Christopher Morley chooses some less obvious Christmas compositions often overlooked in favour of the 'blockbusters'.
Every Christmas the big seasonal blockbusters come round, headed by Handel’s Messiah and Bach’s Christmas Oratorio (though Bach actually originally composed that as six separate cantatas for the Nativity period).
We shouldn’t neglect, though, less well-known works which celebrate the Christmas season, beginning with Bach’s Magnificat.
This concise, high-powered composition, festive with trumpets and drums as well as crooningly expressive woodwinds, is a setting inspired by the reaction of the Virgin Mary after the Annunciation that she was carrying the Son of God, and we know the piece well in its final form, framed in the key of a blazing D major.
But its original version, composed for Bach’s first Christmas at St Thomas’ Church in Leipzig in 1723, and rarely performed nowadays, is cast in a key a semitone higher, the sumptuous E-flat, and contains four Christmas Interpolations – two German hymns, two Latin ones – which the final version has discarded.
I first encountered the Bach Magnificat (and was bowled over by it) when I sang in my first concert as an undergraduate in the choir of the Birmingham University Musical Society in the splendid Great Hall at the end of the Christmas term in 1966. The supreme baroque expert, Professor Anthony Lewis, was the conductor, and, using his French connections (he had studied under the formidable Nadia Boulanger), he also introduced us to Une Cantate de Noel by Arthur Honegger.
This Swiss composer was perhaps the most “serious” composer among the iconoclastic French group known as “Les Six” (though Francis Poulenc comes pretty close in my book), and his music is powerful stuff: King David, Joan of Arc at the Stake, and at least two of his five symphonies which sear with the horrors of the Second World War (strange, perhaps, from a Swiss).
His Christmas Cantata was completed in 1952 on his sickbed after suffering a severe stroke (at that stage he was only 60 years old); it was to be his deathbed three years later. The plan had been for Honegger to compose a grandiose work lasting several hours, the morning devoted to an Old Testament prelude, the afternoon and evening devoted to New Testament resolution. In the event we have a 25-minute masterpiece which grips in its conciseness and emotional outreach.
It begins in Old Testament despair, deep organ notes joined by lamenting lower strings, the initially wordless choir eventually singing “De Profundis” as they seek their redemption, and appealing for the advent of their saviour.
A children’s chorus announces the birth of Emmanuel, and from then on this tremendous work unfolds in a wonderful polyglot panoply of Christmas carols and then an exhilarating outburst of exuberance before subsiding in a last, serene memory of “Stille Nacht”. If you’ve never heard this heartfelt piece, go out and get a recording. The one conducted by Ernest Ansermet is the best. I had this as a scratchy LP in the 60s; the London CD reissue clears the sound up brilliantly, and works so well.
Also from Central Europe, if from another ethnic region, comes the enchanting Czech Christmas Mass by Jakub Jan Ryba (1765-1815). This conjures up so many endearing aural images of village churches celebrating the season, full of baroque cherubs (as well as tinges of Mozart – perhaps Ryba met Mozart when the world’s greatest composer visited Prague for Le Nozze di Figaro and the premiere of Don Giovanni, but here the nuances are of Papageno and the choruses in Die Zauberflote).
This is a charming piece. The Naxos recording, set down in Prague in 1998, is the one I cherish, so vibrant both chorally and orchestrally, and there is a newer version on Arco Diva. Lovely Christmas listening.
Finally to orchestral music, and Respighi’s Botticelli Triptych, a chamber-orchestral work more characteristic of the composer than the huge canvases he painted of ancient Rome in The Fountains of Rome, The Pines of Rome, and Feste Romane.
Respighi was passionate about preserving Italy’s cultural past, and many of his works testify to this. The Botticelli Triptych is but one example of his concern (one of the other movements is a musical commentary on Botticelli’s captivating painting of the Birth of Venus), and in his response to The Adoration of the Magi he gives us an entire panorama over the entire Advent to post-Nativity season.
We begin with the Great “O” Antiphon “O come, O come Emmanuel” and end the journey with the wonderfully simple and innocent Italian carol “Tu scendi dalle stelle, O re del cielo”.
Readers of my vintage will remember the Springfields’ 60s recording of “Bambino mine”. And I remember it from my mother singing it to me in my cot.