The holiday season will soon be upon us, and what better way to get into the festive spirit than with some classical music?
In this blog post, we’re exploring 25 pieces of classical music that are perfect for the Christmas season.
They’ll be lovely to listen to whether you’re decorating the Christmas tree, baking cookies, or snuggling up by the fire with a cup of cocoa.
So sit back, relax, and let the music of the season lift your spirits and warm your heart.
Palestrina: Hodie Christus natus est (1575)
If you’re looking for a truly heavenly choral work inspired by the Christmas story, look no further!
Byrd: O Magnum Mysterium (1607)
The text of the “O magnum mysterium” comments upon how gloriously mysterious it is that a figure like Christ should be born in a manger and watched over by animals.
Byrd’s treatment of the text is noble and serene and perfect for any Christmas playlist.
Corelli: Christmas Concerto (ca. 1690s)
Corelli’s Christmas concerto was commissioned by a cardinal, likely performed in the 1690s, but only published after Corelli’s death.
Its most famous movement is the final one, which features a pastorale that is a lullaby for the newborn Jesus.
Bach: Magnificat (1723)
The Magnificat’s text is attributed to Mary, the mother of Jesus. They are the words she says in Scripture after being informed she will become the mother of the Messiah. Bach’s music paints a beautiful portrait of her joy.
Bach: Christmas Oratorio (1723-24)
Bach’s Christmas oratorio is split into six cantatas meant to be performed throughout the Christmas season.
It is an extraordinary musical journey to follow Bach’s genius through the entire Christmas story, almost like the eighteenth-century version of a movie soundtrack!
Handel: Messiah (1741)
The Hallelujah Chorus, a glorious Baroque celebration of the idea that God will reign forever, is linked especially closely to the Christmas holiday in cultural memory.
Leopold Mozart: Toy Symphony (1760s)
It features cameos from noisemakers, toy drums, a triangle, and other playthings.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Sleigh Ride from Three German Dances (1791)
This brief, charming musical portrait of a sleigh ride evokes both the jingles of bells and the hustle of trotting horses.
It would be especially festive for any Christmas car rides you may be taking this holiday season!
Mendelssohn-Hensel: December from Das Jahr (1841)
In 1841, Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel (sister of Felix) wrote a series of piano pieces inspired by the months of the year.
Her entry for December calls to mind both a blizzard and, in its contrasting center section, a Christmas chorale written by Martin Luther.
Fry: Santa Claus, Christmas Symphony (1853)
This piece by American composer William Henry Fry is a 25-minute tone poem about the birth of Christ, a Christmas party, a snowstorm, a stranded dying traveler, Santa Claus, and the opening of gifts. (Quite the combination!)
Yes, it might all be a bit unserious and frothy, but we all need a bit of froth in our Christmas playlists!
Berlioz: L’Enfance du Christ (1854)
This cantata takes a broader view of the Christmas story, examining not just the miraculous birth of Christ in the stable, but the story of Roman authorities murdering innocent children in an effort to kill the Messiah. Not surprisingly, it’s extremely moving music.
Liszt: Christmas Oratorio from Christus (1862-1866)
It’s easy to forget that piano virtuoso and musical bad boy Franz Liszt spent years focused on composing church music.
The massive three-hour oratorio Christus is one of the works dating from this time, and a good chunk of it revolves around the story of the birth of Jesus.
Liszt: Weihnachtsbaum, or Christmas Tree Suite (1873-76)
Liszt’s slightly more secular take on the season can be heard in his twelve-movement Christmas Tree Suite for piano. It was dedicated to his granddaughter.
The third movement is especially magical, featuring a gentle fantasy of sorts on the carol “Good Christian Men, Rejoice.”
Tchaikovsky: December from The Seasons (1875-76)
In the 1870s, like Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel had thirty years earlier, Tchaikovsky wrote a piano work portraying each month of the year.
His take on December is a charming little waltz for solo piano that you can easily imagine someone playing at a holiday gathering.
Tchaikovsky: The Nutcracker (1892)
We had to include it! The Nutcracker ballet has become synonymous with the holiday season, and for good reason.
The music that accompanies the adventures of Clara, the Sugar Plum Fairy, the Snow Flakes, the Mouse King, the Nutcracker, and all of the rest have become indispensable Christmas classics.
Grieg: Seven Children’s Songs: #2, Sang til Juletæet (The Christmas Tree) (1894)
This brief and lyric song is an ode to – you guessed it – a Norwegian family’s Christmas tree, with special adoration reserved for the shiny star at the top.
Coleridge-Taylor: Christmas Overture (ca. 1910)
Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s Christmas Overture was published in 1925, after his tragically early death.
It’s a warm, lush, cozy, Edwardian-era celebration of the holiday, and it weaves in many favorite carols.
Hely-Hutchinson: A Carol Symphony (1927)
Quite a few favorite tunes are written into Victor Hely-Hutchinson’s “A Carol Symphony”, including O Come, All Ye Faithful; God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen; the Coventry Carol; the First Noel; and Here We Come A-Wassailing.
Vaughan Williams: Fantasia on Greensleeves (1928)
The tune of “Greensleeves” was later used for the carol “What Child Is This?” so this dreamy, harp-heavy orchestral fantasia is a perfect fit for any Christmas playlist.
Prokofiev: ‘Troika’ from Lieutenant Kijé suite (1933-34)
This famous excerpt from Prokofiev’s soundtrack for the film Lieutenant Kijé perfectly portrays the rush of a jaunty sleigh ride.
Britten: A Ceremony of Carols (1942)
Composer Benjamin Britten wrote “A Ceremony of Carols” for chorus, solo voices, and harp during World War II. It was actually composed at sea as Britten was making the dangerous voyage from the United States back to his beloved English homeland.
If you love pastoral English music and carols, you’ll love this piece.
Clarke: Combined Carols (1942)
Violist Rebecca Clarke wrote this brief, bouncy string quartet or string orchestra arrangement of multiple Christmas carols as a gift for her family during the darkest days of WWII.
Before she submitted it for publication, she crossed out the jokey subtitle she’d initially given it: “Get ‘em all over at once.”
Menotti: Amahl and the Night Visitors (1951)
Back in the era when NBC broadcast operas, they commissioned composer Gian Carlo Menotti to write a one-movement opera for television.
The opera tells the story of Amahl, a little boy who cannot walk without crutches, and his miraculous encounter with the Magi.
Vaughan Williams: Hodie (1953-54)
One of Ralph Vaughan Williams’s final large-scale works was this hour-long cantata for chorus and orchestra devoted to telling the story of Christ’s birth.
Critics weren’t particularly enthused, but audiences loved and embraced it.
Finzi: In Terra Pax: Christmas Scene (1954)
In composer Gerald Finzi’s breathtaking final work, he draws on his own formative memories of hearing Christmas bells echo over pastoral wintry valleys, as well as Luke’s account of the birth of Christ.
This is some of the most beautiful music about the Christmas story and experience ever written.
Classical music is a wonderful addition to any holiday season. Whether you’re in the mood for something festive or reflective, classical music has got you covered.
Add these works to your playlist and let the power of classical music transport you to a place of warmth, joy, and peace this Christmas. Happy listening!
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