Christmas can seem ubiquitous in 21st-century life — but our celebrations pale in comparison to the technicolour festivities of 17th- and 18th-century Europe.
Christmas was the highpoint of the year: a celebration of the central mystery of the Christian faith, but also a moment when the seasons turned from the darkness of winter towards the hope of spring. Small wonder, then, that composers were so inspired by this time of year. Here are five of the best.
It’s hard to go through Christmas without tripping over Handel’s masterpiece: in your concert hall, on the radio, in the shopping mall, even in the lift. While the piece does tell the story of the nativity, it was never really intended for Christmas performance — it was premiered in April 1742. So what is it that has made this piece so enduringly popular?
One explanation lies with the huge performances of Messiah that sprung up in the 19th century, when literally thousands of singers and instrumentalists would gather to rehearse and perform the work. Entire communities embraced Handel’s music, and once it had got out, there was no looking back. So when you hum the Hallelujah chorus, know that you’re in the company of millions before you.
JS Bach: Christmas Oratorio
Less than 20 years before Handel penned the Messiah, Bach oversaw the premiere of the “other” great festive baroque masterpiece. The Christmas Oratorio is actually made up of six separate works, written for performance between Christmas Day and Epiphany (6 January). Leipzig, the town in eastern Germany where Bach lived and worked for over 25 years, held an annual trade fair which attracted thousands of visitors during the Christmas period. Bach’s music captures the joy of the season, with exuberant trumpets and timpani. But it also shows the intimate side of the Christmas story, including a tender lullaby for the new-born child.
Arcangelo Corelli: Christmas Concerto
It’s tricky to write music about Christmas when you don’t have words. What does Christmas actually sound like? Leroy Anderson, composer of the iconic Sleigh Ride, admitted that he wrote the piece during an American heat wave, and without the festive season in mind. Arcangelo Corelli must have been grappling with a similar issue when he was asked by his boss, Cardinal Pietro Ottoboni, for a piece of music to celebrate Christmas.
It was typical Ottoboni. He was a profligate lover of the arts who wrote opera librettos for fun (and eventually died penniless): it’s not surprising that he commissioned music from the foremost talent of the day in order to pass a nice December’s evening.
The Christmas Concerto isn’t out of place at any time of year, but one movement in particular does reference the Christmas story. The closing movement, Pastorale, depicts the shepherds of the nativity story through long notes that imitate the drone of bagpipes. Bagpipes were often associated with shepherds in Renaissance and Baroque culture — and apparently no one realised that they might wake the new-born baby.
Heinrich Schutz: Verbum Caro Factus Est
If you happened to be travelling through eastern Germany at the end of the 16th century, you might well have stopped for refreshment at a small inn called The Golden Ring. If you did, you’d have done well to set aside your foaming ale for a moment, and pay attention to the innkeeper’s son. For young Henry would come to be the single most important composer of his generation, travelling Europe and redefining musical style by combining the virtuosity of opera with the intricacy of chamber music.
His festive choral work Verbum Caro Factus Est displays all of these hallmarks. Celebrating the central mystery of Christmas (the first line translates as “the Word was made flesh”), the piece ends in peals of “Alleluia” — reflecting a joyful atmosphere Schutz may have first learnt in that German pub.
Alessandro Stradella: Christmas Cantata
This piece is proof that any of us can get sentimental about Christmas. Although little known today, Stradella was something of a celebrity in 17th-century Italy. He was in constant demand as a composer, offering his services to the highest bidder as a “gun for hire.” But his roguish charm and liberal attitude towards romance also ensured his infamy. He eventually had to leave his native Rome after a string of scandals, and the story goes that he died in Venice at the hands of a hitman hired by a jilted husband. Listen to the beginning of this aria from his Christmas cantata, though, and you’ll find gorgeous, melting music, written to accompany the devotion of the Virgin Mary to her son. Forget about scandal and affairs: Stradella clearly became misty-eyed at the first thought of Christmas.