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The best classical Christmas music to celebrate the festive season

Here’s the best classical Christmas music from Bach to Tchaikovsky to get you in the festive spirit

Edited by
Andy Kryza
Contributor
Tolly Wright
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Enough of this ‘Ramones’ and ‘John Lennon’ nonsense – bring back real music! This rundown of the best classical Christmas music harks back to the era when the only thing ‘shredding’ was the tip of a composer's pencil flowing across his parchment staff, when the best Christmas songs were heavy on orchestral suites rather than punk riffs

We kid, of course. But sometimes, you need a break from modernism during the holidays... and a reprieve from Rudolph, Mariah, Frosty and Bing. Tis the season for classical favorites, too, and this rundown of 21 essentials from centuries past are waiting to help you immerse yourself in the holidays the old fashioned way. Trust us: These works are exponentially more bracing than whatever pop singer’s yuletide novelty is playing at the mall down the street.

RECOMMENDED: the best Christmas songs of all time

Best classical Christmas music, ranked

‘Christmas Oratorio’ by J.S. Bach
Photograph: Courtesy CC/Wikimedia/Elias Gottlob Haussmann

1. ‘Christmas Oratorio’ by J.S. Bach

Though well over a century years passed between when this piece was first performed near the end of Bach’s career in 1734 and the next recorded airing in the mid-19th-century, the Oratorio has become a staple of classical music during the holidays. The six-part piece follows the birth of Jesus and the first visit from the shepherds through the Epiphany when the magi bring gifts to the holy baby.

‘Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy’ by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Photograph: Courtesy CC/Wikimedia/Carlos yo

2. ‘Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy’ by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

Even if you have never seen Tchaikovsky’s most famed ballet, this song should capture your imagination, as the prima ballerina (playing the part of the Sugar Plum) brings Clara, the young girl who is given the Nutcracker Doll, into a fantastical world. The sounds of the celesta – an instrument that looks like a small upright piano – sounds almost like a softer, more playful version of the traditional handbells that fill many churches around the holidays.

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3. ‘Messiah’ by George Frideric Handel

Baroque composer Handel’s oratorio Messiah is performed in full by many orchestras for the Christmas season, but even if you’ve missed hearing the work in full, you’ve certainly heard the ‘Hallelujah’ chorus. The joyful, operatic refrain is so synonymous with celebration it’s become shorthand in plenty of films and television for feelings of jubilance.

‘Sleigh Ride from Three German Dances’ by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Photograph: Courtesy CC/Wikimedia/Barbara Krafft

4. ‘Sleigh Ride from Three German Dances’ by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

It’s hard to deny the seasonal aptness of the third of Mozart’s Three German Dances, especially when the sleigh bells come in. It is said that the composer wrote this song to mimic the sensation of going up and down the snow-covered hills on an 18th century sleigh, which is about as idyllic a winter wonderland as any.

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‘Waltz of the Flowers from the Nutcracker’ by Pyotr Ilyich TchaikovskyTchaikovsky
Photograph: Courtesy CC/Wikimedia/Rodrigo Fernández

5. ‘Waltz of the Flowers from the Nutcracker’ by Pyotr Ilyich TchaikovskyTchaikovsky

After the turmoil of the earlier portion of the ballet, when the Nutcracker battles the Mouse King, this tranquil song seems to bring to life the experience of a beautiful sunrise after a night’s storm and a renewed sense of peace and happiness.

‘Magnificat’ by J. S. Bach
Photograph: Courtesy CC/Wikimedia/Appaloosa

6. ‘Magnificat’ by J. S. Bach

Though Bach is often seen as a more somber composer, this uplifting orchestral masterpiece serves as the music for a Latin liturgy centered around the portion of the Gospel of Luke, in which the Virgin Mary is visited by an angel telling her that she will give birth to Jesus. The 12-movement baroque composition was expanded by the composer to include Christmas hymns.

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‘L’adieu des bergers (The Shepherds’ Farewell)’ by Hector Berlioz
Photograph: Courtesy CC/Wikimedia/Karl Reutlinger

7. ‘L’adieu des bergers (The Shepherds’ Farewell)’ by Hector Berlioz

Though this song takes place shortly after Christmas, when the shepherds bid the Holy Family farewell as they flee from the evil King Herod to Egypt, this number from the 19th century ontario L'enfance du Christ by the French composer Berlioz brings a lightness to this dark moment in the baby Jesus’ story.

‘There is No Rose of Such Virtue’ by Anon
Image: Wartburg Recordings

8. ‘There is No Rose of Such Virtue’ by Anon

This magnificent carol dates back to 15th century England, making it one of the oldest Christmas songs still performed today. The lyrics praise Mary as a rose with virtue beyond all others, ‘For in this rose contained was heaven and earth in little space.’

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‘Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben’ by J.S. Bach
Photograph: Courtesy CC/Wikimedia/Ralf Lotys (Sicherlich)

9. ‘Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben’ by J.S. Bach

Though this song is more frequently associated with spring, Bach wrote it in celebration of Advent, the season before Christmas when churches celebrate the coming of the birth of Christ. The song was later often used to celebrate Mary in general.

‘Parade of the Wooden Soldiers’ by Leon Jessel
Image: Philles

10. ‘Parade of the Wooden Soldiers’ by Leon Jessel

Like Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker, this jaunty 19th century march is about toys being brought to life. It is particularly popular in the US, where it has become a staple of the Rockettes’ Christmas Spectacular and a favorite of the Boston Pops.

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‘A Carol Symphony’ by Victor Hely-Hutchinson
Image: Naxos

11. ‘A Carol Symphony’ by Victor Hely-Hutchinson

Written by British composer Hely-Hutchinson in 1929, when he was just 28 years old, this symphony brings four movements centered around classic Christmas carols: ‘Oh Come All Ye Faithful,’ ‘God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman,’ ‘The First Noel’ and ‘Here We Come A-wassailing.’ Listen carefully and you might hear undertones of the Coventry Carol in the third part as well.

‘A Ceremony of Carols’ by Benjamin Britten
Image: Sony Music Odyssey

12. ‘A Ceremony of Carols’ by Benjamin Britten

Don’t be fooled by the Middle English words of this awe-worthy choral piece: Britten wrote the music in 1942. Using select portions of The English Galaxy of Shorter Poems for his text, Britten created an eleven-movement cantata worthy of the ages.

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‘In Terra Pax’ by Gerald Finzi
Image: Naxos

13. ‘In Terra Pax’ by Gerald Finzi

Another intricate choral piece by a 20th-century British composer, Finzi skillfully brought together words by British poet laureate Robert Bridges and the story of Christ’s birth in the Gospel of Luke for ‘In Terra Pax.’

‘Weihnachtsbaum (Christmas Tree)’ by Franz Liszt
Photograph: Courtesy CC/Wikimedia/Franz Hanfstaengl

14. ‘Weihnachtsbaum (Christmas Tree)’ by Franz Liszt

Written for his granddaughter while the composer was living in Rome, this collection of 12 songs for the piano is not the best known suite by the prolific Hungarian composer. Yet, the tranquil arrangements of pre-existing hymns and carols, and the addition of entirely original compositions, make it a thoughtful reflection on the holiday.

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‘Coventry Carol’ by Anon
Image: Columbia

15. ‘Coventry Carol’ by Anon

Before Christmas was the commercial powerhouse it is today, churches spent a fair amount of time drumming up the drama of King Herrod’s obsession with finding and killing the messiah. This early-16th-century song depicting the massacre of the innocents is an example of this, and is appropriately haunting.

‘Weihnachtsmusik (Christmas Music)’ by Arnold Schoenberg
Photograph: Courtesy CC/Wikimedia/Richard Gerstl

16. ‘Weihnachtsmusik (Christmas Music)’ by Arnold Schoenberg

Austrian composer Schoenberg arranged this version of the 16th century Christmas hymn ‘Es ist ein Ros entsprungen’ (Lo, How a Rose E’re Blooming) in the early 20th century for a chamber group. When the song adds moments of ‘Good King Wenceslas’ and other well known Christmas carols, the dynamic quality of Schoenberg's expressionist composition skills is revealed.

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‘Troika’  by Sergei Prokofiev
Photograph: Unknown, published by Bain News Service

17. ‘Troika’ by Sergei Prokofiev

Prokofiev's seasonal, joyful piece begins slowly and then quickens its tempo, resembling a brisk winter ride upon the piece's titular three-horse sleigh. The composition is part of Lieutenant Kijé, an orchestral suite written for a film in the very first days of sound cinema.

‘Adeste Fideles (Oh Come All Ye Faithful)”
Image: Columbia Masterworks

18. ‘Adeste Fideles (Oh Come All Ye Faithful)”

Though the exact authorship is often disputed, with everyone from a Portuguese King to (more commonly) a Scottish Jacobite living in exile, ‘Adeste Fideles’ has become one of the best-known Christmas hymns around the world.

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‘Hansel and Gretel: Dream Pantomime’ by Engelbert Humperdinck
Image: RCA

19. ‘Hansel and Gretel: Dream Pantomime’ by Engelbert Humperdinck

When this crowd-pleasing opera based on the Brothers Grimm fairytale was first performed in December 1893 (conducted by famed composer Richard Strauss), the music became forever connected with Christmas. It seems fitting that a magical tale of children and candy should live on in today’s rather secular version of the holiday filled with sugary treats and toys.

‘O Sanctissima (O Most Holy)’
Image: Columbia

20. ‘O Sanctissima (O Most Holy)’

Another hymn dedicated to the Virgin Mary, ‘O Sanctissima’ dates back to the 18th century. Performed originally on feast days celebrating Mary, the song is now a standard for orchestras and classical chamber groups around the holiday season.

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‘O Come, O Come Emmanuel’
Image: Our Daily Bread

21. ‘O Come, O Come Emmanuel’

While the original Latin text for this hymn would not be written until the 1700s, the music itself likely dates back to 15th century France. The lyrics verge on mournful as they depict a world before Jesus’s birth.

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