What would Christmas be without music? For many of us, music is an indelible part of our Christmas memories and traditions. The same has been true for many Christmas-loving classical composers throughout the ages, so it is no surprise that many of them wrote Christmas music of their own. In roughly chronological order from oldest to newest, here are 15 of the best pieces of classical music written for Christmastime. This list is full of both old favorites and rarities, and we hope it brings some classical cheer to your holidays.
1) Corelli’s Christmas Concerto
Arcangelo Corelli was one of the finest violinists and composers in late 17th/early18th century Italy. The manuscript of this concerto bears the inscription “Fatto per la notte di Natale” (made for the night of Christmas), and ends with a pastoral finale that evokes the shepherds who came to see the newborn Jesus.
2) Bach’s Christmas Oratorio
Bach composed this festive work for the Christmas of 1734. Each of its six parts would have been performed separately on feast days during the Christmas season. This work is a great next step for classical music lovers already familiar with the next piece on our list, Handel’s Messiah.
3) Handel’s Messiah
This is a big one. Handel’s Messiah has been one of the most popular pieces of classical music for hundreds of years, thanks in no small part to the famed Hallelujah Chorus. The tradition of performing it at Christmastime can be traced back to early nineteenth-century America, and today orchestras all over the world (including the Houston Symphony) present it every year as an annual holiday tradition. Learn more about the surprising story of Handel’s Messiah in this blog post and podcast.
4) Mozart’s Sleigh Ride
Before Leroy Anderson’s Sleigh Ride, there was Mozart’s. This is the last of his Three German Dances K. 605, and was most likely composed for a ball at Vienna’s imperial court. Like many artists today, Mozart took a “just add sleigh bells” approach to creating a wintry atmosphere.
5) Berlioz’ L’enfance du Christ
Technically this piece is a musical sequel to the Christmas story, since it picks up after the magi with King Herod’s plot to murder all boys under the age of two and the holy family’s consequent flight into Egypt. It does depict the shepherds saying farewell to them, so there is something Christmasy in that part, and it is a great score regardless. Maybe save this one for Boxing Day?
6) Saint-Saëns’ Oratorio de Noël
Saint-Saëns’ completed his Oratorio de Noël in just two weeks in order to have it ready to perform on Christmas Day 1858. It may have been a rush job, but it still contains a lot of pretty music; the movements featuring the harp have some lovely effects.
7) Liszt’s Christmas Tree Suite
Although he led a scandalous life as a young piano virtuoso, in his later years Franz Liszt joined the Third Order of Saint Francis and took several minor orders within the Catholic Church (including exorcist…). He wrote his “Christmas Tree” suite in 1881 for his granddaughter Daniela, who had the misfortune of being born on December 24; perhaps she was consoled by the thought that a piece by Liszt has got to be one of the better Christmas/birthday presents anyone has ever received. This gentle piece is based on a number of traditional carols, including “Good Christian Men Rejoice.”
8) Tchaikovsky’s December: Christmas
Tchaikovsky’s The Seasons is a set of piano pieces in which each piece represents one of the twelve months of the year. They were written to be published in a magazine; subscribers would receive a new piece by Tchaikovsky each month in their copy. For December, Tchaikovsky wrote one of his graceful waltzes, 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.
9) Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker
Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker is perhaps the most famous classical Christmas music ever. Every December one hears its best-known numbers everywhere, especially the Trepak, the Waltz of the Flowers, the March and the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy. But every measure of the score is an enchanting and masterful example of musical storytelling. Based on a short story by ETA Hoffman, the ballet begins as an affectionate parody of a bourgeois Christmas party but soon turns into a metaphor for an adolescent girl’s sexual awakening. The work has become a great money-maker for ballet companies each December, but the tradition of performing it every Christmas did not begin until the choreographer George Balanchine brought it to New York in the 1950s.
9.5) Duke Ellington & Billy Strayhorn’s Nutcracker Suite
OK, maybe this isn’t strictly classical, but it is a witty and ingenious take on Tchaikovsky’s music from jazz greats Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn. Ellington and Strayhorn created this arrangement in 1960, likely as a result of the popularity of Balanchine’s revival of the ballet. Tchaikovsky’s star protege Rachmaninoff turned out to be a big jazz fan, so we like to think Tchaikovsky would have enjoyed it.
10) Rimsky-Korsakov’s Christmas Eve Suite
Rimsky-Korsakov adapted this suite from the music he wrote for his opera Christmas Eve, which was based on an eponymous short story by Gogol. On Christmas Eve, Vakula catches the devil and rides on his back in order to get the perfect present for his girl: a pair of the Tsaritsa’s slippers! The suite includes music from this wild ride and a grand polonaise to represent the court of Catherine the Great.
11) Schoenberg’s Christmas Music
Despite being Jewish, Arnold Schoenberg loved Christmas music. Those who usually cover their ears at the mention of this composer’s dissonant modernist scores have nothing to fear from this lovely arrangement of a classic carol by Praetorius. He even weaves Silent Night in as a countermelody at one point.
12) Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on Greensleeves
According to legend, the famous melody called Greensleeves was penned by King Henry VIII. It is often sung as the carol “What Child Is This?” In addition to this beautiful fantasia, Vaughan Williams also wrote a fantasia on other Christmas carols. Consider this a two-for-one bonus!
13) Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols
These English composers sure do love Christmas, don’t they? Benjamin Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols sets Middle English poems from The English Galaxy of Shorter Poems, and like Saint-Saëns’ oratorio, it has a nice harp part.
14) Poulenc’s Four Motets for Christmastime
Feeling in an a cappella mood? Try Francis Poulenc’s motets! These short vocal works create a contemplative, spiritual atmosphere.
15) Messiaen’s Noël
Looking for something a little less sentimental? Messiaen’s angular and harmonically crunchy Noël may be the Christmas piece for you! This is just one movement from Messiaen’s Vingt regards sur l’enfant-Jésus, so if you like this, there’s lots more to discover. In the video above Yvonne Loriod, Messiaen’s wife, plays it for the composer.
There you have it: three centuries worth of classical Christmas music! Did we miss your favorite piece? Let us know in the comments below!