat major – Chopin

Chopin is one of the composers we associate least with the holiday season, probably because his piano music is of such a sensuous and intimate character. But Chopin could be fun-loving and childlike, too, as is demonstrated by this exciting and little-known composition based on an Italian dance form. The performance is by Vladimir Ashkenazy.

8Movement 1 – Quintet for Brass, Op. 73, Malcolm Arnold

Malcolm Arnold (1921 – 2006) was a contemporary British composer of film scores and a great deal of symphonic and chamber music. The Chicago Brass Soloists perform the first movement of his Brass Quintet live in Japan—see if it doesn’t remind you of the hustle and bustle of Black Friday!

9Quiet City – Aaron Copland

Copland wrote incidental music to Irwin Shaw’s play Quiet City and later fashioned it into an independent composition for english horn, trumpet, and string orchestra; this music took on a life of its own quite apart from the original dramatic context. It has a peacefully searching character that suits my overstuffed holiday mood. This reading is by the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra.

10Air and Variations from Suite in E major “The Harmonious Blacksmith” – Handel

Sigh . . . yes, Handel still gets to make an appearance, but no oratorios allowed, thank you. Paul Nicholson at the harpsichord beautifully interprets this famous air and variations from one of Handel’s keyboard suites, a piece that has come to be known as “The Harmonious Blacksmith.”  If this isn’t Yuletide keyboard music, I don’t know what is . . .

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2 Responses to “10 fresh and underrated classical holiday pieces”

  1. December 23, 2009 at 5:05 pm

    There’s not a particular order to the list. Left to my own devices, I could’ve put Bach in all ten slots. Variety won’t hurt anyone, though. 🙂 Glad you liked it.

    Of all the examples, I think the Tchaik is probably my personal favorite. I have adored that particular symphony, and also his #2 “Little Russian” since I was a child.

    I’ll have to keep an eye out for that Bartoli.

    Glad you liked it!

  2. 2 Amy
    December 22, 2009 at 2:24 am

    Curtis,OMG, I love your top-10 list. Were you tempted at all to put the Bach (love those Baroque flutes) in the #1 spot? It certainly rivals the Ubi Caritas. Well, they rival each other. The Copland is one of my favorites of his music. This may sound corny, but it makes me think of my childhood and favorite book I had called Night, which was about the secret, quiet night life of the city, which probably not many cities have anymore (one in which one the few people moving was the milkman going around delivering milk – which I remember from my childhood). And, I’m glad you included the Britten… my favorite is “This Little Babe”. After hearing the countenor, I can certainly understand why the castrati were considered superstar singers. Are you familiar with Cecilia Bartoli’s new CD “Sacrificum”, which is a tribute to the castrati. She was on NPR a few weeks ago talking about it.

    Thanks for the list.


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