Christmas season is here, and the signs are ubiquitous as the world celebrates the birth of Christ. One encounters lights, decor, trees, gifts, and, of course, Christmas music everywhere. As an admirer of early music, I want to add to the rich American Christmas music tradition by revisiting its Medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque equivalents.
Here are my ten favorite selections of early Christmas music, listed in chronological order of composition and/or publication.
1. Léonin and Pérotin: Two Settings of Viderunt Omnes, ca. 1170 and 1198
In the high Middle Ages, Paris was the musical capital of Europe. The ‘Notre Dame School’ of polyphony brings us our first selections by Léonin (fl. 1150s–1201) and Pérotin (fl. ca. 1200), two composers in consecutive generations from the late twelfth century.
Viderunt Omnes is a plainchant used as the gradual, the liturgical celebration of the Eucharist, for Masses on Christmas Day. Both Léonin and Pérotin set this text, from Psalm 98, using a technique called organum. The plainchant itself is used as a sustained drone in one voice, while other voices flutter around in melismatic lines. This often means that each syllable of the chant is drawn out for as many as forty notes.
2. Tallis: Missa Puer Natus Est, ca. 1554
Thomas Tallis (1505–1585) composed in the courts of Henry VIII, Edward VII, Mary I, and Elizabeth I. A Catholic, he survived the swings between Catholicism and Protestantism by adapting his compositions to the dominant religion—and by being indispensably brilliant.
Missa Puer Natus Est was most likely written for Christmas Day 1554, during the reign of the Catholic Queen Mary I. Tallis chose the plainchant Puer natus est nobis (For unto us a child is born — Isaiah 9:6) as the cantus firmus or melodic foundation of this mass. This is the Introit, the processional chant as priests approach the altar, used for masses on Christmas Day. His ethereal polyphony, anchored around the chant melody, is colorful and expressive, blending many European styles prevalent at the time while still fundamentally English in its conception.
3. Victoria: O Magnum Mysterium, pub. 1572
Next, we have Tomás Luis de Victoria’s (1548–1611) motet, O magnum mysterium (O great mystery), pondering the birth of Christ. An ordained Catholic priest, Victoria spent his musical career in Rome as well as his native Spain, where he was held in high regard by King Philip II and the Royal Family.
Victoria wrote O magnum mysterium in Rome, working as a church musician. The music is subtle, gentle, and creates an intimate blend of wonder, admiration, and gratitude. The Alleluia at the end ushers in jubilation in its triple time, reinforced by the faster duple-meter conclusion.
4. Byrd: Lullaby ‘My sweet little baby,’ pub. 1588
Returning to England, we meet a friend of Tallis, William Byrd (1540–1623). A fellow recusant Catholic, Byrd navigated the intricate politics of religion in what would become Protestant England. Catholics often secretly performed his music in their own houses. Queen Elizabeth I gave Byrd and Tallis a monopoly for music printing; such was their stature and talent.
Byrd’s Lullaby from 1580 contemplates the sleeping Christ-child’s role as King, while juxtaposing the fate of the many infants slain by King Herod’s decree. Musically, the five voices usher in a sweet and haunting texture on the word ‘lullaby’ broken up many times.
5. Sweelinck: Hodie Christus Natus Est, pub. 1619
Jan Pieterzsoon Sweelinck (1562–1621) was a composer, organist, and theorist who served as organist for the Oude Kerk in Amsterdam for forty-four years.
Hodie Christus natus est (Today Christ is born) is a lively celebration of Christ’s birth. Sweelinck switches frequently between duple- and triple-meter, offering his listeners a joyous assortment of rhythms, melodies, and exultations. The many energetic cadences on Alleluia and Noe punctuate the dynamic of the piece and usher in a jubilant Christmas spirit.
6. Schütz: Weihnachtshistorie, ca. 1660
Our first German piece is Heinrich Schütz’s (1585–1672) Christmas Story, first performed in the composer’s twilight years in 1660. Schütz was court composer to the elector of Saxony, working at his court in Dresden from 1615 till his retirement in 1656. The Christmas Story, which he wrote after retirement, was likely performed in the elector’s chapel for a Christmas service.
This piece is an oratorio: a non-staged, musical setting of biblical events. Schütz, respected today for his expert text-setting of his native German, meticulously emphasizes words of significance. Additionally, he uses his orchestra to add further weight to the characters. For example, celestial viols accompany the Angel and trombones and trumpets mark Herod’s terrestrial kingdom.
7. Corelli: Christmas Concerto, pub. 1714
Arcangelo Corelli (1653–1713), Italian violinist and composer, is renowned for his instrumental works. Joining us today is his Concerto grosso in G Minor, Op. 6, No. 8, which Cardinal Pietro Ottoboni, his patron, commissioned. It was published posthumously in a 1714 collection. Corelli’s subtitle on the manuscript says “Fatto per la note di natale,” indicating performance on Christmas Night.
The Concerto as a whole enraptures the listener with multiple switches between soloists and full ensemble. The last Pastorale movement is especially famous; Corelli’s adaptation of peasant tunes and drones immediately reminds the listener of shepherds, mangers, and the starry night on which Christ was born.
8. J. S. Bach: Cantatas for 1st Sunday in Advent Nun komm der Heiden Heiland, BWV 61 (1714), Nun komm der Heiden Heiland, BWV 62 (1724), Schwingt freudig euch empor, BWV 36 (1731)
J.S. Bach (1685–1750), whom I regard as the best composer to have ever lived, was a devout Lutheran and produced a gargantuan musical output. This genre, the cantata, is a piece of vocal music 20–30 minutes in length. Bach wrote over 300 throughout his life, although only around 200 survive today.
Bach composed these specific cantatas in 1714, 1724, and 1731 respectively for the first Sunday of Advent; the first in Weimar (but reproduced for a 1723 performance in Leipzig), and the other two in Leipzig, where he was the cantor of the St. Thomas Church. The Lutheran chorale, or hymn, common to all three is the Advent chorale Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland (Savior of the nations, come).
All three cantatas contain the chorale in a standard four-part setting, but Bach innovates the theme in different movements in all three. In BWV 36, it appears as a duet; in BWV 61, a choral fantasia; and in BWV 62, a grand opening chorus.
9. J. S. Bach: Weihnachtsoratorium, 1734
Continuing with Bach, we have his Christmas Oratorio. This is a set of six cantatas meant to be performed on Christmas Day, Second Day of Christmas, Third Day of Christmas, New Year’s Day, Sunday after New Year, and Epiphany. It is a narrative spanning the birth of Christ to the Adoration of the Magi.
The Oratorio as a whole reeks of Christmassy splendor with its bombastic opening chorus, joyous arias, and smooth sinfonias, including a Pastorale not unlike Corelli’s aforementioned Pastorale.
10. Handel: Messiah, 1741
Finally, George Frideric Handel (1685–1759) composed Messiah, a two-and-a-half hours-long oratorio, in merely twenty-four days in 1741 in London. Originally from Germany, the cosmopolitan Handel moved around Europe before finally settling in England in 1712.
The three-part structure contains scenes from the life of Christ, with the first covering the annunciation and nativity, the second Christ’s passion, resurrection, and ascension, and finally the victory of good over evil. Handel uses his experience writing operas to elevate Messiah to a masterful portrayal of the full range of human emotion via our relationship to God. Indeed, Messiah remains popular to this day: it has the distinction of being perhaps the only piece of classical music which has never fallen out of favor.
* The views expressed in this article solely represent the views of the author, not the views of the Chicago Thinker.