Considering the Classical

Christmas music has weaved its way through much of western music history like a red ribbon, keeping the light in dark winter months from medieval Christian sects to the shiniest new Christmas tracks on the glittery albums released every year. And yet, it’s as if Christmas websites like this one are focused on a very narrow band of music, from folk carols to popular standards. What happened to the classical music surrounding Christmas? We’re taking a closer look at that in this year’s introductory article.

St Hilary of Poitiers, as imagined by a hagiographical manuscript written almost a full millennium later.

The Christmas song, it is believed, is as old as Christmas itself. But that, in turn, is not as old as you might think.

The early Christians didn’t celebrate Christmas. In fact, it took well into the fourth century before Christmas became a thing at all, unlike celebrations like Epiphany and Easter that both greatly precede it. And when it became a common celebration, yet another century or so later, even the most strident Christian believers readily admit that its traditions were largely borrowed from pagan midwinter festivals like Yule and Saturnalia.

So it was not until around the mid fourth century that the first Christmas songs started to appear. The lyrics are still preserved for a hymn called “Jesus Refulsit Omnium” (“Jesus, light of all nations”), supposedly written by the catholic bishop St Hilary of Poitiers, which has a clear Christmas theme. If that song did indeed exist, it was among the very first Christian songs of any kind – Saint Jerome, born a few decades after Hilary, claims the older man wrote several hymns, in what is the first instance of hymn writing in our current historical record.

And so it continues. While this and other early Christmas hymns precede the idea of musical notation and are lost in the mists of winter, from the late middle ages forward we have a rich seam of still performed Christmas music, both secular and ecclesiastical. Many old carols from a folk tradition survive, but so does a great deal of beautiful polyphonic church music that is the direct ancestor of western art music – or, as we usually call it today, classical music.

December 1944. A choir sings for the American Troops in London during a Christmas concert. Image courtesy of the Imperial War Museum

December 1944. A choir sings for the American Troops in London during a Christmas concert. Image courtesy of the Imperial War Museum.

It seems to me that many websites that cover Christmas music tend to only cover part of that equation. Look at any top list of albums for Christmas, whether in mainstream publications or niche websites like this one, and the carol tradition is richly supported. As is 20th century traditional pop, and eventually its jazz and rock descendents. A website with some ambition may cover other traditions as well, your parang or your asalto-infused alsa. But rarely do we get classical music.

And yet, of course, there’s a vast, almost daunting array of classical Christmas recordings to choose from. Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, to take one example, has 78 separate recordings on Spotify alone. Many of the most revered composers, from Renaissance motet master Palestrina to 20th-century avant gardist Schönberg and beyond, have written Christmas music. There are countless pieces and recordings of them to discover for the avid listener.

So why aren’t Christmas music websites reviewing more of them? Perhaps it’s simply the case that it is an intimidating subject to approach, with a seemingly bottomless well of specialist knowledge of ever increasing complexity associated with it. Or it could be that the 1950s Columbia sound, and its masterfully warm and detailed productions full of close-miked instrument separation and gently-singing crooners, has taken over our Christmas imaginary to the exclusion of all else. Even today’s Christmas records often hark back to that specific sound. Classical albums, with their radically different aesthetic choices, rarely get a showing. 

Perhaps it’s time to rectify that. During this Christmas season, I’m going to do my best to delve deeper into the classical Christmas album and perhaps try to meet the genre a little more. From the most easy-listening material that does approach the pop sound, via some of the greatest singers and instrumentalists of our era, to the glimmering life stories and particular recording beauty behind great composer’s pieces, this year will cover more Christmas classical music than we ever have before.

But first, something completely different. Our first review of the season is, for the first time, going to be written by a guest writer. You can look forward to reading that in a couple of days.


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