Your 2015 Christmas Playlist

Christmas tree

It’s that time of year again…time for the annual Listeners’ Club Christmas playlist. As with last year’s post, this is a collection of music guaranteed to get you in the holiday spirit. Pour some eggnog, light the tree and listen:

Thomas Tallis: Christmas Mass

We’ll start with music written for an important political occasion. The Christmas Mass by English composer Thomas Tallis (c. 1505-1585) may have been written for Christmas Day, 1554 when Phillip II of Spain was in England to wed Queen Mary. Here is the opening Gloria:

J.S. Bach: Christmas Oratorio

J.S. Bach’s Christmas Oratorio was written for Christmas Day, 1734. This quiet, pastoral Sinfonia opens the second of the six parts. (Listen to the entire piece here). There’s an incredible intimacy to this music. Listen to the way the strings establish the atmosphere and then fade away, leaving us with the sound of shepherds in a calm pasture:

Rimsky-Korsakov: Christmas Eve

Russian composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov created this orchestral suite with music from his 1895 opera, Christmas Eve. The opera’s plot is based on Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka, a collection of short stories by Nikolai Gogol. The suite is in five movements: Christmas NightBallet of the Stars, Witches’ Sabbath and Ride on the Devil’s Back, Polonaise, and Vakula and the Slippers.

Rimsky-Korsakov was one of the most imaginative and colorful orchestrators. Just listen to the way the tone colors shift and change subtly in the opening chords, evoking a sense of mystery. This music glistens with bright Christmas lights in a way which might remind you of a Hollywood film score. If you’re familiar with Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade or Russian Easter Overture, you’ll be reminded of those pieces. But there’s also one moment which, for me, suggests a surprising link between Rimsky-Korsakov and Sergei Prokofiev. (Prokofiev studied orchestration briefly with Rimsky-Korsakov). This melody, with its unpredictable harmonic turns and off-balance rhythm, feels as if it stepped out of one of Prokofiev’s ballet scores.

Prokofiev: Troika from “Lieutenant Kije”

The Troika movement from Sergei Prokofiev’s score to the 1934 film, Lieutenant Kije has long been associated with Christmas. A troika is a Russian horse-drawn sleigh. You could call this a “short ride in an equestrian machine.”

Sir David Willcocks: Sussex Carol

Let’s finish where we started back in England. Here is Sir David Willcocks’ arrangement of Sussex Carol. Willcocks, who passed away in September, was the longtime director of the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge.

  • Find Thomas Tallis’ Christmas Mass at iTunes, Amazon. The recording above is performed by the Tallis Scholars.
  • Find J.S. Bach’s Christmas Oratorio at iTunes, Amazon.
  • Find Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s Christmas Eve at iTunes, Amazon. The recording above features Neeme Järvi and the Scottish National Orchestra.
  • Find Prokofiev’s Lieutenant Kije at iTunes, Amazon.
  • Find Sir David Willcocks’ arrangement of Sussex Carol at iTunes, Amazon.

Remembering Sir David Willcocks

Sir David Willcocks (1919-2015)
Sir David Willcocks (1919-2015)

 

British choral conductor, organist and composer Sir David Willcocks passed away yesterday. He was 95. Between 1957 and 1974, Willcocks directed the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge. His numerous recordings with that ensemble showcase its distinct sound, which relies on the lightness and purity of boy sopranos. Between 1974 and 1984, Willcocks served as administrative director of the Royal College of Music in London. As a young man, he was awarded the Military Cross for his actions in the Battle of Normandy during the Second World War.

Here is Sir David Willcocks’ 1963 recording of Handel’s Coronation Anthems with the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge. Based on texts from the King James Bible, these anthems were first performed for the coronation of George II at Westminster Abbey on October 11, 1727. It’s hard to imagine any music more celebratory, regal, or majestic.

  1. Zadok the Priest (HWV 258) 0:00
  2. My Heart is Inditing (HWV 261) 5:52
  3. Let Thy Hand Be Strengthened (HWV 259) 18:38
  4. The King Shall Rejoice (HWV 260) 28:00

  • Find this recording at iTunes.
  • Find Sir David Willcocks’ recordings at iTunes, Amazon.
  • Hear Willcocks’ arrangement of Angelus ad Virginem (English, 14th century).