By Tim Rutherford-Johnson
Christmas is, almost inescapably, a time of music. A lot of it is familiar and much-loved, but for those who might be looking for some more adventurous listening this year – beyond Slade, the Messiah, and Victorian carols – here are some pointers to alternative Christmas music from down the ages.
“The Sign of Judgment: the earth will be bathed in sweat”. This unlikely Christmas sentiment comes from the Song of the Sibyl, a 3rd-century Greek prophecy of the Apocalypse translated into Latin by St. Augustine and whose first lines he popularized as a form of Christmas greeting to non-Christians. The poem acquired a chant melody in 10th-century Catalonia, since when it has been a feature of the Christmas Eve liturgy in churches in Spain, Italy and Provence. This is the 10th-century Latin version, performed by Jordi Savall, the late Montserrat Figueras and La Capella Reial de Catalunya:
The Song of the Sibyl could also be performed as liturgical drama, of the kind often found in the Middle Ages. The Officium pastorum of the 13th century is another example, and in its focus on the shepherds’ story one that begins to resemble our modern Nativity. This complete performance was given by Princeton University’s Guild for Early Music in 2011.
A century or two later, the Christmas carol as we have come to know it began to emerge. Its origins lay in a mix of secular and sacred influences, including the French carole, an important social dance that required the dancers to accompany themselves with their own singing. By the 15th century, the carol as a form of song usually on the theme of Christmas had begun to establish itself, and there are many wonderful examples to discover; this setting of the Christmas lullaby Lullay, lullow from the Ritson Mansucript of c1460–75 – different from the more familiar “Coventry Carol” of the same name – retains something of those dancing origins.
The Magnificat, Mary’s hymn of praise following the Anunciation (Luke 1: 46–55) is one of the very oldest songs associated with the Christmas story, and one of the most frequently set. Great Baroque Magnificats were composed by Claudio Monteverdi (his famous Vespers of 1610 conclude with two of them) and Bach, among others. But that by Heinrich Schütz combines the Venetian exuberance with the Lutheran poise of the other to exhilarating effect.
Sidestepping the familiar Christmas favourites of the 18th and 19th centuries we encounter in the mid-20th century a major instrumental work, Olivier Messiaen’s La nativité du Seigneur (1935), a suite of nine scenes from the Christmas story, for organ. Messiaen, a devout Catholic, was possibly the 20th century’s greatest composer of religious music, as well as one of its finest organists. His musical language employed a variety of systematic procedures and a sometimes obscure symbolism, but there is no getting away from the extraordinary power and often tender characterisation of his music. (The capricious baby Jesus in the opening movement, La vierge et l’enfant, is a particular delight.) Both sides be heard in the virtuoso final movement, Dieu parmi nous, performed here by one of Messiaen’s leading interpreters, Dame Gillian Weir:
Another leading composer of contemporary religious music has been Sir John Tavener. Unlike Messiaen, Tavener has drawn widely from a variety of faiths in the creation of his personal theology, in particular the Greek Orthodox Church, of which he was a member for many years. Works like Ikon of the Nativity (1991), which draw on Orthodox chants and liturgical practice, retain a strange and ancient mysticism beneath their apparently simple surfaces.
Is John Adams’s El Niño (1999–2000) the 21st century’s answer to the Messiah? Perhaps. In this “Nativity oratorio” the composer of the so-called “news operas” Nixon in China, The Death of Klinghoffer and Doctor Atomic turns his dramatic hand to the Christmas story, setting texts from the Bible and the Wakefield Mystery Plays (more medieval liturgical drama), as well as several South American poets. This extract comes from the final two sections of Part I, Se habla de Gabriel and The Christmas Star:
Finally, and to bring us right up to date, I’ve opted for Schnee (2008) by the Danish composer Hans Abrahamsen. A secular choice, for certain, but if I had to choose a work that perfectly captures the frozen sunshine of a cold Christmas morning it would be this.
Looking for an easy way to play these in one jingle-free session? Try this Spotify playlist:
Tim Rutherford-Johnson is co-editor of The Oxford Dictionary of Music Sixth Edition, with Michael Kennedy and Joyce Kennedy. He has worked for the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians (now Grove Music Online) since 1999 and until 2010 was the editor responsible for the dictionary’s coverage of 20th- and 21st century music. He has published and lectured on several contemporary composers, and regularly reviews new music for both print and online publications. Visit Tim’s blog here, or find him on Twitter @moderncomp.